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More students, more grades: Kitsap’s first charter school growing in its second year

Sep 19, 2021 | Articles

Published here on the Kitsap SunPeiyu Lin

First-grade students gather in class at Catalyst Public Schools in Bremerton’s Manette neighborhood

Jessica Correa transferred her son from View Ridge Elementary School in Bremerton this fall, in search of an atmosphere that could offer both individual educational needs and a diverse student body. 

Her son, fifth-grader Shaka Balasi, barely knew any other kids attending Catalyst Public Schools when the semester started on Aug. 30. Three weeks later, he has made lots of friends, Correa said.

“Mom, there’s other kids with different names like me,” 11-year-old Balasi told her on his first day at Catalyst Public Schools, the first and only charter school in Kitsap County now entering its second year.

Located on 13th Street between Hayward and Ironsides avenues in Manette, Catalyst opened last fall amid the pandemic. It started fully online last September and changed to a hybrid mode after some weeks with an enrollment of 170 students, a number that the school could accommodate with social distancing in place in its first year.

This school year, Catalyst returned to full time in-person teaching and now serves 308 students, with about 100 kids on the waiting list, according to the school’s co-founder, Amanda Gardner.

The school expanded from kindergarten, first-grade, fifth-grade and sixth-grade students in 2020 by adding second, third and seventh grades. It plans to provide classes in all grades from K-8 next school year.

Attention to individual, personalized education and diverse backgrounds in the student and faculty populations are some major attractions that lead parents, including Correa, to choose the charter school that continues to grow.

Diverse and inclusive

The tuition-free, non-profit, public-funded charter school is open to all students regardless of ability, needs, or zip code. It provides personalized education with two teachers leading one small class to make sure the faculty knows each child’s needs.

When the school decided who should first return to in-person learning last November, it prioritized children with special education needs, from low-income families or whose parents are frontline workers, so that scholars who have the most difficulties learning via Zoom could struggle less, Gardner said.

The school tries to make those decisions “always with the lens towards access and equity,” Gardner said. About 50% of the students come from military-involved families. Students from low-income families consist of about 55% at Catalyst, according to Gardner.

The teacher in a third=grade class interacts with scholars by asking questions about a story they are reading at Catalyst Public School.

The school is diverse in terms of the composition of both students and staff. Half of the students are identified as people of color (and 50% are identified as white); over 50% of the teachers are identified as teachers of color, according to Gardner.

“We’re really proud of that,” said Gardner. The school believes “every child deserves to see themselves represented in the faculty of the school that they attend.”

While most of the students at Catalyst live in Bremerton, 25% of them come from other areas, including Bainbridge Island, Kingston, Poulsbo, Port Orchard, Belfair and Gig Harbor, Gardner said. 

Washington state currently has 18 charter schools, including five that opened this year. Two other charter schools, in King County and Clark County, will open in 2022, according to Washington State Charter School Association, a Seattle-based nonprofit that advocates for charter schools.

Fifth-grade scholars take a math assessment at the Catalyst Public Schools on Thursday

A classroom worth the commute

Seventh-grade Parker Maurer has attended the Catalyst since last year. Parker’s father, Jeremy Maurer, is satisfied with the change even though he needs to drive 45 minutes from their home in Mason County to Bremerton to drop off and pick up Parker.

“It’s worth it to go here,” Jeremy Maurer said.

Parker’s mother heard of the new charter school last year and decided to give it a try instead of choosing Hawkins Middle School in Belfair after Parker completed elementary school, the father said.

Catalyst school challenges students and provides advanced content for Parker after he finished the works he’s assigned to do. That’s the biggest reason why the parents choose Catalyst for him, Jeremy Maurer said. 

Before, in public schools, Parker “gets his work done then becomes a distraction because they weren’t allowing him to work ahead,” the father said.

With five other children from the same school district going to Catalyst, Parker adjusted well in his new school, Jeremy Maurer said. 

Erin Jones of Poulsbo started her son, Maverick,  in kindergarten at Catalyst last year because she likes the school’s individualized curriculum.

“It’s very open and they are very good with meeting kids at where they’re at,” Jones said. Personalized courses give children the chance to be individuals and advance a little bit faster, she said.

Maverick will continue to study at Catalyst in the following grades, said Jones.

First-grade students head to the cafeteria to have a snack at Catalyst Public Schools on Thursday

Sixth-grade Abby Fletcher, 11, said she found her new school and teachers cool and fun in her first month at Catalyst. It was her first week to learn Japanese in school and she enjoys the freedom to choose the programs she wants to learn.

“It’s really amazing,” Abby Fletcher said.

The pandemic drove Abby’s mother, Kate Fletcher, to rethink what kind of education and learning environment would be effective and safe for Abby. Small-group classes, with less chance to be infected with COVID-19 and more attention from the faculty to build individualized programs, would work for Abby, said Kate Fletcher, who described Abby as an “independent girl.”

The Fletcher family is especially excited to see Abby heading to Catalyst because about 70 years ago Abby’s grandmother, Diane, attended the old Manette Elementary School that was located at the same building.

“It’s just such a nice attendance to the community and so nice seeing that building being used and being alight again as a school,” Kate Fletcher said. 

Opened in Fall 2020, the Catalyst Public Schools in Bremerton is the first charter school in Kitsap County.

Catalyst is leasing about half of the building from its owner, Discovery Fellowship church. Starting in March next year, the school plans to take over and renovate the remaining part of the building so that more classrooms can be served, Gardner said.