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Offering something new: charter school coming to Manette in 2020

For parents and students looking for an alternative school option that prioritizes personalized learning and focuses on developing leadership, a tuition-free, nonprofit public charter school will be coming to Bremerton starting in the fall of 2020.

For those unfamiliar with charter schools, co-founder of Catalyst Public Schools Amanda Gardner defines a charter school as a public school that is run separately from traditional school districts. According to their website, Catalyst Public Schools believes that far too many schools value compliance over engagement and rote memorization over critical thinking.

“Starting from the time children are in kindergarten, we’re providing them with ample time during the school day and school week to work together, identify challenges in the community that they’re passionate about, and then to solve those in real ways,” Gardner said. “We believe that when children are given opportunities to do that, it supports them to develop into great adults who have a critical eye toward the world and see themselves as agents of change.”

“At the middle school level, our instructional model is very student-centered,” Gardner went on to say. “Students will really own a lot of their learning with teachers acting more as facilitators of their learning; just giving them more onus over what they’re doing during the day.”

In Washington state, charter schools are required to be nonprofit entities, Gardner said. The school was granted by the Washington State Charter Schools Commission. Gardner and the other co-founder Tatiana Epanchin have both worked in separate charter sectors before moving to Kitsap County about five years ago. Epanchin conducted her work in Oakland, CA while Gardner was in Boston.

“When we met each other here, we certainly talked and thought about what might be possible here and wondered if there was an appetite for another school option in Kitsap County,” Epanchin said. “Over time, that led to countless conversations with people across their dining room tables and in coffee shops. What we discovered is that yes, in fact, there is some appetite for another school option.”

After both reached their conclusion, they started working with a design team and a group of community members to found Catalyst Public Schools — the first of its kind in Bremerton. The school does not receive any levy funding, making it incumbent upon them to raise their own startup and launch funds.

“We’ve already secured some funds and assurances of funds to cover our full startup needs for the first several years of the school, which is very rare for a school to be able to do that before they even open,” Gardner said. “We’re seeing strong demand for the school from the community.”

The school settled on a location in a Manette neighborhood, occupying the southern wing of the Discovery Fellowship Church. When it opens, both will initially share the space, with the church operating on the eastern wing. The goal and plan for Catalyst Public Schools are to occupy the whole building space in a few years.

“It was deeply important for us to be in Bremerton because as we had community meetings throughout the county, it just became more and more clear that Bremerton made the most sense,” Epanchin said. “We’ve looked at several buildings over the course of the last 10 months and although there were a few buildings that might have been good options, this building definitely turned out to be the one that was the most ‘school-like.’”

Part of the reason the school is only occupying part of the building to start is that the first year will only serve kindergarten, first-grade, fifth-grade, and sixth-grade. Gardner said she anticipates having about 224 students across those four grades for the first year. By the fourth year, the school will serve grades K-8.

“It’s important to us that we know all the families that we’re going to be serving and that we start as small as we can,” Gardner said. “Offering both elementary seats and middle school seats will allow us to do that. As those children become older here, the school grows with them.”

Catalyst Public Schools’ initial plan is to have eight lead teachers, with a second adult in all the classrooms, acting as a beginning teacher or parent-professional. One exception to that will be in the sixth-grade classes where the second adult will travel between classes. Other staff members will fill the roles of special education services, as well as administrative and operational capacities as well.

Gardner and Epanchin will serve as co-principals of the school, with Epanchin leading the elementary grades and Gardner focusing on the middle school grades. The school is still in the midst of hiring staff, with efforts to be ramped up at the beginning of the new year, according to Epanchin.

“All of our job postings are already listed because we know folks start looking as early as now.”

In terms of school lunches, both co-founders said they are looking at a few different vendors to provide high-quality nutritious food for breakfast and lunch. Families who receive free and reduced lunch from the government will also be eligible at Catalyst. Regarding transportation services, the school is currently in conversation with a couple of private school bus operators, as well as some of the local school districts.

“It’s likely that we will provide transportation to students who live in and around the city of Bremerton,” Gardner said. “It will likely be more sort of regional transportation. Our plan is to have several bus stops around the city where families can get their children to the bus.”

When asked about how the school plans to sustain itself in the long term, Gardner noted that they have already formed a strategy that places an emphasis on the program’s longevity.

“We have really deep leadership experience to both plan the school with sustainability in mind from the get-go, but also to foresee any obstacles that may arise and to have proactive plans about that. In addition to that, our board has very deep expertise when it comes to launching and running public charter schools.”

The charter school is currently in the ideation and design phase, working with local architect Rice Fergus Miller. The school hopes to have permits approved by January so they can start construction in February.

“There is a substantial amount of construction that needs to occur at the site,” Gardner said. “We anticipate the construction will happen between February and July.”

Catalyst is open to all students regardless of ability, needs or zip code, according to their website. Families do not need to live in Bremerton to attend the school. A community and informational meeting will be held Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. at the site of the school. For more information, visit catalystpublicschools.org.