Walter Chen has been an educator for 14 years and is taking his passion for education back to his roots as the founding principal of Green Dot Middle School, a new charter school in Southeast Seattle. Born and raised in Kent before his family moved to Mercer Island when he was in elementary school, Chen is now a resident of Rainier Valley.
Chen graduated from Pomona College with a B.A. in Economics and earned a Master of Education from the University of California, Los Angeles. He earned his principal’s credential from the University of Washington’s Danforth Educational Leadership Program. And he also taught middle school math in South Central Los Angeles, earning National Board Certification in 2008. Chen returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2010 to teach in the Renton School District. Most recently, he was an Assistant Principal at Aki Kurose Middle School and served the last two years as proud principal of Graham Hill Elementary in Southeast Seattle.
The International Examiner caught up with Chen to talk about the challenges and goals of Green Dot Middle School, reaching out to the API community, and the controversy of charter schools in Washington state.
International Examiner: How did you first decide to become a teacher, and what drives you as an educator today?
Walter Chen: In college I had the opportunity to take a class on public education where I learned about the opportunity gap in communities across America. Growing up I had always taken for granted the fact that everyone had access to a high quality education. I couldn’t believe how a zip code, race or family income could predict a child’s educational outcome. That’s when I first felt the desire to make an impact in public education.
Today I feel privileged to help ensure high quality educational opportunities for children and families in my own neighborhood where I’m a resident of the Rainier Valley. I also believe it’s important for children of color to see educators who look like them working in and leading schools. Despite the diversity in our classrooms, the teaching force in Seattle remains largely white. If we want future leaders of color, we must start by growing and developing educators of color who teach our children.
IE: What would you like our readers to know about Green Dot Middle School and its location in Southeast Seattle?
Chen: Green Dot Seattle Middle School is opening this August at a temporary site near the Othello light rail station. In our second year we will move into our permanent site in Hillman City, currently slated to begin construction this summer.
The Seattle Middle School will provide a rigorous college prep curriculum, an adult mentor for every child, and parent partnership. Like all charter public schools, we are tuition-free and open to all families. We are currently enrolling our founding class of sixth graders and will serve 600 students in grades 6-8 at full capacity.
At Green Dot we have an unwavering belief in every student’s potential and are committed to building deep, caring relationships with our families and community to provide students the best educational experience possible. We believe every student should have the option to attend college and find a career of their choosing, and our teachers and staff will work tirelessly to put them on that path.
IE: What are your personal goals (for the school, the community, and the students) as a founding principal of Green Dot Middle School?
Chen: Southeast Seattle is such a vibrant and diverse community—in terms of race, income, age and religion—and one I’m proud to call my home. Green Dot Seattle Middle School will be a place where all families are welcome and included, and all cultures are celebrated.
Our school will be a joyful and rigorous place for students to learn. My goal is for our school to become a shining beacon in southeast Seattle for what is possible when a caring and committed group of educators come together for the purpose of doing what’s best for kids. It will be a place students are proud to call their school, where teachers feel valued and driven by a shared mission to prepare all students to graduate college.
IE: You’ve been a teacher and a principal in public school systems in California and Washington. What’s it like making the change to charter schools?
Chen: At Green Dot we have the flexibility to think thoughtfully about our curriculum and budgets from the perspective of what will make the most sense for students. For example, if data shows a particular curricular choice is not resulting in significant gains for students in math, we can explore what’s working elsewhere and make a change that will accelerate learning or support intervention where needed.
We also have the autonomy to adjust our staffing model to meet the needs of our students. For example, if we have more students with special needs or English language learners, we can immediately reallocate resources to ensure those who need the most support are getting it.
IE: Charter schools are a very controversial concept here in Washington. Can you speak to the issues that opponents to charter schools raise, such as how charter schools may take away funding from public schools, how teachers at charter schools may not be held to the same standards as in public schools, and how charter schools are not required by law in the same way that public schools are in terms of accountability and reporting information?
Chen: I find in my meetings in the community that families with school-age children are overwhelmingly in support of having more high quality education options in their neighborhood. Charter schools are public schools that are run by nonprofit organizations. Our students will be taught by educators from the neighborhood who are deeply invested in the well-being of children in the Rainier Valley.
We are free and we accept all students. We are funded based on student enrollment, just like traditional public schools. If a student transfers from another public school to our school, the funding associated with that student follows him or her. Funding associated with a student moves from one public school to another based upon the decision made by families.
Charter school teachers are certified and highly-qualified just like teachers at other public schools. We follow all Washington state and federal health, safety, civil rights, and anti-discrimination laws, as well as Washington state K-12 education statutes including the state’s learning standards.
IE: What are some challenges you are facing in launching Green Dot Middle School? Who are you hoping to reach?
Chen: Families are still learning about charter public schools and the types of free options available to them. I can understand the hesitancy over something new that disrupts an existing way of doing things. The problem is the existing way hasn’t worked for many families—particularly families of color—in southeast Seattle. Many families have been crying out for public school choice for a long time.
I believe every family deserves a right to know about free, high-quality options available right in the neighborhood. As a longtime public school educator and supporter of Seattle Public Schools, I am hopeful that the district and Green Dot will one day work collaboratively to share best practices for the families we serve. I would encourage parents to learn as much as possible about all public school options in the neighborhood—traditional and charter—and welcome them to attend one of our information sessions.
IE: What do you think is the most important issue facing the Asian Pacific Islander community today?
Chen: The Asian Pacific Islander community is still viewed as one monolithic community by our politicians, educators and decision-makers. The Model Minority Myth sadly ignores the fact that Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong and other Southeast Asian children face opportunity gaps similar to those of Black and Latino students from low-income communities. When we overlook the dearth of educational opportunities in the Asian Pacific Islander community, we fail to allocate our resources in a way that addresses the significant needs facing APIs.
IE: Anything else you’d like to let our readers know about?
Chen: Families can learn more and enroll a student on our website (wa.greendot.org/seattle) or can reach us at (206) 305-0646 or send us an e-mail at InfoSeattle@greendot.org. We truly look forward to partnering with families and being a contributing member of the Rainier Valley community.