In that first year, SOAR Academy looked a lot like most other new UE partnership sites. That all changed the summer of 2016. With seven weeks until the start of the school year, the school’s founder and leader resigned. With few other options in place and a school community committed to staying open, the school’s Board turned to Seneca and invited the organization to take the wheel, providing the school’s leadership team and strategy for the following year.
Today, SOAR Academy is several months into its third school year serving the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, WA, with Jessica Stryczek, a 12-year Seneca employee (and former All-In! Director of School Partnerships) as its principal. The charter public school currently enrolls grades kindergarten through third, with a plan to add grades yearly until reaching scale and serving grades kindergarten through eighth. The school has set out to engage a student population that is representative of the diverse Tacoma community, with particular attention paid to creating a positive learning environment for all students, including those historically left behind or disproportionately disciplined in district schools. As of the 2016-17 school year, 82.5% of SOAR’s students identified as non-white, and over 77% qualified for free or reduced-price meals. 14.2% received special education services and 12.5% experienced homelessness or housing insecurity.
The SOAR instructional approach is characterized by a rigorous, arts-integration curriculum and culturally responsive and trauma-informed teaching practices, utilizing the Unconditional Education model as a template for school operations and interventions. Clinical intervention specialists and student support counselors on site help to manage behavioral crises, re-integrating students back into the general education setting as quickly as possible so learning opportunities are maximized. The unconditional element of the work is taken seriously by all staff; not a single student has been expelled or suspended at SOAR since Seneca assumed responsibility for its operation. Read more about the school’s commitment to meeting the needs of all students in this recent blog feature on Education Post.
In a state where charter schools have faced a series of challenges and years of uncertainty, SOAR Academy stands as a reminder of HOPE, the belief that, despite current challenges in policy and practice, a free public school can indeed grow to address its students’ complex array of needs with compassion, energy, and joy.
It is an honor to begin introducing the Unconditional Education family to Seneca Washington’s work at SOAR and across the Pacific Northwest! We stand on the shoulders of those of you who have done this work longer in California and are proud to join you on a collaborative effort to re-imagine the student experience in truly inclusive public schools. Thank you for giving us HOPE!
Lihi Rosenthal, Executive Director of Washington Programs