Lumen High School - a Charter for Teen Parents

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Melissa Pettey is swirling in the rapids of a truly inspirational charter school project and I got to interview her about it yesterday. As usual my notes look like tornado fallout because excitement got the best of me and she could discuss it for days. I’ve said it more than once but I’m just so impressed with education now that momentum builds away from sit-and-get in a hundred creative directions. It’s like witnessing Gates and Allen and Wozniak and Jobs figuring stuff out in their basements and knowing something Earth-shattering might be forming. 

Melissa is the principal of Lumen, a new charter school for pregnant teens or teen parents opening fall 2020 in downtown Spokane, WA. But at the moment she works together with Katie Jessup, the director of the attached early learning center called G.L.O.W. Children (Go Light our World), and Shauna Edwards, the executive director of the whole project, to figure out EVERYTHING.

Educators will know, but many people won’t, that a charter school receives government funding but operates independently of the state school system in which it resides. I began hearing the term around 2000 when I lived in California and it wafted a negative flavor. The idea of “charters” was first spawned by the president of the American Federation of Teachers in 1988 as a laboratory for innovative teachers to experiment with and prove new methods. Education was stuck in a near century-long rut and, without re-appropriation of funding, motivated teachers couldn’t freely innovate outside a very established system. The concept was regionally approved and then occasionally abused by profit-seeking endeavors to grab slices of public funding. Like any new concept profiteers were enticed and the objective tarnished, but now, mostly, charter efforts persist with pure intentions. The exploratory value of charter schools has survived the parasites and reached a stage of optimistic embrace, and that history can be credited for many of these recent modernizations of which I am so enamored.

So it varies in every state, but Washington authorizes charters through a commission solely created for this purpose. Now approved, Melissa and her team have two years to design their school and four years to demonstrate success and reach self-sufficiency. Imagine designing a school from scratch with no template! Mel says that early on they had an explosion of great ideas but, relying on a decade of administrative experience, she kept coming back to the thought that they could not eschew the legalities of curriculum and seat hour requirements. Then she researched and found that those regulations had changed after years of rigidity. The ability to create their own curriculum opened up so many opportunities to tailor curriculum and design to the very specific demographic they are aiming to help. They’ve been answering questions, solving problems and sharpening concepts ever since.

Asked about her motivation for this project, she said she was working at Havermale, an alternative school, and Shauna approached her about a school for teen moms. The difficulty for pregnant or teen moms (and dads) breaks down to one choice: do I raise the kid or go to school, because I can’t afford to do both? And if they opt to work and raise the kid they can’t get back into high school four years later to finish. Then they are left out of the cycle and job options are eternally limited. The goal is to build a school to address this very specific dilemma. 

The right of equal opportunity is hard-wired into Mel – she thinks everyone should have the same chances to reach the goals they’ve set for themselves. If they don’t reach those goals that’s their responsibility, but they should get the chance to try. She says “nudges in her gut” were already pushing her in this direction when Shauna approached her with the idea. Sometimes she thinks this project is too big for her to handle, and she admits thinking that she isn’t the best person for it now and then. But the team reassures her as she does them, and together they continue to check things off the list and get closer to opening day. Total rock stars, right?

Lumen will host sixty students and Glow will offer early learning during school hours for their kiddos. Funding supports public education through age twenty-one, and Lumen is hoping to extend the traditional high school timeline to that age to allow for those who’ve been sidetracked. The student body will be divided into cohorts focused on specific standards and learning stages. Curriculum will be student-centered. Rather than adherence to required reading they can ask “what are you interested in learning about?” and assist each student in designing their own learning to meet standardization criteria. They also have the freedom to focus on subjects and skills pertinent to new parents, like financial literacy or, you know, parenting. 

There are some really cool traits saddled to this concept. Lumen has already hired five teachers and various support personnel, and they’ve also enrolled their entire student body for next year. This allows them to source opinion from the future members of the school while designing it. If you’ve ever built something you’ll agree how comforting it is to know in advance how your ideas will be received. And I should really emphasize the word members here - this school is about the students and the educators and the support personnel and all the supporters working together to build something for now and for the future.

Charters receive per-student funding but much more has to be raised or granted. Lumen is an attractive partner for many local organizations who want to help, allowing the school to offer assistance in the form of medical benefits, counseling, internships and obviously child-care. It’s no wonder they filled forty of sixty seats so quickly – this must be such an incredible option for teen parents.

Melissa elaborated on many of their big ideas but noted that they’re focusing on controlled development. The requirement to be financially self-sufficient in four years imposes a few limits on trying everything all at once. Eventually they may be able to offer part-time school and early-learning programs for parents who want to work full-time as well – for now they can only accept full-timers. In the future they’re very optimistic about internships to teach specific job skills, but at the moment they focus on curriculum inside the building. Katie, Melissa and Shauna are being realistic about their timeline but continue to inspire each other and everyone involved with their dreams and abilities.

It’s just so incredible to me that you can identify a demographic and receive public support to develop a facility and a program to help with their exact needs. It’s awesome. I’m definitely a rose-colored glasses liver of life but I almost want to congratulate America for making changes to something as vital as education. Or more likely the teachers and administrators deserve the credit. I’m excited to send my kids to school someday knowing how much it will help to shape them into wonderfully unique adults. Because the truth is this: one day a grown woman who was once a teen parent will change the world because the Lumen team gave her the opportunity to reach her goals despite her difficult situation. 


Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and a terrible painter.