With a controversial 3-2 vote, the Kent School Board approved a resolution to lease a district building for a new Bezos Academy, a free nonprofit preschool for children of low-income families.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and founder of the Kent-based Blue Origin aerospace company, is paying for the Montessori-inspired preschools and opened his first location in 2020 in Des Moines. Other locations include Federal Way, Pacific Beach on the Washington coast and two in Tacoma.
“Our philosophy is child first academic and social skills to prepare them for kindergarten and beyond,” said
Emmanuel Imah, regional partnership development leader for the Bezos Academy, during a Jan. 12 workshop presentation to the school board prior to its vote later that night. “We believe all children should be given the same opportunity for a great start regardless of abilities, backgrounds or family income. We have a network of schools in underserved communities to give children the opportunity to learn, grow and succeed.”
The academy plans to lease five classrooms to serve about 100 students ages 3 to 5 at the Kent Valley Early Learning Center, 317 Fourth Ave. S., a district building across from Kent City Hall. The lease is $1 a month for 10 years as the nonprofit academy seeks community partners willing to provide basically free rent. The school is expected to open in the fall.
Board members Leslie Hamada, Tim Clark and Awale Farah voted for the lease to Bezos Academy. Joe Bento and Michele Bettinger voted against it.
“This may be my bias, but just because Bezos has millions of billions of dollars doesn’t mean he knows anything about education and could start a school because he has an idea,” Bento said.
Bento, a Renton High School health education teacher, said he would prefer that teachers at the academy be part of a union and that he would like to see the school with some type of accreditation, such as from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Hamada, the board president, said she talked to former state Rep. Marcie Maxwell, of Renton, who told her she thought it would be a good program for children. Maxwell worked as a senior education adviser for Gov. Jay Inslee and also served on the Renton School Board.
King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, of Des Moines, whose District 5 includes part of Kent, also backed the academy during a discussion with Hamada.
“He said if someone else is paying for it and you benefit from it, go for it,” Hamada said.
Bezos Academy will pay for any renovations, operational expenses and cover the costs for families that qualify. Students will receive up to three meals a day and the preschool will run all year.
Bezos first announced his intention to build a network of preschools in November 2018 when he launched the $2 billion Bezos Day One Fund. The fund has two priorities: giving to nonprofits that are helping homeless families, and building a network of preschools, according to the Day One Fund website.
“The fund uses the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” according to the website. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”
But Miguel Roque, head of operations for Bezos Academy, told the board the academy is separate from Amazon.
“There’s no association with Amazon except our founder is the same,” he said.
The academy uses space at the Wesley Homes retirement community, 824 S. 216th St., in Des Moines. Hamada said the Des Moines mayor and two teacher friends she has at Wesley Homes gave the academy a positive review.
“It’s important to grasp this opportunity or we may lose it,” Hamada said. “This could be good for our kids. …we’ve seen results of kids with more preschool.”
Imah said the academy collects data about communities and those that need preschools the most, with a high concentration low income families. He said Kent fit those requirements.
“Kent has been on our radar,” Imah said during his presentation to the board. “There are great programs in the area, but there’s a gap in low income students and the number of seats in early learning programs.”
He said over 50% of children in Kent enter kindergarten without the skills they need and that the average cost for a preschool in Kent is about $1,200 a month.
In selecting communities for its preschools, the academy considers a wide range of data, including income levels, participation at schools in free and reduced-cost meal programs and gaps in access to licensed childcare providers.
Bettinger said she voted against the lease in part because she wanted more time to ponder it. She said to vote on the measure the same night right after hearing about it during a board workshop session isn’t the way things should be done. She said the public had no chance to hear about it.
“Also, property is hard to find in the Kent School District,” Bettinger said. “We’ve had a downturn in enrollment, but the building was used in the past for kindergarten. I’ve looked at our facilities plan and what we are going to do with that building and I don’t see in the plan to lease it. With an enrollment flux, I’m worried about losing the space and the timing of it.”
Clark and Farah, who each were elected by voters to the board in November, approved the lease.
“This service would be a great benefit to families who gain access to it,” Clark said.
Farah said he thinks the academy would benefit the community and asked his fellow board members a question.
“Would it make any difference if the name was not Bezos?” Farah said.
Nobody responded to the question. The board then took its 3-2 vote to approve the lease.
About the academy
Each classroom will have a lead teacher and two assistant teachers with a maximum 20 students in each class. Pay is $52,000 to $89,000 a year for a lead teacher and $35,000 to $52,000 per year for an assistant teacher, according to the Bezos Academy website. Teachers with more experience will receive the higher pay.
A lead teacher must attend a summer training focused on the Bezos Academy academic model and grounding in the Montessori method to earn a primary Montessori certificate.
Montessori is a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play, according to the Montessori Northwest website. In Montessori classrooms children make creative choices in their learning, while the classroom and the highly trained teacher offer age-appropriate activities to guide the process.
Bezos attended a Montessori school when he was 2 years old in Albuquerque, New Mexico, according to an article on Forbes.com.
But the academy uses its own standards based on the Montessori method rather than following all of the same methods, according to Rogue, the head of operations.
Although applications for the Kent location are not yet available, to be eligible for Bezos Academy, the annual household income at the child’s home must be less than 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL), according to its website. Bezos Academy reserves half of the seats for students coming from families with an income less than 250% of FPL. If the household income is more than the income listed on the website, the child is ineligible for the program.
For a household of two, the annual income must be less than $69,680 for the 400% poverty level and less than $43,550 for the 250% poverty level. The income levels go up with more people earning income in a household.
Admission preferences are provided to children who are homeless or living in foster care, siblings of existing Bezos Academy students, and the children of community partners, according to the application form.
In addition to Kent, the academy plans to open schools this year or next year in Renton, Centralia and Pasco as well as Dallas, Texas and Orlando, Florida, which will be the first schools outside of Washington state.