Jesse Kelly, left, looks over Willow Public School’s social studies curriculum with Principal Sean Hopf on Thursday. Spanish teacher Nelly Pilares does the same with her new materials. This year sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the charter middle school will be introduced to the International Baccalaureate program.

No one can say yet if Willow Public School will open this year, but staff and administrators were plowing ahead Thursday in anticipation of the arrival of students.

Superintendent Brenda McDonald told board members that same afternoon that Washington State Charter School Commission members had visited for two days to look Willow up one side and down the other via staff interviews and record audits.

Walla Walla’s only charter school struggled last year to comply with state expectations and goals. McDonald, who founded and oversees PRIDE charter schools in Spokane, was brought on as Willow’s director in late March after the resignation of founding Executive Director Dan Calzaretta.

The hope was that McDonald’s years of experience could right Willow’s listing ship, noted former board Chairman Joe Cooke at the time.

An investigation in June revealed a number of violations of Willow’s contract with the commission had been made during the school’s debut year, including failure to serve students in ways promised, a complete — and unreported — turnover of school board and administrative, and low enrollment.

Based on his findings, the commission’s Executive Director Joshua Halsey set forth stipulations for Willow to continue operation. Those included ensuring potential board members are versed in an area of education and a plan for recruiting and retaining qualified board members. Willow officials had to submit a plan to reach the school’s education goals, find and pay for professional development for staff and have at least 110 students signed up for the 2019-2020 school year.

McDonald and the board also chose to repay the state for money that was allotted to the school at higher enrollment numbers when student census was actually lower.

On Tuesday, Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Wade Smith sent a letter to Halsey, inquiring about Willow’s compliance with the student enrollment target.

According to the agreement, Willow should have enrolled 100 students as of Aug. 15, Smith wrote.

He told Halsey that based on his district’s contact with families and information received, “we find it highly unlikely (Willow officials) are anywhere near these target numbers.”

Smith urged Halsey to decide the fate of the charter school soon.

“If revocation is inevitable, we strongly encourage you to make that decision sooner, rather than later, to minimize the impact to students and families. With the start of school a mere two weeks away, we encourage you to inquire about Willow’s success in meeting all of the stipulated requirements, including evidence of attendance targets. If one or more the criteria have not been met, pursuant to the agreement, please consider notifying families sooner rather than later, to ensure as smooth and timely of transition as possible back to their home school or appropriate educational setting,” Smith said in his letter.

All conditions of the stipulated agreement have been met except that enrollment number, McDonald said at Thursday afternoon’s board meeting.

“We’ve enrolled 85 students, which means we’ll probably start the year with about 80.”

Even with fewer students, Willow can meet its monetary obligation to the charter school commission and state, she said.

“We submitted documents that said we have the financial ability to open.”

One barrier to a more robust enrollment is the uncertainty of the school’s fate. As she and others have knocked on doors and had weekly student recruitment nights, parents have been willing to take enrollment packets, but they’re hesitant to turn in completed forms, McDonald said.

“People have told us they’ve been following the saga,” she said, and want to wait until the school has a thumbs up for this school year.

Parents are still interested in the charter school experience for all the same reasons they were before Willow opened last fall, McDonald said, especially given that transitioning from a smaller elementary school to a traditional middle school can be a huge change for kids.

“We’re hearing that school is too big, there are too many kids falling through too many cracks. Parents want more hands-on lessons.”

More young teens today are experiencing anxiety and social issues at school, she said.

“And they get sucked up in a big school.”

McDonald is expecting good news from Halsey and his board Tuesday, and to that end, her teachers have been immersed in learning the International Baccalaureate materials McDonald is instituting to build a more robust and transparent curriculum.

“This will significantly change learning at Willow … We want to make sure families are really clear about what their kids are learning. That was not articulated last year,” she told board members.

Plans call for buying vans to provide transportation for students in outlying communities, including Dixie, Waitsburg, Lowden and Touchet. Walla Walla-based students will continue to get free passes for Valley Transit’s bus system.

McDonald has hired more teachers, and budget work has been contracted out to Educational Service District 123.

Willow has a fund balance of $132,000, McDonald said.

“So that’s good news, ending the year with money in the bank.”

She expects the next piece of good news to come from Halsey’s office on Tuesday.

“They left very pleased,” she told her board members. “I don’t have any reason to believe we’re not going to be open.”

Willow Public School will have an information and enrollment booth at Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days. For more information, call the school at 593-5700.


Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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