State education officials came to Walla Walla this month to look over the situation at Willow Public School.

The charter school, the first in Walla Walla, hit a number of rough patches in its debut year, including significant loss of enrolled students, administrators and board members.

Those challenges came after it took Willow’s founders three years to navigate the state’s legal and funding decisions on charter schools, then finding the right home for the school.

Following his agency’s investigation, Washington state Charter School Commission’s Executive Director Joshua Halsey outlined a substantial agenda to get Willow re-rooted, according to documents Halsey provided to the Union-Bulletin.

Multiple deadlines for the needed changes begin almost immediately and extend through August. The school is set to open the first week of September.

The commission’s board members Thursday unanimously approved Halsey’s plan for Willow, as follows:

  • Enrollment — Willow must have at least 110 students for the next school year; currently 78 students have indicated they plan to return. As originally planned, the school will add eighth grade classes this year.
  • School board — Applicants must provide evidence of qualifications that includes proof of expertise in an area of education before being voted onto the board. Willow officials need a specific plan to recruit, retain and develop qualified board members.
  • Staff — Administrators must identify teachers returning in the fall, along with their courses, qualifications and assessments; report on how the administrative and staff team align with the terms of the charter contract; and create a plan to ensure, and pay for, professional development for teachers and administrators.
  • Education — Staff must submit a plan for reaching Willow’s stated education goals.

The road ahead

Superintendent Brenda McDonald will be required to send the commission progress reports every two weeks for the first of a two-year probation period.

Halsey said during that two years, his staff will be closely looking at all things Willow, an unusual move for his office but necessary to ensure those students are getting high-quality education.

Offering solutions to staying open is a better alternative for those children than revoking the school’s charter and closing Willow, said Halsey, who also stated that if he thought the school could not be salvaged, its doors would be shut immediately.

Halsey said the school’s change in leadership made this decision easier.

“I have confidence Brenda has the ability to bring this all together,” he said. “And it’s important to note the teachers haven’t left, and they could have. They are focused on Willow. To me, these are the bones that give me confidence.”

McDonald’s work at Willow already speaks to the energy and motivation to satisfy the state’s requirements, Halsey said.

One of the superintendent’s first tasks is to bring in a new instructional program. The International Baccalaureate curriculum for middle-schoolers, the demographic Willow serves, will address some of the academic concerns McDonald said she’s heard from parents.

Founded in Switzerland in 1968, IB materials support the kind of hands-on, practical learning that helps students use projects to develop a cultural understanding and connect school learning with real-world issues. Not only does the program clarify to students just what they are learning, it also works with a student’s strengths, whether they are typical learners or not, she said.

The model is notably beneficial for children with behavioral issues, McDonald explained.

“Kids engaged have a tendency to not be disruptive or distracting.”

The program also contains components that allow parents to know what their children are doing, which was a frustration in the past.

“I am super vigilant about parents knowing what (education) units their children are learning,” McDonald said.

Keeping to the mission

In the past month, Willow has enrolled about 15 new students. McDonald hopes to bump Willow’s teacher count up by two before school starts, including hiring for a P.E. position, and she has hired a new principal and dean of students. Clear conduct expectations have been presented to students and their parents.

In some cases for students with intense behavioral needs, Willow turned out to be the wrong fit in the first place, McDonald said.

The school will still be serving fresh, local food, still have small class sizes and still offer competitive teacher salaries.

McDonald said she can’t know every detail of how Willow appeared to go off course last year but families have told her there were promises made that went unfulfilled. Her hope is any parents with questions or concerns will make an appointment to air those with her, McDonald said.

It will be vital to fertilize Willow with qualified board members, folks with critical thinking skills who are willing to fill in knowledge gaps with ongoing education, she added.

As much as this past year was a learning curve for Walla Walla and Willow, so it went for his commission, Halsey said. Charters schools have only been operating in the state for five years.

“Starting and running a charter school is a herculean task, and board members and leaders need the best support. Not just from us but from all state education agencies. These are public schools, and we need to double down on that.”

He now knows the commission is in a place to more quickly respond to schools needing help, Halsey said.

“We intervene, we put the kids first, we put the community first. I learned we are well positioned to do that.”

Willow’s story underscores the importance of oversight and accountability, he said.

“We need to sit down and figure out how to not miss this stuff again. Let’s look at what we saw. Was this a trickle and we missed it until it was a puddle?”

For a look at the Washington State Charter School Commission’s agreement with Willow Public School, go to ubne.ws/2JfXpi0 and ubne.ws/2IWWpAw.

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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