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State draws lines for Willow Public School

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Willow Public School

At Willow Public School’s “signing” event in April 2018, families enjoyed a festival atmosphere featuring balloons, music and food-truck fare. It was the charter school’s largest initial event and a forum for students to meet each other and Willow staff. During its first year, Willow reached an enrollment of 116 students, but that number declined over the school year, a problem state officials examined earlier this month.

Willow Public School has some heavy-duty work to do before school starts again the first week in September.

Failure to do so could mean the charter school’s doors will stay shut, Washington state Charter School Commission officials said Wednesday.

Willow Superintendent Brenda McDonald said last week she is sure that won’t happen.

Since starting three months ago, McDonald has been implementing changes not only required by the state but also ones she knows work well in a charter school setting. Those include a new curriculum, clear communication with families and state officials, and special training for school board members.

“Willow has learned a lot in its first year,” McDonald said Tuesday from Spokane, noting she is in Walla Walla two days every week for Willow business.

In 2015, McDonald founded PRIDE Prep in Spokane, the first charter school to be authorized in Washington. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership and a master’s in business administration, curriculum and instruction, as well as a bachelor’s in elementary and special education. Charter school officials have lauded McDonald’s work in Spokane.

In March, she was hired to help lead Willow after former Director Dan Calzaretta announced an early retirement about six months through the school’s first year of operation.

Fixes were needed and needed quickly, McDonald found.

A closer look

That was seconded by an investigation this spring by Washington state Charter School Commission, said its Executive Director Joshua Halsey.

Established in 2013, the commission authorizes and oversees the state’s publicly funded but privately run charter schools. In Washington, about 3,300 students were enrolled in charter schools this spring.

Four charter schools have shut down, reports said earlier this month, since such schools first opened in Washington state five years ago. Excel Public Charter School in Kent and Destiny Middle School in Tacoma recently closed due to dwindling enrollment, according a June 7 story in the Seattle Times.

Halsey said a closer look at Walla Walla’s only charter school was prompted by a recent conversation with former Willow School Board Chairman Joe Cooke, who said that some changes in the school’s leadership and board had not been reported to the commission.

Halsey came to Walla Walla earlier this month to meet with the board and staff, based on that discussion.

Bumps in the road are expected for any new organization, he said, “but we didn’t expect to see that level of challenges. That’s unique in my experience.

“We were quite alarmed.”

Those driving a new charter school effort in Washington must agree to a “charter contract” that lays out how students will be educated and what the school’s responsibilities will be, he said.

Willow, for example, wanted an extended school day for students who needed extra time and help to catch up to grade level, Halsey said.

But over the 2018-2019 school year, that extra 40 minutes was unstructured, and students were not engaged in learning — and Willow officials failed to tell that to the state. Eventually the time period was halved, but the 20 minutes still wasn’t used as promised by Willow leadership, he said.

Other things also pulled Walla Walla’s charter school out of compliance with its state contract, Halsey said in a letter to the Union-Bulletin.

The commission found violations included the following:

  • Failure to provide project-based learning under the terms of the charter contract.
  • Failure to provide each student with a personalized education plan.
  • Failure to use restorative discipline or trauma-informed teaching. That was particularly important for the at-risk youth Willow recruited and served. The school also didn’t track discipline to satisfy its goal of achieving lower suspension and expulsion rates than Walla Walla Public Schools middle schools.
  • Failure to ensure the school board always had the required minimum of three members or that the school had the necessary leadership and administrative staff.

The board also had a “complete turnover” in the last school year, and that exacerbated the challenges Willow had in meeting its legal obligations, according to the report.

In addition to costs associated with correcting issues, low enrollment at Willow has led to concerns about the school’s financial viability, Halsey wrote.

Communication challenges

McDonald said there was nothing in the findings that unsettled her. She disputes the commission’s worry about the school’s financial status.

“There are not financial concerns at Willow nor have there ever been,” she said in an email to the U-B.

The commission offered the same startup support in Walla Walla as all state charter schools receive, Halsey said. That began with a site visit last August and included video conferences with Willow officials, quarterly school and board reviews to assess programs, data results, budgets and to meet with staff. The commission gave Willow feedback over the year and had an independent observer perform a two-day site visit.

In midwinter, when enrollment began dropping at Willow, Halsey said his office encouraged then-leader Dan Calzaretta to work with state education officials to adjust state payments to the school so they would match up with student numbers.

Halsey, too, found many of Willow’s challenges to be associated with inexperienced school leadership. It appeared leaders were not fully lined up with the original vision behind starting a charter school here, he said, including board members.

“There was a breakdown in communication, and we weren’t getting information about Willow.”

Although not speaking as an official spokesman for the school, Calzaretta in an interview Friday agreed communication with the state could have been better.

However, the school’s declining enrollment was discussed with the commission in January, he said Friday.

As well, Willow’s board members received several trainings and took the replacement executive director search “very seriously,” Calzaretta said.

McDonald is the best possible fit for the school’s “amazing kids and families,” given the scope of her experience and expertise, he said.

As is the case for every new charter, Willow’s first year provided lots of opportunity to gain wisdom. Lessons learned will provide a map for the school’s future, Calzaretta said, emphasizing his belief that all involved in Washington charter school education are doing good work in serving students.

“I’m excited about the future of Willow.”

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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