Willow Public School

Trimming will be necessary, but Superintendent Brenda McDonald is confident Willow Public School can stay rooted and grow in Walla Walla.

The charter school opened Sept. 3 for its second year with the expectation that about 80 students would come through the doors of St. Patrick Catholic Church’s fellowship hall, where Willow is located; 85 had registered for the 2019-2020 school year, McDonald said in August.

Instead, 52 middle-schoolers showed up, even as Willow expanded to eighth grade this year.

That’s significantly lower than the enrollment of 110 students the Washington State Charter School Commission initially demanded the school have by opening day in stipulations handed down from commission authorities in June.

The 10-member board is responsible for approving or denying applications for the state’s charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate much like private schools. About 3,300 Washington students were enrolled in charter schools as of last spring.

Willow’s stipulated agreement, which allowed the school to remain open, was the result of an investigation by officials that found the school had violated several terms of its charter contract during the 2018-2019 debut school year.

One problem, reduced enrollment, brought into question the financial sustainability of the program.

Enrollment

By late August, after a summer of student recruitment efforts led by McDonald and her staff, state charter school officials agreed to allow Willow to open with an estimated 80 students.

The school is still financially viable with 52 students, McDonald and the state Charter School Commission Chairwoman Cindi Williams said last week.

Data from the state Department of Education released earlier this month found Willow’s 114 students last year fared poorly in some areas — 17% met English language arts and 8% met state math performance goals. No data was available for science scores.

McDonald did not head the school until late March. Nearly all the current administrative staff joined Willow this summer, including Principal Sean Hopf and Assistant Principal Paige Albrecht.

Minutes from the August meeting of the state commission noted Willow students, about half of whom are from low-income families, “made minimal growth in math and regressed in reading” last year.

At a Walla Walla School Board meeting last week, board member Derek Sarley said his district will need to prepare for Willow students to return to Walla Walla High School with potential deficits in knowledge.

Those scores are part of the reason McDonald introduced a rigorous curriculum called the International Baccalaureate program, intended to address learning gaps, ignite interest in learning and foster critical thinking skills.

Parents and students have already said they are excited about this year’s learning materials and direction, she said.

Finances

According to charter commission’s meeting minutes from this month, Willow’s updated annual budget summary shows a total projected revenue of $1,816,986, down from an anticipated revenue of $1,950,870, based on enrollment of 100 children. The school receives $36,340 per pupil and spends $34,445 on each. Total expenses equal $1,722,263, including $1,122,638 in payroll, taxes and benefits.

Budget is where Willow’s trimming starts, McDonald said.

Not only will management salaries be reduced, but some support jobs that were expected to be contracted out will be kept in-house. New budget numbers will roll out in about 30 days, and that’s when any staff reductions will be determined, she said.

Financial help is coming from the private sector, however, McDonald added.

A $650,000 renewable grant from member organization Washington State Charter Schools Association will be awarded, provided Willow meets the grant’s criteria. The “Growth Grant” is designed to provide new charter schools with funding support as they add students and work toward full enrollment, according to a Sept. 13 letter to Willow’s board of directors from the association.

The school will also receive $48,000 grant, intended to support financial consulting in new charter schools, as long as the Walla Walla school meets its milestones, the letter stated.

The grant money helps ensure Willow’s students and families will continue to see the same learning environment and level of support, McDonald said.

Anticipating success

The superintendent said she is not surprised at the school’s low enrollment, given negative attention Willow has garnered. McDonald has also blamed student numbers on the state commission’s delay in deciding Willow’s fate.

“Our plan has been all along to have a rebuilding year. We’ve trained our teachers, overhauled our curriculum and did work around the culture of the school. We anticipate students will have more success and families will be happier.”

That, she added, will create word-of-mouth marketing about the advantages of the charter school.

“This year, we’ll be fine. And as we add students in the upcoming years, the budget will change … I have confidence we will be able to recruit students into the school now that we have a clearly articulated program.”

The Charter Schools Commission will continue to monitor Willow for the next two years on a probationary status. Commission officials will come to Walla Walla on Oct. 2-4 for a Willow site visit. Williams, the board chairwoman, said in an email that although Willow’s enrollment is not as high as hoped, “the Commission’s first responsibility — which is to student and parents — has been met.”

The school, Williams wrote, “is financially sustainable, the educational program solid, and the governance requirements are in place.”

She and other commission officials support McDonald, who has a track record of success with charter schools in Spokane.

“The Willow team has worked tirelessly through the summer to prepare for the arrival of these students,” Williams said.

“We decided to honor that work and the fact that they met all but one of the very rigorous, comprehensive requirements set forth in the stipulation agreement.”

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.