We have answers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Dan Calzaretta, Wilow's Executive Director, answers your questions about Willow. If you have any question that is not answered here, please ask!
ARE CHARTER SCHOOLS PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
This is probably the most asked question we get. And the answer is, yes, they absolutely are public schools! In fact, like all public schools, they are:
- Open to all students
- Publicly funded
- Staffed by certified teachers
- Held accountable to state and national standards
I HAVE HEARD A LOT ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS IN OTHER STATES AND HOW BAD THEY ARE. DOESN’T THIS MEAN ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE BAD, EVEN THOSE IN WASHINGTON?
This is a great question. And the answer is, simply, no. However, more explanation is needed.
First, this is like saying, since some traditional public schools perform poorly, that must mean ALL traditional public schools are bad. This is simply not the case.
Second, the charter school story in Washington state is much different than the national narrative. Washington was the 42nd state to allow charter schools. The legislature looked at all of the charter laws in the country, identified the strongest elements of each law, and designed a system that would meet the needs of the most underserved students in our state. The law was ranked as the strongest in the country because it required schools to show that they were meeting the needs of underserved students, and must have strong community support before the state approves the charter.
CHARTERS ONLY TAKE THE “CREAM OF THE CROP” STUDENTS AND LEAVE THE LOCAL SCHOOLS WITH THE HIGHEST NEEDS AND MOST DIFFICULT TO EDUCATE KIDS. WHY?
This is simply not the case. Washington’s charter public schools are helping to close the education equity gap. In Western Washington, where all but two of the charter schools in the state are located, 75% of charter students are kids of color, 63% come from low-income families, and 16% are learning-disabled. As Willow works on its initial enrollment, we also see similar trends, with higher percentages of students of color and low-income families enrolling, compared to those served by Walla Walla Public Schools.
Also, ALL students who apply to charters are admitted, up to the capacity of the program. At Willow, we will enroll 120 students the first year. If more than that number enrolls, the law requires students be chosen by lottery. Also, we can give extra tickets into the lottery to preference students who we know most need the opportunities. Willow provides extra opportunities to:
- students in circumstances of poverty
- students who have not been successful academically or attend low-performing schools
- students whose parents did not attend college
Of course, we enroll ALL students who come to us seeking a different option, but our outreach efforts have focused on the most high-needs communities in Walla Walla.
So, in Washington, there is zero evidence that charter schools take the “cream of the crop”. It simply is not true.
Charter public schools are held more accountable for showing improved student achievement. In exchange for greater accountability, teachers and principals are given more flexibility to customize their teaching methods and curriculum to improve student learning and have more flexibility around things like staffing and length of the school day and school year.
ISN’T IT TRUE THAT CHARTER SCHOOLS TAKE MONEY FROM TRADITIONAL DISTRICT SCHOOLS?
In Washington, school funding follows the student and goes to whatever public school they attend. For example, if a student in College Place enrolls at WaHi, Walla Walla Public Schools receives the funding to educate that student. The same is true for Willow. We receive state funding for each student who attends.
Students leave districts all the time, and for many reasons. Some move. Some choose to attend other districts. Some go to private schools or parents decide to homeschool. And now, some may choose to attend a charter public school. While a district will see a reduction in revenue any time a student leaves, they are also no longer paying to educate that student.
It should also be noted that public charter schools do not receive any locally approved levy funding, and cannot ask voters to approve bonds for school construction. In reality, charters receive less funding than traditional public schools.
WHO TEACHES AT CHARTER SCHOOLS? I ALSO HEARD THAT CHARTER SCHOOLS DON’T ALLOW TEACHERS TO ORGANIZE. IS THIS TRUE?
Charter public school teachers must be certified, just like teachers at other public schools. Reflecting the diversity of the students they serve, 39% of Washington’s charter public school teachers are people of color, compared to 13% at public schools statewide.
Charter public school employees, including teachers, have a strong voice in their workplace. They have the right to organize and collectively bargain for pay, benefits, and working conditions. Teachers at charter public schools earn as much or more than teachers at traditional public schools.
SPEAKING OF TEACHERS, I HEARD willow teachers GET PAID LESS AND DON'T HAVE RETIREMENT OR OTHER BENEFITS LIKE TEACHERS IN TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS. IS THIS TRUE?
This is absolutely NOT true. We offer a competitive salary (in most cases higher than that offered by the local school districts). Our teachers are part of the state retirement system just like teachers in the traditional public schools. We also offer health, dental, and vision benefits.
The biggest benefit, however, is working in an environment that honors and respects your gifts, talents, and skills as a professional educator.
DO WE REALLY NEED CHARTER SCHOOLS? IT SEEMS LIKE MY KID DOES JUST FINE.
While this seems like a simple question, it is quite complicated and influenced by economic status, race, and privilege. It is true; many students do fine in traditional public schools. However, there is no disputing the fact; there is a huge opportunity gap based on race and income. This is not new and is not specific to Walla Walla. Most communities in our country face similar issues.
I recently read a blog post by the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, Nate Bowling, where he said “The loudest, most vociferous opponents of charter schools I see are middle class, white, college educated, liberal-progressives entrenched within the educational establishment. In contrast, charter parents are typically from low-income neighborhoods that are serviced by under-resourced, low-performing public schools. Understanding that dichotomy is essential.” It’s important to note that Mr. Bowling teaches in a traditional district school, and identifies as a charter school “agnostic.”
Let’s address the “white” elephant in the room: as an affluent white male, I have many more choices when it comes to education for my kids than a parent of color or a parent who struggles economically. This should not dictate who gets a quality education. I taught in Walla Walla Public Schools for eight years. Before I started teaching in public school, I was one of the anti-charter school people Mr. Bowling writes about. Then my eyes were opened to the reality that our most vulnerable students and families face on a daily basis. At that point, there was no turning back.
I taught at Pioneer Middle School. My colleagues were wonderful, caring, brilliant professionals. They want to do what is best for kids. However, the system constrains them to a one-size-fits-all model. And the fact is, that this approach does not meet the needs of all students, especially those from the most underserved communities.
WHY NOT OPEN WILLOW IN WALLA WALLA PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
School districts must apply to the State Board of Education to become charter school authorizers. Walla Walla Public Schools has not done so (in fact, the only district in the state that can authorize charter schools is Spokane).
Willow is authorized by the Washington State Charter School Commission. Our charter contract is valid for five years, at which time we must renew.
SO, WHAT TYPE OF STUDENT IS RIGHT FOR WILLOW?
There is no “right” type of student. As a public school, we take all students who want to enroll, up to the capacity at each grade level. We have designed our student-focused, engaging, relevant program for all students, but especially those who have not had their needs met in their current schools: students of color, second language learners, students who live in circumstances of poverty, and the creative thinker who does not do well in the large, traditional, one-size-fits-all model of most schools.
ARE PARENTS REQUIRED TO VOLUNTEER?
No. While parental involvement is helpful to the school and supports student success; parents are not required to volunteer. No student will be punished or lose their spot at Willow if their parents are not involved. However, we do encourage parents to be part of what goes on at Willow!
There are many opportunities to do so, including:
- Serve on the parent council
- Volunteer for school events
- Assist in the classroom
- Attend parent classes
- Volunteer for student arrival and dismissal supervision
- Teach about something you love in our Explorations program
WHAT DOES WILLOW PUBLIC SCHOOL NOT DO WELL? WHAT ELSE SHOULD PARENTS KNOW ABOUT THE SCHOOL BEFORE ENROLLING THEIR CHILD?
Willow is not going to be a big school. Ever. Therefore, there are things we will not be able to do. We will not be able to have huge team sports like the local traditional public middle schools (however, we will have a competitive soccer program). We will not have an orchestra (although we will have a music program).
What we do offer to students and families, however, more than makes up for what we can’t offer, including:
- A place where every student is known; no student will fall through the cracks. Ever.
- Positive relationships with families and students are at the center of everything we do.
- An education plan designed by the student and school that addresses individual goals, needs, and interests.
- A place where learning is filled with joy.
- A school that prepares students to be successful, lifelong learners.
- And finally, a school that teaches students to lead courageously. think boldly, and dream wildly.
I called the school district to ask about Willow and was told you are a private school. Is this true?
No. Willow is a public school. Just like all public schools in the state, we are open to all students. There is no tuition, and no tests or assessments needed before a student enrolls.
Are you affiliated with St. Patrick’s church?
No. We are renting from the church but are in no way affiliated with St. Patrick’s. They are our landlord, and we are their tenant.
I heard the school won’t open because there is no fire sprinkler system. Is this true?
No. We are installing the fire sprinkler system now. In addition, we have received a $250,000 grant from Washington Charter School Development to install the system.