What if school was a safe place that kids loved to go, where their minds and bodies and souls were fed well?

Five years ago, my husband and I came up with a crazy notion: what if school was a safe place that kids loved to go, where their minds and bodies and souls were fed well, where they were seen and recognized as beautiful and worthy, and where education was relevant and fun and there was joy everywhere? What if? Friday night, we saw a huge piece of that dream come true.  We designed Signing Day to bring all of those pieces together in one place for our students and families, and it did just that. We recognized each of our scholars as unique and worthy of celebration. We celebrated them and their new place at Willow.  

Watching the scholars waiting for their names to be called was heartwarming.  Some of them were nervous, some were scared, and some were all but vibrating with excitement.  The moments when their names were called were simply magical.  To watch these scholars run the red carpet and accept a gift and a handshake from our Executive Director as a symbol of their decision was amazing. To hear from parents that their kiddos have never been this excited about school before was inspirational. And to see the community turn out and volunteer their time to make sure these scholars are seen and recognized was humbling. We have a hard road ahead of us.  Opening a school is not an easy task, nor should it be. But we believe our team is up to this task, and we KNOW these scholars are.

Here's more about the event from Sheila Hagar, writing for the Union-Bulletin:

It is said one can’t be in two places at once, but on Friday evening Katie Christianson made a go of it.

Christianson, director of culture for Willow Public School, was everywhere during the charter school’s student “signing” event at St. Patrick Catholic Church.

Willow officials recently secured a three-year lease with Walla Walla Catholic Parishes to use space formerly occupied by St. Patrick Grade School and to share Blanchet Hall fellowship and kitchen space.


Here Christianson cooed at a baby, there she put an arm around a shy middle-schooler, she answered a family’s questions before bouncing off to talk to Willow’s blue-shirted staff and volunteers.

And everywhere families dined on La Monarca food truck fare as festival-style music played in Blanchet Hall and the adjoining gym. Blue and green — Willow’s school colors — swag bags, signs and balloons added to the party atmosphere.

The evening was a personal milestone for Christianson and visibility at last for Walla Walla’s new and only charter school. After being granted charter status in 2014, Willow appeared headed to the chopping block along with other Washington state charter schools when the 2012 law granting such schools legal status was invalidated by the state’s supreme court in 2015.

That decision was overridden in 2016 by state lawmakers, but Willow officials continued to struggle to find appropriate space. One contender, the former Ace of Clubs exercise facility, was ruled out because of projected renovation costs, Christianson said.

In the meantime, administrators continued to build staff and do outreach on behalf of the school. Christianson and the school's Executive Director Dan Calzaretta kept the Willow mission — to educate kids who benefit from a non-traditional school setting — in front of the public by hosting several information events and community service projects.

Kenadee Zitterkopf, 10, presents her official welcome certificate to her mom, Heather Zitterkopf, during Willow Public School’s first student event Friday evening.

Kenadee Zitterkopf, 10, presents her official welcome certificate to her mom, Heather Zitterkopf, during Willow Public School’s first student event Friday evening.

Laura Hyke is glad Willow’s founders persisted.

Sitting at a table with her 11-year-old son, David Drader, Hyke was filling out registration paperwork on Friday as the aroma of hot tacos wafted into the building from La Monarca parked outside.

David, she said, is the youngest of her four children. Born 10 weeks premature, David has struggled since to catch up in a number of social and learning areas.

“David has had a lot of obstacles,” she said. “I’m really excited to have him be in a smaller class size, in a school that also provides social and emotional support.”

Hyke said she’s grateful for the help her son got at Prospect Point Elementary, but Willow’s structure looks like a better fit for David as a middle-schooler.

For now, Willow is only accepting sixth- and seventh-graders, and that’s fine with Hyke. Her son, she said, “still has a hard time getting comfortable with people.”

Another student, 11-year-old Armando Bacilio, will come to Willow as a sixth-grader from Davis Elementary School in College Place.

“My mom and dad wanted me to come,” he explained while polishing off his dinner. “I needed to catch up on stuff. Here, I can get help.”

He does have a slight case of nerves, Armando conceded, but his dad, Gregario Bacilio, had none.

“He’s following steps to get a good job and be part of the community,” he said in Spanish as Armando translated.

The Bacilio family has been in Walla Walla 14 years and has put down roots, Gregorio said, noting sons Edgar, 7, and Axel, 6, are likely future Willow students.

“We want to help the school succeed,” he said.

Currently, the school’s census is 55 students; about 70 percent come from English-speaking households, Christianson said today.

About 90 percent of the students are eligible for free- or reduced-meals at school, Calzaretta said. And all are eligible for the amenities Willow offers.

“Every kid gets music; every kid gets art,” he said. “We provide specific academic support time for every kid, every day so that they never miss out on the things that make going to school fun.”

Christianson said Friday’s event perfectly fit Willow’s theme: “Dream Bigger, Think Boldly.”

Willow Public School will begin its first school year on August 13.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or (509) 526-8322.