School Cooperation Supports Student Success
While giving a tour of the school last week to a group of parents, I was asked in what ways are we and the school district going to work together. It is a great question.
I firmly believe that regardless of what school system a student attends, it is the responsibility of the adults in the community to have the best interest of these children at heart. In Walla Walla, I know this is the case.
I worked in Walla Walla Public Schools for eight years. I know many of the teachers and administrators. I taught the children of several school board members and district staff when I was at Pioneer Middle School. I have volunteered on countless district committees. I continue to meet with WWPS Superintendent Wade Smith monthly. Since I began working on Willow Public School in late 2014, I have presented to the school board at least four times. So I know first hand that everyone wants to do what is best for kids in Walla Walla.
I am not naive enough to think that there is no trepidation at Walla Walla Public Schools regarding Willow. The concern most commonly voiced to me by district employees is the loss of per-pupil funding for the district. It is true that the district will see a reduction in the number of WWPS students as families enroll in Willow. This reduction, however, is temporary, as most families will return to Walla Walla Public Schools after they finish eighth grade.
I also understand that while we have many supporters who work for Walla Walla Public Schools (some district employees are even choosing Willow as an option for their children), other district employees are concerned about having another public school option in Walla Walla. Most objections to Willow stem from a lack of information about Willow specifically, or about charter schools in general (see the FAQ section of our website for answers to these questions).
So, how do we work together, understanding that there are initial underlying tensions and concerns on the part of the school district and Willow? Here are some areas of cooperation.
Allow Willow and district staff to talk to students and families about the benefits of the programs offered. When my team and I meet with prospective families, we always talk about what we can offer, and what the district provides that we don’t (including sports and music programs that are different from ours).
Inform parents and students of the options available to them in Walla Walla. While the district is legally obligated to let families know about Willow (and they do so with a mention on their website at the very bottom of a page), a more robust approach to communicating about Willow would help families who most need an educational option. At Willow, we would be happy to give information to parents about the district middle school options.
Sharing data about student performance. When students are doing particularly well, we should analyze the data, find out what teaching strategies are responsible, and share between systems. When students struggle, we should be willing to openly examine and share that data as well, so that we can improve our strategies to meet their needs.
Willow and the district can use a common enrollment system whereby both would use a single enrollment form. This would make it easier for parents to enroll in any of the three public middle schools in Walla Walla: Willow, Garrison, or Pioneer.
Allow staff from both systems to attend professional development opportunities together. For example, we will be training teachers on personalization, restorative practices, and social-emotional learning. We would love to invite district staff to these trainings. The district provides excellent professional development in areas that would be beneficial to our teachers, such as the use of technology, AVID strategies, and English Language Learner instruction.
At Willow, we have aligned our early-release days to match WWPS to make shared professional development easier. We and the district could share professional development calendars to find opportunities for cooperation.
Willow could contract with WWPS for specific services. One such service could be transportation. This would be a financial benefit to the district (as Willow would pay for this service) and would meet a need for some Willow families.
Willow and the district could share the cost of positions that are difficult or costly to staff, especially in the area of Special Education.
In Walla Walla, we are lucky that the community understands the benefit of a high-quality education for all students, regardless of what school they choose to attend. By strengthening cooperation between Willow and Walla Walla Public Schools, we have a chance to avoid the “us versus them” mentality we see in other communities. We can instead focus on what is best for each child and family. We can also help shape the state discussion around charter-district partnership, and be a model for others doing similar work.
While Willow and the district are much further along than others when it comes to cooperation, the real question is, if kids and families will benefit, why not do more?