The things we leave behind

I’m sitting here in Room 22 on a Saturday looking out at a light fall of snow. It’s about 25 degrees out in Walla Walla. Seattle is preparing for Snow-mageddon 2019 (four inches of snow)—everyone over there seems to be panicking, for good reason, because they don’t get that much snow very often, so it’s kind of a big deal. But we’re fairly used to it here on the east side of the mountains. We get along just fine for a month or two of below freezing temperatures and half a foot of snow that lingers and lingers. In fact, it’s pretty and peaceful. I’m a bit early for a board of directors meeting for Innovation Schools, so I have a moment to ponder, and a snowy afternoon in February is the perfect day for that.

I’m here, in this place, because five years ago Katie Christianson and I were struggling to understand why the current public education system didn’t seem to be serving all the kids. We saw that there was a type of student, like Katie’s son Kurt, who did well in the traditional classroom setting—usually middle-class white kids with a parent or two that had time, resources, and skills to coach and mentor and support, not only academically, but mentally as well. We were at our wits’ end advocating for a couple of our other kids who faced unusual but not uncommon challenges that made the traditional school setting less than ideal, and we couldn’t get the system to listen to us. We’re big fans of individual teachers who sacrifice a lot to serve us all, and even of the administrators and board members who keep the whole machine running, but we realized that some kids just need more attention and we couldn’t get that consistently. I came home from Skip Downing’s On-Course conference, designed to help college teachers help struggling students become successful students, and I said, “Why aren’t we teaching this stuff in middle school and high school so the kids are college ready when they get to me?” I played Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on the learning revolution for her and we sat there crying, not so much about the state of education, but for our lack of ability to do anything to improve the lives of so many kids that are getting lost between middle school and maturity. I was teaching college courses in prison at the time, and I saw first hand what dropping out of school meant for many of our young citizens.

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So it was in the winter of 2014 that we turned to each other and said, naively, “We need to start a little school.” And with the shadow of a shrug, we thought, How difficult could that be?

We started meeting with people, just one or two to start with, and then one day, when we were sitting with then Walla Walla Public School Superintendent Mick Miller, he mentioned the new charter school law, passed in 2012, as a possible vehicle for creating an alternative school for the students who struggled in the bigger existing schools. He also suggested we contact Dan Calzaretta.

Both of Katie’s sons had been in Dan’s explorer’s classroom at Pi-Hi, and I’d met Dan years before when he was trying to launch Palouse, a small private school, based on his experience helping to start Pacific Crest private school in Portland. Demand was limited though, so Palouse closed down after about a year, and so he’d gotten a job at Pioneer Middle School. So we both knew Dan, and he was already on our radar as a collaborator when we met with Mick.

Our first meeting with Dan was on his back porch. It must have been a few months after Katie, and I watched The Learning Revolution because the sun was shining and we were sitting outside. We talked about the charter law, possibilities, challenges, and then he said, “I’m in on one condition. That I can be the principal.”

Katie and I breathed a deep sigh of relief because neither one of us knew how to run a school, but we both knew that we were in for the long run, wherever this road led. Sometimes a dream just grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. That’s Willow for us.

I started researching the charter law. We’d need a not-for-profit organization to run the school. We called the NPO Innovation Schools, but we landed on Willow for the name of the school because the willow tree is Katie’s arboreal spirit: it has roots as deep as its canopy is tall, it’s resilient and strong, and it’s beautiful in all of its seasons. Our original big idea was preK-12, but later on, wiser, more experienced advisors would recommend, rightly, that we focus on grades 6-8.

I wrote the bylaws for the new organization and we convened a small board of directors, and by spring of 2015, we had a complete, 488-page application, with every detail planned out. In late August, Katie and Dan and I went to Seattle and sat in front of the charter school commission, answering the final questions. The application was approved, and some of the national experts that reviewed it praised it as one of the strongest, most detailed applications they’d ever seen. Then, on September 5, the Supreme Court, in a surprise ruling, overturned the entire charter law and our school was no more. We were about to sign a lease on a building. In fact, it was sitting on my desk. Katie and I were in Staples when we got the call. We’d been a charter school for only 13 days.

Katie spent the winter and spring of 2016 working with other lobbyists to get a new, and the commission allowed our prior approval to stand. We were back in business, so to speak. We landed an opportunity to lease the old Ace of Clubs building, but the costs to rehabilitate it and bring it up to school codes climbed to seven figures and we had to abandon the project. Tom Watson worked with us diligently, but he’d also warned us that if we couldn’t figure out how to bring it up to habitable condition, he’d probably just plow it under. If you’ve driven by the site on Tietan, you know how that story ends.

With our facilities plans scrapped, we had to delay opening for another year, so we’d lost all of 2016 to creating a new, acceptable law, and all of 2017 to a failed facility search. Already families were discouraged. So were the founders. But we picked ourselves up, dusted off our jeans, and…

I have to digress here. This is a story about why we do what we do, not how. The How is important, for sure, but without a strong reason WHY, everything we do is busy work. We raise our kids because we love them. We work because we want to support our families and give them a better life. We marry for love. And so, for Willow, we do it because we HAVE to. It’s a calling. Katie has her own reasons, but my WHY can best be told by a simple story; a story that doesn’t explain everything, but gives an idea of how something like Willow takes on a life of its own.

Early on, in 2014, in that first year of wild ideas, I was teaching Introduction to Business in the penitentiary. The inmates can take college classes and get their A.A. degree while they’re inside. Higher education is one of the major factors in reducing recidivism (the rate at which people show back up in prison after release). The only factors with greater effect on recidivism are age (as you get older, you just stop being as reckless) and a strong spiritual program. I was teaching business and using project-based learning (PBL—one of the core philosophies of Willow, not coincidentally). The project for that class was a business plan. My only criteria was that it pass the Sunshine Lady test. The college classes were funded by Doris Buffett, sister of Warren Buffet, through her Sunshine Foundation (how that came to be is another great story) and so I told the guys, if Doris comes to observe (which she did about once a year) and she sees what were doing and asks to see your business plan, it better not make her blush or wonder why she’s funding this class. There were always some questionable plans and many good ones, but often there were brilliant ones, like the guy who created a detailed plan to buy wrecked cars, fix them up, and then sell them on credit to people who couldn’t afford a car or get financing from other places. I hope he went on to do that we when he was released.

...if there’d been a school like that back when I was a kid, I wouldn’t be in prison now.

I always do the assignments right along with my students under the philosophy that I would never ask them to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself. They asked me, “Dr. Cooke, what are you working on?” I told them that I was working on a business plan for not-for-profit, a charter school that was project-based and bilingual and fun and interesting and engaging and compassionate and suddenly one guy stood up, and then another, and then the first guy was kind of trembling and I was a bit taken aback, until he said — and I’ll never, ever forget this, word for word — “Dr. Cooke, if there’d been a school like that back when I was a kid, I wouldn’t be in prison now.”

That was it. I knew we had to make Willow a reality. It was no longer a dream or an idea. It was a mandate.

Bone marrow cancer took me out of the picture in 2018, but Dan and Katie found our current location in the spring. It took a ton of money to put in the sprinkler systems required by law, but a lot of generous donors who believe in the school helped us out. We opened the doors to the first group of Willow scholars in August of 2018.

After a year of chemotherapy and a complete stem-cell transplant (what a great science project THAT would be!) my cancer is in full remission, and I’m back on the board. I’m so happy to be a part of this great team of teachers, administrators, volunteers, and students. I was marveling just this morning about where I was 19 years ago when I first started journaling every morning, and wondering what I might be writing 19 years from now, and I wrote this: We’re celebrating Willow School’s 20th anniversary.

That’s enough to keep me going.

David Mumm