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Hearing on Wonderland Charter renewal postponed

by on July 06, 2018 9:16 AM

STATE COLLEGE — The first public hearing on whether State College Area School District will renew the charter for Wonderland Charter School has been delayed.

State College Area School Board voted June 4 to initiate "non-renewal and/or revocation proceedings against Wonderland," after a review of the school allegedly found "systemic, institutionalized and long-standing" failures. The first hearing had been scheduled for June 25.

That's now been postponed until a date to be determined.

A district spokesman initially said he thought the delay came at the request of Wonderland. He later clarified the district postponed the hearing "because of a variety of constraints, including the schedules of the hearing officer and board members." 

However, Hal Ohnmeis, who previously served as Wonderland CEO and is now business manager, said in an email that he believes the district is unable at this time to present the specific charges against the school required under Pennsylvania law to initiate the hearing.

"The hearing cannot proceed under PA law with vague generalities like Wonderland violated special education laws," Ohnmeis wrote. "SCASD must present specific statutes that were violated and the who, what, when and where. They haven't been able (or aren't willing) to produce the specific charges. ... So, the interesting question is why did SCASD slam Wonderland with all those horrendous statements, but isn't able to draft the charges with the specifics the law requires? One would think SCASD would have had to done that step first before the accusations were let loose."

In 2017, the school began the process to seek its third five-year charter renewal from the district, which under state law reviews operations and grants renewals for charter schools in its area. The district undertook its normal review process, and district solicitor Scott Etter said that administrators were contacted, unsolicited, by former board members and teachers and parents of current and former Wonderland students. The information those people provided led the review team to take a closer look at some areas.

Etter said Wonderland, located on Sandy Drive in Ferguson Township, has not complied with requirements of the Charter School Law as well as other statutes and regulations, particularly in the area of special education.

"We believe that these failures are so severe and significant that it is appropriate to initiate the nonrenewal/revocation proceeding provided for in the CSL and the Basic Education Circular on Charter Schools," he said.

Superintendent Bob O'Donnell outlined other alleged failures, including performance on state and national assessments, average teacher pay and experience and the school's curriculum, which was "very scripted" and "resembles what most school districts use as interventions for at-risk learners." He also said the school's expenses are not commensurate with the money it receives from the district.

The district said Wonderland also is not following mandated protocols for identifying students with limited English proficiency; appears not to have provided special education services, other than for speech and language impairment, to any students in the past five years; and that the review team observed students in reading lessons that were multiple grade levels below the age-appropriate placement.

Numerous parents spoke urging the board to renew Wonderland's charter and explaining how the school helped their children in ways SCASD's schools could not.

They cited Wonderland's one-on-one instruction and personalized curriculum, which they said SCASD schools could not provide.

Ohnmeis said at the meeting that some of the issues being raised now are the same as those raised in the late 1990s and early 2000s when SCASD rejected the school's initial request for a charter. That denial was eventually overturned by the state.

He said that despite the district's fight against granting the charter initially, a case that went on until 2002, district administrators have found no violations to cite in subsequent renewals of the charter.

Ohnmeis said that since its founding, Wonderland has been working to keep children from falling through the cracks and to reach their potential.

The homepage of the Wonderland website contains an open letter to SCASD and video testimonials from more than 20 parents.

"Wonderland Charter School is not in competition to replace the State College Area School District (SCASD)," the letter states. "Rather, we are and have been a supplement to SCASD and the Centre Region school districts for the last 20 years. Not every single child out of the roughly 13,000 Centre Region students will fit into the educational mold offered by the districts. And, it is all about a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). For those children that do not fit well at a district, Wonderland Charter School offers the parents a viable alternative within the public school realm.

"Wonderland Charter School is not just a school, it is a unique educational setting that feels like home! The needs of the parents and children should weigh in your decision to renew Wonderland Charter School’s charter."

As of March, Wonderland had an enrollment of 79 students, 48 of whom reside in the State College Area School District.


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