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State College Area Might Not Renew Charter for Wonderland Charter School

by on June 05, 2018 10:09 AM

State College Area School Board will begin proceedings to determine whether to renew the charter for Wonderland Charter School after a district review allegedly found "systemic, institutionalized and long-standing" failures.

Wonderland requested in 2017 the third five-year renewal of its charter from the district, which under state law reviews operations and grants renewals for charter schools in its area. 

Board members voted unanimously at a special meeting on Monday night to "initiate non-renewal and/or revocation proceedings against Wonderland." The first hearing will be held on July 2.

When Wonderland submitted its request for renewal, the district began its normal review of operations. But district solicitor Scott Etter said that in the course of that process, administrators were contacted, unsolicited, by former board members and teachers and parents of current and former Wonderland students.

Etter said the information those people provided led the review team to take a closer look at some areas and that it found 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.

"These failures, in the area of special education in particular, are systemic, institutionalized, and long-standing, and were put in place and are enforced by Wonderland leadership, to include its founder, former CEO, and current business administrator; its education director; its current CEO; and its other lead teacher," Etter said. "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."

In a letter to the board, Superintendent Bob O'Donnell said that families and former faculty members "outlined long-standing, calculated, inappropriate, and unlawful practices with respect to students with special needs."

The review also found alleged failures in a number of other areas, which according to the district included:

- Wonderland’s student performance falls well below district performance on state and national assessments.

- The school's education director does not have an administration certification, which appears to be required by the Department of Education.

- Teachers are the lowest paid in the state, and the school's average years of experience for classroom teachers, 3.6, is in the bottom 2 percent.

- Wonderland spends less on programs, specifically special education, than it receives from the district. Its costs in other areas, including salaries and benefits, are not commensurate with financial contributions from the district.

- The school's curriculum is "very scripted" and "resembles what most school districts use as interventions for at-risk learners."

O'Donnell's letter said that the district has asked multiple times for information on Wonderland's Differentiated Education Plans which include student learning toward the school's benchmark standards, but the school's CEO, Kelly Raudabaugh, has refused to respond.

The district found that on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment for grades 3 to 5 in 2017, Wonderland's pass rate was 20 percent lower in math than the district and 4 percent lower than the state pass rate. Reading was 6 percent lower than the district pass rate, but 12 percent higher than the state pass rate.

Wonderland, the district says, also is not following mandated  protocols for identifying students with limited English proficiency.

Additionally, according to O'Donnell's letter, in the past five years the school appears not to have provided special education services, other than for speech and language impairment, to any students. 

O'Donnell's letter said that visits to the school by board members and administrators "resulted in observations of questionable practices in a public school." That included students in reading lessons that were multiple grade levels below the age-appropriate placement, which the letter said "indicates a pattern of underachievement that strongly suggests the presence of a condition or factor that is interfering with learning, including a learning disability."

Numerous parents, however, spoke at Monday night's special meeting, urging the board to renew Wonderland's charter and explaining how the school helped their children in ways SCASD's schools could not.

Chiara Gillespie, parent of Wonderland students, said one of her two children first attended a SCASD school that "failed him." 

"Your school district doesn't have the teachers, nor the time for one-on-one and Wonderland does with every student," she said, adding that each child receives personalized curriculum that helps them succeed at Wonderland and when they continue on to SCASD middle schools.

Wonderland was founded by Marilyn L. Ohnmeis, who is now educational director, as a kindergarten and preschool in the 1990s. When the state passed its Charter School Law, she and her husband, Hal Ohnmeis, sought to make it a charter school in 1998. SCASD rejected their request at the time but that was overturned by the state on appeal.

Hal Ohnmeis, who previously served as CEO and is now listed as business manager, spoke at Monday's meeting and said that over the past 20 years, faces on the board have changed but "the interesting thing is the rhetoric and the ideological hatred is always the same."

Ohnmeis said that some of the issues being raised now are the same ones raised by the district in the early 2000s. He said a court found then that a non-compete clause in teacher contracts -- something raised in the current review -- was not overreaching. He added that he and an auditing firm were "slandered" by prior board members who accused him of financial impropriety.

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.

"Watch how you do things," he concluded in his remarks to the board. "It could backlash on you."

The homepage of the Wonderland website currently 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 29, Wonderland had an enrollment of 79 students, 48 of whom reside in the State College Area School District.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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