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Wonderland Charter School Is Closing, SCASD Says

by on July 31, 2018 7:31 PM

Wonderland Charter School in Ferguson Township has decided to close, according to an announcement on Tuesday night from State College Area School District.

The district said that the Sandy Drive school has voluntarily shut down operations, before public hearings that were expected to be held this summer to decide if it would retain its charter.

Wonderland business manager and former CEO Hal Ohnmeis could not be reached for comment on Tuesday night. Ohnmeis and his wife, Marilyn, who served as educational director, founded Wonderland as a kindergarten and preschool in the early 1990s before beginning efforts to make it a charter school in 1998. SCASD rejected their request at the time, but that was overturned on appeal by the state in a case that lasted until 2002.

State College Area School Board voted on 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 public hearing was originally scheduled for July 2 but then delayed by the board. A new date had not yet been announced.

Last year 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 says Wonderland also was 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.

He added that the school refused to respond to some requests for information.

O'Donnell said in a statement on Tuesday that district administrators had continued to investigate and also had identified new concerns.

He said that the district's schools have room for students displaced by Wonderland's reported closure. Wonderland had an enrollment of 79 students, 48 of whom reside in the State College Area School District.

 

“Although we had significant concerns about Wonderland’s educational programming, I sympathize with the families and educators affected by this closure,” O’Donnell said. “For the families who reside in the State College Area School District, we have space for all of your children, and our district is ready to welcome you. I have asked Vernon Bock, our assistant superintendent of elementary education, to be the contact for any questions. He will be happy to arrange school tours and help each family work through its before, during and after school needs to experience a successful transition.”

 

Ohnmeis told StateCollege.com in June that the district had not produced, as required by state law, specific charges and how statutes and school codes were violated.

"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?" he said.

A district spokesman pointed to the official resolution invoking revocation proceedings and noted that specific statutes were cited. 

Ohnmeis also said at the June 4 board 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. 

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

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

Numerous parents also spoke at the June board meeting, 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 that they said SCASD schools could not provide.

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."

The district release said parents with questions about enrolling students in SCASD schools can contact Bock at at 814-231-1042 or [email protected]. Student registration information is also available at www.scasd.org/registration or by calling 814-231-1017.

Other charter schools within SCASD boundaries are Centre Learning Community Charter School, Nittany Valley Charter School, Young Scholars Charter School of Central Pennsylvania. Multiple cyber charter schools also are available.



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