State College Area School District solicitor Scott Etter, in an update to the school board on Monday, outlined a long list of alleged violations and failings at the now-closed Wonderland Charter School.
The Ferguson Township charter school voluntarily closed on July 31, eight weeks after the school board voted to initiate "non-renewal and/or revocation proceedings against Wonderland" as a result of "systemic, institutionalized and longstanding" failures allegedly uncovered during a review for the school's charter renewal.
“Wonderland, we had substantive information at that point in time, was taking active steps to preclude and discriminate against potential students who had special education and other needs," Etter said on Monday. "It was taking action with respect to students who were enrolled at Wonderland to ensure … that they would not receive programs and services that would cost Wonderland additional money but were nonetheless needed.”
Etter said some areas of the review are complete while others remain open, but, he said, findings have further supported the initial conclusions. The review included information supplied by Wonderland in response to inquiries and Right to Know Law requests, information gathered by district administrators during the initial stages of the charter renewal request, and interviews with parents, teachers and a former Wonderland board member.
A public charter school, Wonderland was required to comply with most of the same laws and regulations as public schools.
In his update, Etter said Wonderland did not, with very few exceptions, identify students with special needs or provide Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in any category except for speech and language impairment. The school overidentified, based on what would be expected for its size, speech or language impairment by as much as 1000 percent, according to the update.
Etter said he did not find that surprising because speech language is a low-cost but high-return category. The school, however, did not identify students in any other disability category over a three-year period.
Wonderland, Etter alleged, had institutionalized methods to avoid enrolling or identifying students with special needs, to avoid having IEPs and incurring the costs associated with delivering the programs and services that would be required.
According to the update, some of those practices allegedly included:
- The "Wonderland model" of constant teacher turnover, which resulted in lower salary expenditures, as well as "an influx of young and inexperienced teachers, who are not in a position to know any better, say anything, or be there longer enough to really grasp what is transpiring."
- Parents were dissuaded from enrolling students with medication needs or potential IEP needs. The parent of a prospective student reportedly told the district that Wonderland's CEO said the school does not administer medication or believe in medicating children, and that the school did not like to have IEPs because "they restrain us in what we like to do to help the child."
- Multiple teachers reported a policy where they were precluded from being friends or socializing with parents of students. The teachers said the policy was under the guise of maintaining confidentiality but that they believed it was to prevent them from telling parents "what Wonderland was really like." Teachers were threatened with termination if they violated the policy.
- Teachers described staff meetings prior to parent-teacher conferences where they were told, if a parent asked about a child struggling or the need for an IEP, to say the child was progressing, needed more confidence or needed more practice. If that was not sufficient, they were told to stop the meeting and get an administrator to talk to the parents.
- Teachers described not being permitted to speak with parents, other than to say "hello," at pick-up and drop-off, and "being told to literally shove a parent back into a car if they got out." Teachers said they were told this was to protect Wonderland from liability, but that they believed it was so they would not converse openly with parents.
- Multiple parents reported not being told what was really happening with their children and only being given a "rosy picture."
- Teachers described not being able to use, or even have, email so as to avoid having a record of communication.
District administrators and board members on a site visit observed students who had obvious special needs and were not receiving the needed services, Etter said. Teachers reported that for one of those students, administrators said the student would be in a life skills classroom at any other school. In another case, a teacher allegedly said his or her concerns about a kindergarten student were ignored.
Etter said that in Wonderland's 2013 Special Education Compliance Monitoring, the Pennsylvania Department of Education found the school was out of compliance in 56 of 869 areas reviewed. The school district, meanwhile, was found to be 100 percent compliant.
For the 2016-17 school year, the Pennsylvania Department of Health found Wonderland was non-compliant with code because it failed to employ the services of a school dentist, and failed to complete all of the required dental examinations for the mandated grades.
Etter raised several ethical concerns, including a 10-year lease Wonderland signed with a for-profit corporation owned by the school's founders, Hal and Marilyn Ohnmeis, who most recently served as business manager and educational director, respectively. He also said the district had concerns about a lead teacher also serving on the school's board who he said appeared to have participated in discussions about employee bonuses then voted to approve a $16,970 bonus for herself.
In addition to the SCASD's ongoing review, the district is awaiting Department of Education reports from its target monitoring and ESL assessment. Etter said he believes there will be "significant areas of non-compliance identified" in those reports.
In June, the district 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." The report at the time also said the school's expenses are not commensurate with the money it receives from the district; that Wonderland was not following mandated protocols for identifying students with limited English proficiency; and that the review team observed students in reading lessons that were multiple grade levels below the age-appropriate placement.
In the announcement of its closure in July, Wonderland said the district "has continued to inundate Wonderland with increasingly numerous costly and time consuming requests, as well as intrusive, harassing and redundant inspections. All the while, refusing to present specific charges allowing the legal renewal proceedings to continue.”
Prior to its closure, the first public hearing on Wonderland's charter revocation was scheduled for July 2. That hearing was postponed and a new date had yet to be announced.
Etter said on Monday that Wonderland would still be provided an opportunity to answer the allegations.
Wonderland had an enrollment of 79 students, 48 of whom reside in the State College Area School District, as of the spring.