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VOA, supporters state cases at WALA public hearing

Worthington Area Language Academy

WORTHINGTON -- The Worthington Area Language Academy school board outlined its plan for school improvement during a public meeting Thursday, saying members would increase parent participation, elect all new board members and nix seventh- and eighth-grade instruction to focus on K-6 academics.

WALA administrators requested the meeting after learning last month its sponsor, Volunteers of America-Minnesota, did not plan to renew its contract with the school. An independent group will evaluate the school next week; VOA staff will review those findings and make their final decision before June 2.

VOA representatives began by presenting their reasons for wanting to close the K-8 dual immersion charter school. Justin Testerman, VOA-Minnesota's director of educational programming, explained how the school was evaluated periodically to determine if it was meeting contract specifications in the areas of academic achievement, finance and school governance.

He said the school had shown a repeated failure to meet the required student performance level since it was founded in 2005. WALA lacks English Language Learner and Title 1 programs, students don't have sufficient Spanish-language curriculum and the school has been ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

"We also found the school performed poorly in school-specific goals of peacekeeping," he added.

Molly McGraw Healy showed the parents and community members gathered at the school graphs comparing WALA student performance on state standardized tests with that of Hispanic children in District 518 and other charter schools in the state.

On math and reading tests administered in 2009, "WALA is being outperformed by quite a margin by District 518," Healy said. "And this is not a one-time anomaly; we also looked at 2008."

Testerman said main financial concerns dealt with the board's oversight of school finances. The school's fund balance has decreased 49 percent in the past year, and VOA has received several vendor complaints of past-due invoices. The board lacks necessary business skills and its members have high turnover rates and poor attendance -- VOA has not been impressed with the board's efforts to improve in those areas.

"We feel like the school misrepresented what was happening in a number of areas," continued Testerman, citing amount of teacher preparation time, the absence of background checks for some staff members and other issues dating back five years. "We just feel like we have not seen adequate improvement over that time."

Following VOA's PowerPoint presentation, WALA board member Haley Tollefson detailed the board's plan to address those deficiencies.

"We were informed of an amendment passed in the state legislature that may allow us to find a new authorizer," she explained. "We intend to pursue this procedure because we believe our school has the ability to improve."

She questioned the test data presented, asserting no school in Minnesota had the same demographics as WALA, a district in which English is not spoken in the vast majority of student households.

"We also feel that there have been inconsistencies in the evaluation process," Tollefson continued, saying a visit earlier in the year commended the school's progress, and calling the non-renewal decision resulting from VOA's latest site visit "impulsive."

The plan's highlights include purchasing Spanish-language curriculum, increasing instruction time, limiting class size to 18 students and ensuring test results are reported to the board on a quarterly basis.

The board would also increase accountability for the school's director Tonja Cantu, aim to step up parent participation and improve teacher training --especially for teachers from foreign countries who don't understand how U.S. schools operate.

Lastly, there would be a complete turnover of board members and all new members would be elected; the board has already tabbed local pediatrician Dr. Basel Bardan, La Voz Hispana magazine owner Juan Bonilla and Rep. Rod Hamilton to advise or serve.

"To allow the school to simply close would not be to uphold our belief as educators," she finished.

Teachers, parents and community members were all offered a chance to address VOA staff.

"When I speak to the parents and I ask, 'How do you feel?' They are all very happy with WALA," said Josefina Montejo, the school's parent liaison and mother of two students there. She said the school created jobs, adding "When you close the school you are not helping the economy in this town."

"WALA is like a family," she continued, fighting back tears. "It's difficult for me because each student is part of my family."

Teacher Janelle McKenzie also spoke, saying a majority of staff has not been at the school since its founding, and many were unaware of the school's tenuous status when they were hired.

"We as teachers teach our students, when you make a mistake, you learn from it, and you move on and you try not to make the same mistake again," she said. "But a lot of us weren't here when those mistakes were made. We have what we have and we work so hard with what we have."

Several parents affirmed their belief in the school's mission and said they were pleased with their children's academic progress.

"I only see problems, I don't see solutions," parent Merido Mazariegos told VOA. "To me, you are closing the doors to education."

Bardan addressed the VOA members, telling them it was their moral responsibility to find a way to continue sponsorship. All Minnesota charter schools must operate under the supervision of a sponsoring or authorizing organization.

"You are right, we failed as a community. But we cannot foreclose on those kids," he said.

Anisabel Palma, one of the school's founders, said it has allowed parents with limited English skills to be involved in their child's education.

"Even with all the problems we've had," she questioned, "Can you imagine what WALA can achieve when the broken is fixed?"