When Erica Williams campaigned for a Lafayette Parish School Board seat in 2014, she often visited Willow Charter Academy.
The charter school, operated by National Heritage Academies, had just opened. The option excited parents who hoped Willow Charter might give their kids a new educational path, perhaps with smaller classes and more focused instruction.
Two years later, things have changed.
Williams said some parents’ initial enthusiasm has given way to frustration over the school’s high teacher turnover rate, concerns about classroom management and Willow Charter’s consistently low academic scores.
“When you bring in educational options, you as a parent are thinking these options are better than what you have,” Williams said. “Now it’s become an option that might be worse.”
In November, the state gave Willow Charter an overall score of 42.8 — a 3.8 point increase from last year, but still low enough to assign the school an “F” grade for the second straight year.
“We’re not satisfied with the progress that we’ve made in the first two years of the charter,” said Todd McKee, NHA’s chief academic officer. “We believe that learning is an adult responsibility. The fact that the students haven’t made as much progress as we would have hoped — it’s on us.”
Willow Charter is in a former Albertsons supermarket on the Evangeline Thruway in north Lafayette, an area that has long struggled with socioeconomic problems and a lack of business development.
Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, has studied NHA schools for years. Miron said based on his research, NHA schools in more affluent areas tend to perform better than ones in locations such as Willow Charter.
Miron attributed the difference not to race or income, but to a scripted academic program by NHA that may not always help students from challenging backgrounds.
“When you come into these high poverty communities, sometimes the kids don’t have as much support, and their learning levels are very different,” Miron said. “It’s much harder to do a scripted lesson when the children have many different needs. Some will require remediation. That’s where you need a teacher who understands that and can manage that.”
McKee admitted Willow Charter has struggled with a high teacher turnover rate in the past two years. The school also recently named a new principal and added another dean, the latest in various administrative changes since 2014.
“We feel really great about the principal we have now,” McKee said. “Both leadership and teacher quality are very important factors. We are working to make improvements there, but we had some issues from the beginning.”
Williams, an education advocate who works with many families, said she’s heard Willow Charter parents discuss concerns about the school losing so many teachers.
“What I’m hearing is that it’s too difficult for a child to learn when, during the course of a year, there are multiple teachers that transition through,” Williams said. “It’s difficult for a child to gain an attachment to a teacher, and that’s something they need.”
Willow Charter did increase its teacher pay this school year, McKee said.
“I don’t think we were compensating our teachers enough,” he said. “We have increased our compensation packages for teachers quite significantly.”
Other changes at Willow Charter include a new optional Saturday school program, daily workshops in core subjects, more reading intervention and regularly monitoring student progress to make quick adjustments as needed.
“Our hope and expectation is increased student performance,” said Nick Sheltrown, NHA’s vice president of analytics and accountability. “We think with additional resources and program changes, we expect to see student learning increase and test scores move up.”
Willow Charter is one of three charter schools that opened in Lafayette Parish in 2014. The other two are operated by Charter Schools USA and have seen improvement.
Acadiana Renaissance Charter Academy in Youngsville rose from a “B” to an “A” this year. Lafayette Renaissance Charter Academy, on Pont des Mouton Road in north Lafayette Parish, improved from a “D” to a “C.”
The efforts to improve Willow Charter appear to be driven by NHA, with minimal involvement from the Louisiana Department of Education or the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which authorized the school’s opening.
The Daily Advertiser submitted several questions to LDOE about Willow Charter, including if the state is working with the operator to improve and officials’ feelings on NHA’s Louisiana operations, which include schools in Baton Rouge and Baker.
In response, LDOE spokesperson Bridget Devlin said the department hopes to see improvement from all schools that received “F” grades this year.
“The advantage of the charter model is that every school is on a contract and charter boards of schools rated ‘F’ at the conclusion of the contract term lose their contract and ability to operate the school,” Devlin said via email. “The school (Willow Charter) opened in 2014, so the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will determine whether to award the extension in the fall of 2017.”
In general, charter schools are operated by a large organization, such as NHA, but managed by a local board. The operator and board make decisions about academics, staffing and other aspects of the school. The school’s authorizer — in this case, BESE — establishes certain academic and organizational standards the school must meet. If that doesn’t happen, the authorizer can opt not to renew the contract, possibly leading to the school’s closure.
Willow Charter was noted in a December report on Louisiana schools that did not meet a state requirement that at least 70 percent of general fund expenditures go toward instruction and school administration.
According to that report, Willow Charter has hired a part-time test coordinator, social worker and two teachers-in-residence to try to meet the requirement.
The same staffing changes were made at Advantage Charter Academy in Baker, another NHA school.
“These additions were made to ensure that Willow and Advantage had the necessary staff to improve academic performance in our school,” the report said. “The school anticipates that these changes will be reflected in the future and will continue to review the effects and allocate resources as needed.”
As of October 2016, Willow Charter had 475 students, its lowest total in at least a year. Minutes show the school has lost an average of about 20 students every two months in the past year.
NHA officials attribute the decline to families moving away and transportation problems. The school does not have a bus system, so parents must get their children to and from campus each day.
At one point, NHA planned for another school in Broussard. Last year, those plans were put on hold indefinitely after the state expressed hesitation about its existing schools. NHA schools in Baton Rouge and Baker have also struggled with academic performance, receiving “D” scores from the state in the past two years.
Not everyone is disappointed with Willow Charter or its operator, though.
Jasmine Calais has a son and nephew who attend the school. Calais said her son previously was in school in St. Martin Parish, where she felt he wasn’t able to realize his potential.
“He has excelled at Willow Charter,” Calais said. “They are hands-on, and their purpose is learning. I really feel from them a desire to make sure every student is where he or she needs to be.”
Calais said it is “shocking” that officials don’t think Willow Charter’s academics are up to par.
“I don’t think they are doing anything wrong,” she said. “Whoever gives the grades needs to check again. It’s very surprising to me that they don’t think their academics are good enough. I’ve never felt that way at all.”
Others are more wary. Williams noted that Lafayette Parish’s two other charter schools have shown higher test scores and steady improvement since they opened.
“I think that the issue with Willow Charter is a management issue,” she said. “Any changes they make are going to have to come from the top down. When you look at its three schools operating in Louisiana, all of them are ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools. Something has to change. Not only is this organization failing Lafayette, but it’s failing Louisiana.”
ABOUT WILLOW CHARTER ACADEMY
Operator: National Heritage Academies
Managed By: Louisiana Achievement Charter Academies Board of Directors
Grades: Kindergarten through seventh
Enrollment: 475 students
Opened: August 2014
Principal: Ronnie Harrison
Dean, Grades 2-3 and Special Education: Jennifer Gordon
Dean, Upper Elementary: Stephanie Jones
(Source: NHA official site for Willow Charter)
CHARTER SCHOOL PERFORMANCE SCORES
Willow Charter Academy
2014-15: 39, F
2015-16: 42.8, F
Lafayette Renaissance Charter Academy
2014-15: 65, D
2015-16: 71.3, C
Acadiana Renaissance Charter Academy
2014-15: 94.4, B
2015-16: 102.7, A
(Source: Louisiana Department of Education)