State College-area charter school closes its doors

The State College Area school board on Monday authorized solicitor Scott Etter to pursue civil action against the former Wonderland Charter School for the return of $49,140 that was to be used this school year.
The State College Area school board on Monday authorized solicitor Scott Etter to pursue civil action against the former Wonderland Charter School for the return of $49,140 that was to be used this school year. Centre Daily Times, file

Just a few weeks before the start of the new school year, Wonderland Charter School in Ferguson Township has decided to close its doors.

The school, located at 2112 Sandy Drive, sent an email out to families of its students Tuesday night, informing them of the decision.

“The Wonderland board of directors was faced with a very difficult decision Monday night,” the email said. “Over the last several months, State College Area School 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.”

The announcement comes after the State College Area school board decided in June to send Wonderland’s request for a new charter to a non-renewal/revocation hearing, after the charter review raised concerns about “systematic” and “institutionalized” failures.

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“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,” SCASD solicitor Scott Etter said at the board’s June 4 meeting. “We believe that these failures are so severe and significant that it is appropriate to initiate the non-renewal/revocation proceeding provided for in the (charter school law) and the Basic Education Circular on Charter Schools.”

During the charter review, several people associated with Wonderland, including board members, teachers and parents, informed the board of directors of their concerns with the charter: “long-standing, calculated, inappropriate, and unlawful practices with respect to students with special needs,” according to a letter to the board from Superintendent Bob O’Donnell.

The three-month review also found issues with student achievement, certification, compensation and staffing, and more:

  • The charter spends far less on program areas, specifically special education, than it receives in funding from SCASD.
  • The education director does not have an administrative certification.
  • Wonderland teachers are the lowest paid in the state, ranking 781st out of the 781 Local Education Agencies.
  • Wonderland’s student performance falls below the district’s on state and national assessments.
  • Its “very scripted” general curriculum resembles what most school districts use as interventions for at-risk learners.

After the board made its decision, a public hearing on the non-renewal and/or revocation of Wonderland’s charter was scheduled for July 2. That hearing got postponed, and a new date had not yet been set.

Hal Ohnmeis, business manager, co-founder and former CEO at Wonderland, said that they were unable to move forward with the hearing because they did not have specific legal charges. Although in the official proceedings invoking non-renewal and/or revocation proceedings, specific statues are outlined.

Ohnmeis told the Centre Daily Times in June that the teachers were underpaid because the school just didn’t have the money, and that SCASD’s review did not account for the bonuses the teachers receive at the end of the year.

As for program funding, Ohnmeis said SCASD mischaracterized how Wonderland uses its special education funds, because the amount of support and/or therapy a student needs varies from each student, as do the associated costs. If not all the special education money allocated for one child is needed, it would go into the general fund.

“This argument about we’re not spending all the money, that’s a ploy that just doesn’t hold water,” Ohnmeis said.

SCASD has reportedly asked Wonderland for information on its “Individualized Education Plans,” which includes students’ benchmark standards, but has been refused by the charter’s CEO, the district said.

Wonderland’s Tuesday email said that due to the raising legal fees, the school of 79 students and 12 teachers had voluntarily decided to turn in its charter and close, effective Tuesday.

“Although we had significant concerns about Wonderland’s educational programming, I sympathize with the families and educators affected by this closure,” O’Donnell said in a release sent by the district on Tuesday. “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.”

Parents of students at the Wonderland Charter School spoke on videos shared through the school's website about their own children's experiences with the school. Parents spoke in support as the school may not receive a charter renewal through SCASD.