Charter school law, health code and ethics violations. What was happening at Wonderland?

Wonderland Charter School, located at 2112 Sandy Drive in Ferguson Township, closed its doors on July 31 after its board voluntarily surrendered its charter.
Wonderland Charter School, located at 2112 Sandy Drive in Ferguson Township, closed its doors on July 31 after its board voluntarily surrendered its charter. Centre Daily Times, file

Presenting his findings to the board Monday night, State College Area School District solicitor Scott Etter painted a troublesome picture of the policies and programming at the former Wonderland Charter School.

Etter said his updated report, which is not yet finalized, further supports the conclusions he shared with the board in June that Wonderland had systemic and long-term shortcomings in the area of special needs. The charter school, he said, actively took steps to discriminate against students who needed special education services and preclude them from those services in order to save costs.

Wonderland on July 31 voluntarily surrendered its charter and closed its doors, after the board voted on June 4, based upon Etter’s recommendation, to initiate the non-renewal/revocation process after finding charter law violations.

As a public charter school, Wonderland was held to the same Department of Education and legal standards as other Pennsylvania public schools.

Etter’s updated report gave a more detailed look into the allegations against the Ferguson Township-based charter school and some of its administrators.

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With very few exceptions, the report found that Wonderland did not identify students in any other disability categories or provide Individual Education Programs for those other than in speech and language impairment, which is considered a low-risk, high-return category.

The report found the school overidentified those students by as much as 1,000 percent, while failing to identify students in any other disability category for at least a three-year span.

The report was based upon information gathered by the district through inquiries and Right to Know requests, as well as through interviews with 16 people associated with Wonderland, including board members, teachers and parents.

Through the investigation, Etter also found evidence that Wonderland had several policies and procedures in place to keep parents, teachers and the public from knowing what was going on with the special education programming.

Some examples detailed by the report include:

  • The “Wonderland model” of constant turnover meant there was an influx of young and inexperienced teachers who might not know any better or be there long enough to understand what was transpiring.

  • Parents were dissuaded from enrolling students with medication or potential special education plan needs.

  • Multiple teachers described a policy where they were precluded from being friends with or socializing with parents of students. If they did, they were threatened with termination.

  • Teachers described not being permitted to speak with parents at student drop-off or pickup, other than to say “hello.” Some said they were told to “literally shove” a parent back into the car if they got out.

  • Multiple parents described not being told what was actually going on with their child’s learning and development, but being painted only a rosy picture.

  • Teachers described not being permitted to use or even have email as a means of avoiding keeping record of communications.

From site visits and conversations with board members and administrators, Etter said they identified at least one student who had “unquestioned” special needs and was not receiving the proper eduction services. In another instance, the report found that a teacher’s concerns about a kindergarten student in need of special education for reading were ignored by the school’s administrators.

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Additionally, Wonderland was found in 2013 to be out of compliance in 56 of 869 special education areas by the education department and in violation of state health code for not employing a school dentist or requiring regular examinations.

The report also found possible ethics violations with administrators and business practices. In one example, Etter says the lead teacher served as a board member and as a paid employee, in violation of Pennsylvania statute, and, according to meeting minutes, participated in a board meeting about bonuses for employees, then voted to approve a $16,000 bonus for herself.

Wonderland officials did not respond to a request for comment Monday, but said in a release on July 31 that the decision to give up the charter was due to “increasingly numerous costly and time-consuming requests, as well as intrusive, harassing and redundant inspections,” from the district as part of the charter renewal process.

Once the SCASD board voted to initiate the charter non-renewal/revocation process, a legal hearing was set for July 2, where Wonderland officials would have had the chance to address the accusations. However, the court date was postponed and never rescheduled.

Wonderland had 79 students and 12 teachers at the time of its closure.

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.