Parents explore charter school option

The lack of racial diversity at her daughter’s school drew Robin Thomas to a meeting Tuesday to learn more about Willow Charter Academy, one of three new elementary charter schools set to open in Lafayette Parish in August.

Her daughter, Rhyanni, turned five in December and attends preschool at J.W. Faulk Elementary, about a mile from the potential location of Willow Charter.

“Her teachers are good teachers, but I’m looking for more diversity for her,” said Thomas, who is black. “It’s predominantly a black school. I’m considering starting her off at kindergarten there because I want her school years to be more diverse.”

Willow Charter Academy, which will be managed by a Michigan charter school management company, National Heritage Academies, held informational sessions Tuesday in Lafayette.

More than 20 adults — some accompanied by their children — attended the first of two planned sessions Tuesday at the Clifton Chenier Center.

As of Tuesday, Willow Charter Academy had received more than 100 applications, said Susan Machiela, NHA admissions manager.

She said just under 500 spots are available at the school for students in grades K-5.

“There are a limited number of classes at each grade level,” Machiela told parents.

A lottery system will be used to select students if applications exceed the 492 available seats. If a lottery isn’t needed, students who apply after the application period has ended will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, Machiela said.

Machiela and Tamika Draper, director of school quality for National Heritage Academies, fielded questions about transportation, meals, music and sports programs and student assessments during the afternoon session Tuesday.

The school day will run from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., with before-school care offered at 6 a.m. and after-school care provided until 6 p.m., though the school will work with parents, Draper said.

The school will open in August for grades kindergarten through five and add a grade level each year through grade eight.

The school’s calendar will closely follow the Lafayette Parish School System calendar, but won’t be exact due to professional development days the school system may schedule, Draper said.

“We try to follow as close as possible because we know parents have children at other schools,” she said.

Special education services will be provided based on the needs of enrolled students, Draper said.

Machiela said no transportation will be provided but the schools work with families to help coordinate carpools.

The exact location of the school has not been released because contracts are not yet finalized, but it will be near Northgate Mall in an existing building that will be renovated, Machiela said.

Angie Alexander was among parents filling out an application Tuesday, She wants her first grader to attend Willow Charter. Her daughter now attends Alice Boucher Elementary.

“I’d like my other daughter to go, but she’s going to sixth and they’re only doing through fifth grade next year,” Alexander said.

Alexander said she’s happy with her daughter’s education at Boucher, but is interested in the charter school option.

“It’s different and I’m willing to try it,” she said. “I feel it’s a better opportunity for her.”

Boucher is less than a mile from the proposed Willow Charter site and J.W. Faulk is about a mile away. Both schools have low performance scores, based on state accountability rankings.

The schools’ low performance scores were used by charter school organizers and supporters last year to advocate for the need for more school options for parents in north Lafayette.

Two more elementary charter schools — managed by a different company, Florida-based Charter Schools USA — will also open in August. One of those schools is a few miles from Willow Charter and the other is in Youngsville.

Thomas and Alexander both said their neighborhood schools’ performance scores weren’t what led them to learn more about Willow Charter.

Thomas said she was attracted by the charter school’s intensive parental outreach and its moral focus program which helps build student character and responsibility. Each NHA school surveys parents twice a year for their feedback on various aspects of school-level and teacher performance, Machiela told parents.

Based on the survey, 92 percent of parents believe NHA provided the best academic program in the area and 93 percent of families were satisfied with their school experience.