Willow Charter Academy ready to open Monday

The shell of what was once a grocery store opens Monday to feed some new customers — 481 students and their parents as Willow Charter Academy.

“The Albertson’s is gone,” quipped Willow Principal Melissa Jones Clarke on a recent tour of the school. Overhead, natural light poured through skylights hoisted above the school’s main corridors. Brightly colored hallways and classrooms now fill the building, which features a nearly 4,200-square-foot gym that doubles as a school auditorium and cafeteria. The school also has a dedicated parent room — for parents to meet and check out resources to help their children with homework. The school has separate playground areas for the younger and older students in a courtyard area adjacent to its neighbor — the Northgate Mall.

Clarke said the school met its target of 480 students — plus one — in kindergarten through fifth grade and has a waiting list at each grade level. Next year, it will add sixth grade and continue to add grade levels each year to become a K-8 school. Classrooms for the younger students are connected by Jack-and-Jill bathrooms as a convenience. As the school grows, the older students will move to their own wing in a building that’s already prepped with lockers and an environment separate from the younger students.

“This is a new environment and a whole new curriculum that I’m eager to work with. There’s a good structure here,” said Kimberly Cahee, a second-grade teacher. Cahee previously taught at a private school.

Cahee and third-grade teacher Amber Fontenot both opted to enroll their children at the school. Cahee’s son, Isaiah, 7, previously attended public school and Fontenot’s daughter, Ava, 9, previously attended a local Catholic school.

“There’s a lot of excitement about the school, and parents have been impressed by the materials,” Fontenot said. “I’m excited to see how these new programs help our students succeed.”

The opening of Willow and two other charter schools on Monday marks a first for Lafayette Parish — the advent of schools overseen by for-profit, charter school management companies. Charter schools are public schools and may be managed by nonprofit or for-profit groups. Like traditional public schools, the charter schools receive state funding to cover their operations. In the case of Willow, that funding coupled with federal grants wasn’t enough to get it started in its first year. Its management company, National Heritage Academies, contributed $862,340 to help balance its first-year budget of $6.1 million.

The school is managed by NHA in partnership with a regional school board, Louisiana Achievement Charter Academies, which includes two Lafayette members. The board also oversees Advantage Charter Academy in Baker.

“The services agreement between NHA and the school calls for all of the revenue the school receives to go to NHA,” said Jennifer Hoff, NHA senior communications manager. “For this fee, NHA will pay for and provide the full educational program for the school, including hiring staff, building and maintaining a building, and purchasing supplies and materials.”

The company makes a profit on operations only if there’s money left over. For this first year, operations were at a deficit that NHA eats.

Hoff said it’s not unusual for NHA to make a contribution to help one of its schools in its first year.

“NHA will continue to make this type of a contribution until there is enough revenue to cover the full cost of our model,” Hoff explained.

The school’s budget includes $4.5 million in state funds and $465,485 in federal grants. More than $260,000 is anticipated in private sources — a large chunk of that, $250,000, is from a Walton Family Foundation grant the school expects to receive, Hoff said. The remaining $10,000 is anticipated in meal payments from parents for school lunches, she said.

As part of the NHA management model, the school isn’t owned by the local school board. The board leases the building for $978,560 annually from an NHA affiliate, Charter Development Company. About $146,000 is paid to NHA’s real estate department to cover the overhead costs for the acquisition of the property, Hoff said.

About half of the school’s budget is paying for instructional-related expenses, such as salaries and benefits of teachers and other staff who work with students, teaching supplies, software, equipment and related instructional materials.

The school’s board receives about $35,000 that it may allocate for school or board needs, Hoff said.

“The LACA Board is already planning to use these funds for professional development opportunities, including a session with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, to develop their governance and to hold NHA accountable,” Hoff said. “Additionally, the board will likely invest in other opportunities for students, such as after-school programming, based on student need and community desires.”