Clarifying Willamette Academy concerns

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Clarifying Willamette Academy concerns

8:47 a.m. PST February 22, 2016

Many community members have expressed concerns over the recently announced changes to Willamette Academy in Salem.

We spoke with Adam Torgerson, a spokesperson for Willamette University, over the phone Friday to get some of the community’s concerns clarified.

Q: A letter and petition are being circulated to community members right now. How does the university plan to respond? Will this influence the changes at all?

A: We take all concerns and input from our community very seriously. At the same time, much of the online discussion is based on misinformation, and your questions address some of these issues. For example, program changes will require more contribution from the university – not less; this isn’t a cost-saving measure. We will continue to meet the full financial need for all current academy students who attend Willamette.

The changes reflect our recognition that, for most students, the current program isn’t working. We have a responsibility to the students in the program and to make these changes, because the revised program will be better designed to enable academy students to succeed in college.

Q: Is it true that the academy staff are unable to comment on the subject at this time and is it true they were asked not to attend the information session on Feb. 6?  

A: Community members are free to comment as individuals, but it is important to be clear that they are not commenting on behalf of the academy or university. The meeting was scheduled to have a conversation with Willamette Academy families about changes to the program and to help them sign up for AVID services available through a renewed partnership between the university and the Salem/Keizer School District.

Q: How was the space decided on for the meeting on Feb. 6?

A: Because the Feb. 6 session was intended for families in the program, it was initially scheduled in the same room in which families usually meet for workshops: Ford Hall’s Kremer Board Room. As staff heard more that more people planned to attend, they reserved the theater room, because it held twice as many people and was in the same building as the regular family meeting room.

Q: Why are the current students not being grandfathered into the new program, reducing the size of the students down over a few years?

A: Continuing to run an ineffective program would be irresponsible. The new program represents a much more significant investment in each student, requiring tough decisions about how many people we’re able to enroll and support responsibly. And to be clear, Willamette is “grandfathering” all current academy students into our scholarship commitment. If they subsequently enroll, we will meet their full financial need; over four years, that’s an average of $160,000 per student.

Q: Did a specific donor’s recent contribution prompt these changes at this particular time?

A: I’ve found no information supporting such a claim, and we wouldn’t make this decision on that basis. There was a donor with an education background who offered to finance an external evaluation. We didn’t take them up on the offer.

Q: That you know of, have there been any organized, community-lead responses to the academy in the past? — in response to other changes? Other directors? Issues happening at the academy?

A: This is the most systematic program change and response to date.

Q: Is it true the academy went without any director for a year? If so, when was that and why was that?

A: No. Here are the employment dates for past directors back to 2010:

  • Michele Gray, 8/2010 – 10/2014
  • Joshua Bilbrew, 11/2014 – 3/2015
  • Robert Jones, 4/2015 – 8/2015
  • Jacqueline Rushing, 12/15 – Present

In fall 2015, Rita Moore acted as College of Liberal Arts liaison for the program while a task force considered recommendations based on Moore’s program review. In December, Rita Moore became the Associate Director and Jacqueline Rushing became the Interim Executive Director.

Q: What if an academy student, under the new model, is unable to attend last minute Willamette University due to whatever change of heart or emergency situation — what are the repercussions? 

A: The only impact on such a student will be missing out on the many benefits offered by the program, including a Willamette caliber education, two years of support once they are in college and more than $160,000 in direct scholarship support to attend the university — the amount  provided on average to current academy alumni attending Willamette for four years. This is really a university commitment to meet the full financial need of participating students and families.

Just to be clear, the new program’s initial cohorts will comprise students from the current program, and Willamette will meet the full financial need of all current program participants who enroll at Willamette regardless of whether they participate in the new program.

We want to attract students interested in attending Willamette specifically, because we will have a two-year support program designed to help them succeed. This support program is not only key to academy students’ success at Willamette, it will likely inform our support and retention initiatives for all students.

Q: Some think the eighth and ninth graders will not get the help they need and may fall through the cracks. Do you know what experts are saying about this? 

A: We have actual outcome information here that Rushing’s program works really well for tenth grade and up. We initially considered starting with ninth graders, but when we spoke to the district, they preferred to break at tenth grade to better transition students with the AVID programs. “Going back earlier” is always an argument people could make. We have demonstrable evidence this model works and we have an obligation to go where the evidence lies.

Q: Have the Willamette Academy changes been voted on/approved or are they proposed changes? If they are proposed changes, when would they be finalized, should they be finalized?

A: The new program is the result of considerable study, consultation with the local school district and the expert guidance of Jacqueline Rushing. We are confident it will serve academy students well. Vice President of Academic Affairs Marlene Moore is responsible for the program. At the same time, all programs are subject to change based on new information or feedback. While maintaining the status quo would be easy, it’s not responsible. We are focused on leveraging the exceptional experience and expertise of academy leaders to move forward with the new program.

npate@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6745, or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate or http://www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist 

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