Iris Valley Charter School withdraws application to school board to refine plan

A Salem tutor has withdrawn her application to the Salem-Keizer School District to form a new charter school following district officials’ concerns over the plan and fundraising challenges.

The tutor, Karen O’Connell, and a district spokesperson confirmed the developments the same week the Salem-Keizer School Board was set to have the Iris Valley Charter School proposal on its meeting agenda Jan. 24. 

“There’s just some pieces that need to be worked on a little bit more and I would rather be representative of something that is polished and extremely well put together,” O’Connell said. 

If approved, Iris Valley would have added to the district’s network of existing charter schools: Valley Inquiry, Howard Street, Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School and Optimum Learning Environment.

According to the application on the district’s website, O’Connell has held a teacher’s license in Oregon for 20 years. Using her experience in both private and public schools, including Riviera Christian School and Salem-Keizer schools, O’Connell currently owns her own tutoring business, The Helpful Teacher LLC.

O’Connell’s application to the school board stated her plan was to start a charter school serving 135 students from kindergarten through eighth grade who “will be able to learn at their own pace and show a mastery of content in a variety of ways.”

The impetus for this style of teaching is the Covid pandemic, which saw students develop some habits that were useful in a remote learning setting but not conducive to a classroom, O’Connell stated in her application. 

“Iris Valley Charter School will be a place that will strive to recognize these adaptations, needs, and challenges,” the application said. 

Using teachers trained in educating students with processing disorders, the charter school would have offered pupils accommodations such as “flexible seating, frequent breaks, snacks, using the 10 positives to one negative rule of thumb when encouraging a student to modify her/his behavior.”

The application did not list a location for the proposed school, only saying a building would be located in south or central Salem.

O’Connell said this week that the application currently on the district’s website does not reflect the revisions being made.

Emily Reverman, school district public relations specialist, wrote in an email that the district was notified of O’Connell’s intent to withdraw the current charter proposal “after the district shared feedback specific to the proposer’s plan to address the needs of students receiving special education services and the proposed charter’s financial plan.”

Another district representative later told Salem Reporter that “we don’t have any further elaboration to add about this particular charter proposal.”

Though not intentional, O’Connell said she had “somehow overlooked” Americans with Disabilities Act requirements in charter school site plans.

“I had plans in my mind of how to accommodate people … but I forgot to write them into the charter,” O’Connell said. “They were never overlooked in reality, just on paper.”

ADA accessibility is important to the Salem tutor, given the Iris Valley Charter School’s intent is to have teachers trained to work with students who have mental health conditions and processing disorders. 

“We’re hoping to present an atmosphere and environment of learning that is extremely flexible and creative,” O’Connell said.

She has worked with many students who have disabilities. 

“It’s difficult to watch them and their parents go through all the hoops that need to be jumped through in order to have a school environment that is comfortable,” she said. “I would like to be able to provide a school environment like that in this part of the state. Teachers will see a child needs a different seating option and have them already available in the room.”

Her charter school concept has only a few hundred dollars in the bank, O’Connell said, and she believes it would need significant funds from the district to function.

“We’re going to take these next nine months and focus on fundraising,” she said.

Her fundraising goal is $100,000 to “fund a really good school and hire really good teachers and staff.”

“This last year, I learned how to write a charter,” O’Connell said. “This year, I’m learning how to write good grants.”

With school board elections looming in May and a new board in place by the summer, the Salem tutor is undaunted by new members and how they might receive the new proposal when she returns with a refined plan in the fall.

“I actually do feel confident,” O’Connell said. “(The district) was more concerned about the fundraising. It’s obvious in the charter that (ADA requirements) were already thought of and not written down — it was a legal issue.”

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Contact Reporter Kevin Opsahl by email at [email protected].

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Kevin Opsahl is the education reporter for Salem Reporter. He was previously the education reporter for The Mail Tribune, based in Medford. He has reported for newspapers in Utah and Washington and freelanced. Kevin is a 2010 graduate of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, and is a native of Maryland.