NEWBURYPORT — After six years leading River Valley Charter School, Andy Willemsen has decided to step down as director, passing the baton to current assistant director Jonnie Lyn Evans.
“When current director Andy Willemsen announced his departure in November, we initiated a thorough search process that used focus groups, surveys and work sessions to engage our faculty, families, community and (the) board,” said River Valley Board of Trustees President Mark Belanger. “Our search committee considered over 50 candidates from all over the U.S. and came away convinced that Ms. Evans is best qualified to continue the school’s excellent record of delivering a high-quality public Montessori education.”
Willemsen said in an email that his plans for next year “are coming into focus, but I don’t have anything definite yet.”
Evans, who has been involved with River Valley since the school’s founding, said taking on the role of director feels like a natural progression to keep the school on the stable path it’s been on for the last 20 years.
“It feels in a lot of ways when you’re involved with founding an organization, especially a school, almost like giving birth,” Evans said. “It feels as close and near and dear to me as a child does. It seems like the right thing for the organization and it also seems like the right thing for me professionally. I’m very committed to public Montessori (education) and what we do here. Just seeing the outcomes with the students is huge.”
Evans was a key participant in the founding of the school in 1999 and worked as an elementary co-teacher in the school’s inaugural year. She went on to fill a series of educational consultant and management positions, including work as a project manager for River Valley and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. She also worked as the data and development director for the Hill View Montessori Charter Public School in Haverhill, she noted.
Evans decided to return to River Valley as the assistant director in 2013. She holds a master’s of business administration from Northeastern University and a master’s in educational leadership from Endicott College. Two of her children attended River Valley, she added.
Evans said it’s been a “really great” six years working with Willemsen. The pair, often referred to as “The Dream Team,” focused on stabilizing the school and pushing it forward, she said. When the board was looking for a new director, it talked about finding someone who is going to “keep the ship that was already going in the right direction continuing on that path.”
Evans said there are no changes in store for River Valley under its new leadership, with the focus “more about refining than changing anything.” She also said she would like to see how the school can partner more with organizations in the city and along Perry Way.
“There’s nothing major,” Evans said. “We struggle because our physical boundaries, the location where we are, there’s not much we can do. We can’t build up, we can’t build out. We bought this building in 2012 and rented it prior. We’re not moving anywhere.”
When asked why she decided to work in a charter school, Evans said she is a strong supporter of public education and the charter school movement has allowed for a little more flexibility to try different things and see what works.
“One thing that’s really important for us is that we recognize that we don’t do anything necessarily better here,” Evans said. “We recognize that we’re doing something different and for some children, our model is really appropriate and for some children it may not be.”