R.I. Foundation awards three grants to U.

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Rhode Island Foundation recently awarded the University three strategy grants, ranging from $25,000 to $87,631. The grants will be allocated to the Department of Education, the Center for Environmental Studies and the Alpert Medical School.

The foundation has invested more than $245 million in Rhode Island organizations over the past 10 years and awarded an unprecedented $29.2 million in 2010, according to its website. Its grants provide funding for Rhode Island organizations dedicated to arts and culture, economic and community development, education, health, environment and human services.

One award, worth $40,000, will provide funds for the education department to hire research assistants to aid in a study of Rhode Island charter schools, said Kenneth Wong, professor of education and chair of the department.

Deborah Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, approached Wong in 2009 with a request for a comprehensive study of the charter school system in the state, he said. Since that meeting, his team has been working to design a study that is “relevant to the current debate going on in the state right now.”

The charter school system is currently a point of contention in Rhode Island political and educational circles. In recent years, Gist has pressed for rapid expansion of the system, but Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 has announced his intentions to take a “thoughtful pause” to better assess the advantages and disadvantages of the system. Wong said he hopes his study will provide some of the data necessary to make a more careful judgment on charter schools.

The department’s study is a collaboration between the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, the Rhode Island Department of Education and Brown researchers. Wong’s team has been working with the league of charter schools to standardize its lottery admissions process, which will take place March 1.

Starting next month, the study will follow the New England Common Assessment Program scores of all students who apply to Rhode Island charter schools — whether they matriculate or not — for the fall of 2011, Wong said.

Test performance data will be available by the end of the calendar year, and Wong said he hopes to share the findings with Gist and the charter schools by Feb. 1, 2012.

Wong praised the foundation for “addressing some of the challenging issues” across the state. “Education is a priority for the foundation,” he said. “They were delighted to support the project.”

The foundation also awarded $25,000 for the Rhode Island Climate Change Commission, which will work closely with the Brown Center for Environmental Studies. The commission was established last fall to address the effects of climate change in response to legislation initiated by graduate students in the Center for Environmental Studies, which was passed last June.

The center applied for the grant after realizing “there was no money in the state budget,” said J. Timmons Roberts, director of the center and professor of sociology and environmental studies.

The commission has proposed addressing a number of topics, including planting more trees in Providence and the development of plans that would more successfully evaluate the impact of natural disasters. The commission has yet to settle on a specific direction, Roberts said.

“It’s taken much longer than I expected already,” he added. “We have to come up with some way to move this thing forward.” The grant, awarded in December, provides enough funding for one year. According to Roberts, the group applied to several organizations for outside funding, but no one else has “jumped” to fund them.

The grant will allow the commission to hire a staffer who will, among other things, “help people know what they’re supposed to do and gather the information that the commission needs,” Roberts said.

“The students have done a lot of research,” he added. “We’ve got a lot we can give this commission.”

The Medical School was awarded $87,631 for “promoting primary careers” in Rhode Island, an area in which the Rhode Island Foundation has chosen to enhance their funding. Representatives from the Medical School declined to provide further details on the implications of the award until publication of their own press release.

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