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Charter school proposal sparks protest, debate

Clarification appended.

After an application to open a school in Cranston was rejected in early September, the nonprofit Achievement First initiated the application process for a charter school in Providence. Last Friday, more than a hundred people attended a rally organized by the Providence Student Labor Action Project to protest the application.

The Rhode Island Department of Education has received about "500 pages of public testimony in support of the application," said Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the department. "We look at community support when we review the application."

Providence is currently home to six charter schools — nearly half of the 15 total in the state — but some residents fear that another charter school will divert funds from the public school system, which has already suffered several rounds of cuts.

"Cranston had the support of their school board, mayor and city council," said Susan O'Connell, an organizer of the rally and a local mother whose children attend public school. She added that the Providence City Council "hasn't spoken up" about the company's plans and that Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14, who appointed the school board, supports Achievement First.

Before the Board of Regents for Secondary and Elementary Education voted on the charter school — which would have enrolled students from both Cranston and Providence — Chafee wrote to Achievement First and recommended the company focus its energy on Providence, O'Connell said.

Christine Hunsinger, spokeswoman for the governor, told The Herald Sept. 8 that Chafee views charter schools as a tool to improve public education.

Providence public schools have been hit hard in the past year — the city closed four schools in March. Statistics show that on average, Providence public school students "fall substantially below the state's average proficiency rate in every grade and every subject," and one in three high school students do not graduate, according to Chris Lanen, an account executive at True North Communications.

Supporters of charter schools cite the failing Providence public schools as a reason to establish charter schools, while opponents argue that the public school system should be improved and not abandoned.

A study of charter schools in New York City found that students enrolled in Achievement First schools "were achieving at exactly the same levels as their peers, and after two to three years of being in those schools, they were significantly outperforming those peers," said Reshma Singh, vice president of external affairs and director of Rhode Island expansion at Achievement First.

But many fear that the creation of another charter school will harm the public school system, which has already experienced deep cuts. Jordan Noble, a junior at Classical High School and an organizer of the event, said a charter school would take money from public schools and confer it to on relatively small group of students. Approximately $16,000 per student would be subtracted from public school funding each year if the charter school were established, Noble said.

But Bill Fischer, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, said Providence has enough money to fund charter schools.

"Providence is slated to receive (an additional) $150 million dollars in funding over the next seven years" due to the new state education funding formula, Fischer said. "This school is designed to incrementally build up so that it's absorbed in a responsible manner. The fiscal impact will be minimal."

Protesters also took issue with Achievement First's "no excuses" policy. This policy dictates that any form of disrespectful or inappropriate behavior can be punished without offering students opportunities to defend themselves.

"It teaches students not to question things," Noble said.

"Our practices are meant to reward things like demonstrating respect and showing enthusiasm," Singh explained. "We believe that there should be consequences when scholars behave in ways that disrupt the learning community."

Chanting, "Achievement first, children last" and "This is what democracy looks like," protesters marched down the street to the Rhode Island Department of Education to demand a meeting with Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.

Gist "has been trying to bring an Achievement First school to Rhode Island for two years" due to the success of the school in New York and Connecticut, according to a Sept. 28 Providence Journal article.

The demand for charter schools in the state is strong. "There are literally thousands of people on the waiting list for the 15 existing charter schools," Krieger said.

Charter schools are "meant to serve as beacons of excellence and examples of innovation," Kreiger explained. "Part of their charge is to work with schools in the local district to improve education in public schools as well."

Achievement First schools have no admissions requirements or tuition fees. Instead, students are chosen by a lottery, Singh said.

Despite resistance, Singh believes an Achievement First school in Providence would be beneficial to the community.

"We have had high levels of success serving populations that are very similar to the Providence demographic," Singh said. "In the last two years, 100 percent of our high school seniors have been admitted into four-year colleges and universities. Ultimately, that's what this work is about — putting students on path to college."

A previous version of this article reported that Providence is slated to receive $150 million dollars in funding over the next seven years. Providence is receiving an additional $150 million dollars on top of the federal education funding it already receives.



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