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Two new R.I. charter schools to open this fall

Due to high demand, nonprofit plans to develop additional charter schools across the state

As RISE Mayoral Academy and Engineering Early College Academy prepare to open in fall 2015 as Rhode Island’s 26th and 27th charter schools, respectively, those involved in the state’s education policy continue to examine how the increase in nontraditional schools meshes with larger education plans.

Rhode Island Mayoral Academies — a nonprofit dedicated to the growth of public charter schools run by mayor-led boards — is responding to the perceived demand for greater educational choice with the opening of the RISE schools and an upcoming application for yet another charter school, even as the total number of charter schools in the state escalates toward the legislative threshold of 35.

“There’s significant demand for these schools and not enough seats,” said Katelyn Silva, chief communications officer for Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, adding that roughly 9,500 students applied for 850 charter school slots in 2014.

“It’s harder to get into a Rhode Island charter school than Brown University,” said Steve Nardelli, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools. In an attempt to change this, his one-man organization lobbies for educational policies that support the expansion and prosperity of charter public schools, he said.

Rhode Island’s charter schools originated to confront challenges faced by traditional schools, including a growing Latino achievement gap, the state’s relatively low math proficiency scores, high drop-out rates and struggling teacher performance, said Kenneth Wong, professor and chair of the education studies department. To address those concerns, charter schools provide options for parents, autonomous settings for innovative teaching techniques and a model of successful practices that traditional public schools can follow, Wong said.

Rhode Island has a unique method for approving charter school applications: The decision is soley in the hands of the Board of Education. The board accepts proposals in the spring and votes on them following public hearings and recommendations from the Rhode Island Department of Education, said Elliot Krieger, public information officer for RIDE. If a proposal is approved, the potential school has a year to plan before final approval is given the following spring, he said. RISE Mayoral Academy and Early Engineering College Academy are currently in this planning stage pending final approval, Krieger said, adding that RIDE will review new proposals this spring.

Following approval, the Department of Education conducts yearly performance reviews on charter schools, looking at financial reports and comparing academic markers of success to those of other public schools in the state, he said.

But for those leading the charge for further charter school development, the benefits transcend test scores and even innovative teaching practices. Establishing a diverse classroom environment is a cornerstone of a charter school education, Silva said. Research shows students in diverse school settings grow up with fewer racial biases, do better academically and are more likely to live in diverse neighborhoods as adults, she said.

“Rhode Island is pretty segregated,” so mayoral academy schools accept half of their students from urban settings and half from suburban settings to ameliorate the racial and socioeconomic divide, she said.

“It’s exciting for our families to get to expose their kids to what the world is really like, which is beautifully diverse and different than what maybe their next door neighbor looks like,” Silva said.

Charter schools are “absolutely” successful in their missions to reduce the achievement gap between income groups and to allow students who have fallen behind their peers to catch up or even surpass their grade level, said Lauri Lee, an independent education consultant. But the cost of that success may be disproportionately high, as kindergarten students spend a majority of their days on academic tasks instead of on other creative activities, which have been shown to be more beneficial for childhood development, Lee said.

Increasing funding for early childhood programs would yield a greater return on investment for the entire public school system than would funding charter schools, she said, adding that charter schools do receive a majority of their funding from state and local governments. The innovative programs and teaching methods developed by charter schools are supposed to trickle down to traditional public schools, but instead often stay mired in the resource-rich charter system, she said. Public school employees are notably absent from teacher training sessions at the charters, she added.

Ultimately, “it’s easier for the Department of Education to allow other creative individuals to start programs and take away this (educational) headache,” Lee said.

While a professional consensus on charter schools remains elusive, the Department of Education continues to support additional charter schools that may provide evidence one way or the other.
“We’ve never closed a charter,” Krieger said.



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