Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Achievement First Mayoral Academy proposal, charter schools, and in-district public schools

I have refrained from opinionating about the pros and cons about the proposed Achievement First Mayoral Academies because I have not wanted to join what feels like one of two sides:
  • those that doggedly flog and endorse the proposal and seem to indicate without a great deal of critical thinking that charter schools = excellence (and in-district public schools = mediocrity)
  • those who vehemently resist the AF Mayoral Academies proposal and seem to indicate without a great deal of critical thinking that charter schools = evil conspiracy
As is usually the habit of truth, the reality is likely in murky gray, and really, who wants to go there in one's free time? Much easier just to pick a side, to go with a group. But I cannot. After many months of resistance, it's time to pull on the hip waders and slog through.

I'm a huge fan of many charter schools. I've worked for many years at the Coalition of Essential Schools and seen many extraordinary charter schools in action and in collaboration with many in-district public schools and independent schools. I served on the board of a charter school in San Francisco. I entered my oldest child into the lotteries for three charter schools when we moved to Providence and am very up front about the fact that if he had been selected for a spot at any of the three, he and his brothers would likely be there. It's worth noting that in every instance, these schools are "independent" charter schools that emerged from their communities for specific purposes and are autonomously run by their own boards. They're not "Mc-Charters" operated by large charter management organizations that import a model that's not connected to the school's community.

That's why I wholeheartedly support most of Rhode Island's existing charter schools. At the very least, I support their existence and in some cases, think that the work they're doing with kids is great; that said, I don't at all claim to be familiar with them all.

And I have not ever felt that my support of well-run, community-based charter schools takes away from my ardent support of public schools in general and the Providence Public Schools, where my kids and 20,000+ of their peers, are students. Our schools--already urgently in need of improvement and already benefiting from considerable assets and investments--were sorely battered and bruised this past school year. We need to do all we can to address shortcomings and build on our strengths. I am passionately in it for the long haul as a parent, a community member, and, to the extent that it's useful, education professional, to do just that. A strong public school system that serves all kids in all neighborhood with the highest levels of quality, caring, and equity is absolutely imperative. It's maddening and frustrating that I or anyone else would even have to assert that, but of course we must, over and over and over.

Now that Mayor Taveras and the Providence School board have endorsed the proposal to create the Achievement First Mayoral Academies that will serve 900 Providence students, we will need to amplify the volume of that statement radically. I report these developments not with outrage but with urgent questions about the ways the opening of Achievement First Mayoral Academies will affect students who remain enrolled in Providence's public schools. Here are a few:
  • How will the Achievement First Mayoral Academies will be an asset to all current and future PPSD students (as well as Cranston's public school students)? Will there be collaborative relationships and knowledge sharing established such as that between the Learning Community and Central Falls Public Schools? Or is this strictly a competition? 
  • How will students be recruited and selected so that the newly opened charter schools don't skim off the "cream of the crop?"
  • How will the schools' culture, governance, curriculum, approaches to discipline, and other elements reflect our community's hopes and dreams for our children? How much room is there in the Achievement First model for local input?
  • What will be the real long- and short-term financial impact on Providence Public Schools' budget and students?
  • How will the newly opened charter schools avoid the effects of (re)segregation that has been the effect of many charter schools nationwide? Evidence abounds for this: see reports from Minnesota, California, and Florida for a sense of this effect.
These are questions that should apply to all existing and future charter school that enroll Providence students. They are questions that I expect elected and appointed policy makers to ask and to insist on evidence that demonstrates that all students in Providence will attend better schools as result of these proposed new charters.


  1. You are kind of missing the point, Jill. The most important question is "Is it ok for suburban mayors to lop of 5% of Providence's students at a time on proposals that received no input from the Providence government or community?" If the Mayor, School Board and Board of Regents all agree this is a good idea, it will keep happening every year until every PVD suburb takes it turn.

    The second most important question is "Is a two-city mayoral academy, where one city's population is actively hostile to it, stable?" The answer to that question is "probably not."

  2. Thank you for the specific additional points. My post really could have been about the general terrain, with AF questions/concerns handled separately. Will do that as time allows.