Thursday, December 1, 2011

Report on 11/29 Providence City Council Hearing on Achievement First's Mayor Academies Proposal from Richard Purnell

The following report comes from Richard Purnell, a parents of a Providence Public School student who was able to attend the Providence City Council's Education Subcommittee's hearing on Achievement First's proposal to establish two Mayoral Academies in Providence to serve student from Providence and surrounding municipalities. Commentary/clarifications from me are in brackets [like this]. Many thanks to Richard for this report! 
I arrived at the council's meeting room on the third floor of City Hall a little before 5 pm -  in time for me to see them setting up some folding chairs in the "back" of the room by the windows. Pretty soon it would be SRO. Linda Borg [the Providence Journal's education reporter] was front and center, Angela Romans [Mayor Taveras' Senior Adviser on Education] was nearby, and the scene was being taped [by Jessica Jennings] for the perennial documentary on educational progress in Providence. I took one of the chairs by the window, which gave me a pretty good view but - as it turned out - poor acoustics. Around 5:03 pm, I watched Councilor Zurier bring the room to order and convene the meeting with a declared quorum, knowing that I would have to leave around 6:00 pm. 
Councilor Zurier explained that this was going to be conducted as an information-seeking meeting and that people would have several other opportunities soon to express their views about Achievement First (AF). Following a presentation by AF, there would be an opportunity to ask questions. He explained that there were time constraints associated with the meeting and told us what the order and manner of questioning would be, with members of the education subcommittee going first, councilpersons next, and the public last.\ 
The City Councilors I could clearly identify from my vantage point were Councilors Matos, Yurdin  Narducci  Solomon, Correia, Jennings, Principe, Zurier, and (I think) Salvatore. Others may have been there and I did not see or recognize them. I had heard from Councilor Jackson the day before that his presence would be required elsewhere at the time of the meeting, but that he would have wanted to attend. The principal spokesperson for AF at the meeting was Reshma Singh. She was assisted from time to time by a woman, Christine Lopes, and a man, whose name I later found out is Bill Fischer. 
For an "exact" account of what transpired, I have been told by City Clerk Anna Stetson that minutes of the meeting will be available in a couple of weeks, at the earliest.  I would also recommend Linda Borg's article in the November 30th issue of the Providence Journal for a fine synopsis of important exchanges that took place [sorry, can't find it online]. What follows will be some impressions, reactions, and afterthoughts regarding what I was able to witness over the sirens and other street noises that competed with the proceedings from where I sat. 
I was impressed with the manner in which Councilor Zurier conducted the meeting and the efforts councilors made to present salient issues to the AF spokesperson. There were a few instances when things had to be "ushered" along by the chair, but this was carried out in a considerate manner. The presentation by AF was coherent and polished; there were handouts, but I think they were only available for the subcommittee members. Perhaps when I get the minutes I'll be able to obtain the handouts also. 
One reaction I had was to AF's response to a question about their reputation for not encouraging or engaging parents in the "operation" of their schools. Basically, what I heard them say was that there would be a parent on the mayoral board and that would seem to satisfy that demand. 
Another reaction was when Councilor Principe was questioning Ms Singh about the recent news that four AF schools in Connecticut had not made their AYPs. Her response was to point out that these schools had made great progress in test scores, but that they just were not great enough to bring them over the mark set for acceptable performance. AYPs, she said, were incredibly complex to fathom and she had recently spent considerable time familiarizing herself with them. What needed to be focused on, she said, were the great strides made by the students. I'll let the reader reflect a little on where we have heard that response before and how it was received. I also wondered about the impetus for really digging into understanding AYPs being failing to attain them. I suppose you really don't have to understand what it is you are supposed to be attaining until you don't attain it. 
Councilor Principe's concentration on AF's failure to make AYPs seemed to have a very valid query: Why should a community that has schools with passing AYPs in some of its schools need to import an organization with failing AYPs when it can look to its own successful schools for answers?
One thing I was hoping to hear brought up was the low numbers of students projected to be in the classes their two schools will contain. So lower class sizes and fewer of the more challenging students gets presented as raising the bar of education in Providence. On a somewhat related note, I thought wouldn't it be grand if Walmart gave Providence (instead of AF) $250,000 for each of two elementary schools it opened with "176 students the first year."  I got those numbers from an article by Linda Borg, which seemed to be based on responses from AF. I wondered at the time why it said two schools the first year when elsewhere they speak of opening a school in 2013 and the second in 2014. There's a lot that needs sorting out (as in deeper educational thinking) here. 
So, to wrap things up for now, the more I see folks dig into the inner workings and long-term implications of the AF way of looking at what it has to offer Providence's needs for closing its achievement gaps, the more it looks to be a facade.  The path to school reform in Providence needs to be paved with more than good intentions and hyperbole. I sincerely hope more of us will get out to these hearings on the AF proposal and think critically about what is being offered as a solution for one of our most important issues:  the true condition of our public schools and what it is compared to what it should be. --Richard Purnell
Final Achievement First note of the day: per this AP report that ran on Channel 10's website, the Warwick School Committee voted last night to opposed the creation of the Achievement First Mayor Academies that would draw students from Warwick, citing concerns about cost and lack of familiarity with Achievement First.

1 comment:

  1. AYP in Connecticut and AYP in RI are based on completely different data and standards. Since Ms. Singh is employed as part of an RI specific team, it's not strange she's not intimately familiar with CT specific accountability system. That criticism is unfair and is similar to folks who directly compared percent proficient on CT and NY tests to RI. These standards have no connection and cannot be directly compared meaningfully.