Rhode Island · School Talk

Student Outcomes and Parent Satisfaction Must be Front and Center in Debate over AF

As another charter battle heats up in Little Rhody, the usual status quo protectors are talking about everything except what matters most: student outcomes and parent demand. And when it comes to Achievement First, the charter school looking to expand, it’s impossible to deny that they’ve earned the privilege of doing so. They’ve proven the naysayers wrong and helped their students to achieve at levels that are nothing short of remarkable. Now it is up to our leaders, regardless of the bluster coming from opponents, not only to approve the expansion but to push for changes within our district schools that will allow for them to achieve at the same levels as AF.  It is possible but not without some long overdue structural changes.

Achievement First serves mostly low income children of color. According to data from RIDE, 85 percent of students are low income and 95 percent are students of color. Most RI schools who serve a similar population are chronically under-performing but Achievement First is quite literally closing the achievement gap before our eyes. This school full of poor kids is giving the state’s most affluent schools a run for their money, particularly in math. It is indefensible for anyone to try and impede their great work.  Those who insist on throwing stones, doubting results, or impugning motives should take a long hard look in the mirror and ask themselves why they aren’t celebrating the achievements of children at Achievement First and working to replicate them.


Demand for additional seats at AF is high as WPRI reporter Dan McGowan lays out in a very thorough piece about the proposed expansion.

More than 900 parents submitted applications for their children to attend Achievement First during the 2016-17 school year. There were only 159 available seats. Even if the expansion is approved, there won’t be space for the 741 applicants who weren’t selected in Achievement First’s lottery until the 2019-20 school year.

Bob Plain of RI Future does an excellent job describing the optics of the most recent board of education meeting and the truth is, his characterization is an apt characterization of most charter school fights not only here in Rhode Island but nationwide.

Supporters, many poor people of color, spoke passionately about justice and opportunity in Providence schools. Opponents, mostly well-employed white people, spoke about economies of scale and efforts to undermine public education.

But the Funding…

It is absolutely a fair critique that as more parents vote with their feet and opt for charter schools, money does leave the district. The money-follows-the-student purists argue that it’s nonsensical for districts to expect to hang on to dollars for students they are no longer serving. Critics point out that there are fixed costs that don’t automatically drop just because a few students are no longer on the districts’ rosters. Both sides are right.

Recent adjustments were made to mitigate some of the challenges faced by districts – and those adjustments absolutely hurt charters who saw significant funding cuts with very little time to prepare for them. But unlike union leaders who continue to engage in toxic rhetoric and argue they can’t possibly succeed with fewer dollars for fewer kids, charter leaders have committed to making it work, no matter what. And the flexibility they enjoy (that districts do not) allows them to pivot quickly in response to events out of their control. If all schools had more autonomy, they’d be nimble enough to adjust as needs change. At the moment, our largest districts are immovable in the ways that matter most and despite Providence Superintendent Maher’s best efforts, his hands are quite literally tied.

It must be noted that there are teachers in Providence (and all Rhode Island districts) who are also committed to success regardless of what’s happening with charters or funding; it’s clearer and clearer every day that the union leadership is not a reflection of those rank and file members whose commitment to children is unwavering regardless of all the political noise around them. A quick visit to a few schools and you’ll spot these rock star teachers immediately.

And the Union Says

Sometimes it’s just better to hear someone in their own words. So here is Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers’ Union testifying at a meeting before the state Board of Education earlier this week.  She speaks in opposition to the expansion and says that the ‘fix is in’ but she’s “going down swinging.”


And the Parents Say

Demand is very high for Achievement First and parents came out to explain why. This mom, Courtney Richardson is a life-long Providence resident who came out to testify in favor of the expansion on her son’s birthday. She explains that she’s never seen anything like she is seeing at AF and that her son, who had been labeled a ‘problem child’ in the district school is now thriving in the charter school.

 Below is a post from Dan McGowan’s Facebook group by Providence parent Karina Wood whose children attend district schools. She expresses the frustration that many parents and residents feel not just in Providence, but statewide. As a former public school teacher and mother of three myself, I agree wholeheartedly with her sentiments.

                                                    karina-fbAnd the Leaders Say

While Governor Raimondo and Education Commissioner Wagner both support the full expansion, there is dissension among mayors, school board members, and city councilors.

In a subsequent piece at wpri.com, Dan McGowan breaks it all down, including where all the mayors involved have landed on the issue.

While North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, a Democrat, has signed on to Achievement First’s current growth plan, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian say they support a smaller expansion.

Elorza [Providence], a Democrat, told the council he supports allowing the organization’s two existing elementary schools to send students to middle and high school, but he is not ready to support a larger expansion that would include a third elementary school. Avedisian, a Republican, has sent a letter to the council expressing support for Elorza’s position.

Not surprisingly, labor leaders are unanimous in their opposition to any expansion at all.

At the end of the day, the goal must always be to get as many children into high quality schools as possible and at the same time, push for more flexibility for Superintendents and school leaders so that they may actually carry out their plans to best serve the children in their care.

We can’t continue to repeat the favorite Patriots nation mantra of  “Do Your Job” to our superintendents, school leaders, and teachers and then allow for them to bump into brick walls every time they try to actually do it well. We want all children to be educated well in the schools they deserve. Achievement First is one piece of getting us there but we must also be bold in the face of opposition and do whatever it takes to make our district schools the choice of parents too.


All video footage is courtesy of Dan McGowan of WPRI.


What do you think?

One thought on “Student Outcomes and Parent Satisfaction Must be Front and Center in Debate over AF

  1. How would you propose to make up the slack for the $20,000,000 or so per year this will take out of the city and district budget. Reducing personnel and closing schools would make up only a small fraction of this. Even a vague plan?

    It seems clear to me that not only would this expansion negatively affect all PPSD students in coming decades through program cuts, it will negatively affect all residents, including those attending AF, through reduced city services, less parks and rec., fewer cops, worse bond rating, less support for the arts, public housing, etc., etc.

    We already supposedly have a structural deficit of over $250 million. How do you imagine this working?

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