Rhode Island · School Talk

RI Lawmakers File Bills That Will Hurt Highest Performing, Most Diverse Charter School in State

Every year it’s the same story. The legislative session nears the end and suddenly, the highest performing Title I school in the state finds itself under attack by local politicians who, just a few short years ago, supported the creation of these very same schools.  Blackstone Valley Prep, the only intentionally diverse public school in the state, is again, at risk. The school also happens to be narrowing and even closing achievement gaps around race and income in a way that is unprecedented in our state. And all that would matter if this was ever actually about student outcomes for the folks on Smith Hill.

But it never is.

It’s about money. And while the financial challenges in Cumberland are very real and BVP’s existence has exacerbated those challenges, actively working to damage a school that is working so well for traditionally underserved kids is impossible to defend.

I actually know the annual script by heart: There will be no honest discussion about student achievement but there will be lot of squabbling over dollars. Certain Cumberland school committee members will post wildly inaccurate information online about BVP and the people who run it. Lies will be told and never retracted.

Local lawmakers have already sat behind taxpayer funded microphones on multiple occasions this year to make false claims about student performance. They do this to perpetuate their erroneous narrative that parents don’t need school choice in a suburban town like Cumberland because the district is performing at the same level as that pesky charter school down the street. Except it isn’t, at least not with low income children—and a couple quick clicks on the RIDE website proves it.

Cumberland serves a population of students that is 23 percent low income. One school in the district has only 5 percent low income children while another has half of its students qualifying for free/reduced lunch. State Senator Ryan Pearson will only discuss student outcomes in the aggregate; it makes the district look better that way and is a very common tactic by elected officials when they talk about education. But by insisting on comparing BVP to the entire district of Cumberland, Senator Pearson is intentionally misleading the public to paint a rosy picture for all kids.  And this is not new. It’s been his MO now for a few years, which is strange considering that he was a school committee member in Cumberland before he became a state senator and knows how and where to find the disaggregated achievement data.  He just doesn’t want to talk about it. And that is a major problem since the data directly contradicts what he says.

Let’s look at 4th grade math, English Language Arts, and Science scores at Blackstone Valley Prep ES 1 and Bernard F. Norton Elementary School; both are Title I schools and they have the most similar student populations, though the charter school has a significantly higher number of low income children with 69 percent as compared to BF Norton’s 48 percent.

These schools are literally three blocks apart geographically and 40 percentage points apart in 4th grade math, 18 points in ELA, and 26 points in science. BVP is doing much better with low income children of color. We should celebrate that, not work to impede it. 

Putting aside politics and contrary to Pearson’s repeated claims, these academic results are not the same. And we can debate the many reasons for the disparity—per pupil expenditure, longer school day and year, home visits, autonomy around hiring and firing. But we can’t deny that the disparity exists. To do so is dishonest.

Mia Ackerman, Pearson’s counterpart in the House, isn’t much different. She stands on people’s front steps and promises to support their children’s school only to turn and sponsor bills that put that very school’s existence at risk. She doesn’t talk about student outcomes either.

A couple school committee members have already begun their usual June antics, writing nasty (and untrue) things online and in the press about BVP leaders and supporters and blaming every shortcoming the district faces on inadequate dollars.

As someone who served on the Cumberland school committee, worked for a year-and-a-half at BVP, and has children currently enrolled in BVP and the district, I can say with certainty that the situation is divisive and complex, even painful at times.

Elected officials will post on social media that BVP doesn’t serve kids with special needs. I’ll tell you that my own children spend their days at BVP with children on IEPs and students with 1-on-1 aides.

They’ll tell you that they are dealing with the burden of only the “special needs” and “hard to teach” kids returning from BVP. I’ll tell you that my own son, who does not have an IEP, returned to the district and my others plan to as well. And isn’t that an ugly thing to claim anyway?

They’ll tell you that BVP doesn’t have to follow the same rules. I’ll tell you that the students take the same annual state tests, that they are subject to the same open meetings laws, and that unlike district schools, they have to prove themselves during a rigorous renewal process every five years. District schools never come up for renewal, regardless of how students are doing.

There are myriad reasons parents make decisions about where to send their children to school and school committee members would be wise to ask what they are. Academics, location, social challenges, school size, sports, enrichment offerings and diversity of student body are all reasons I’ve personally heard from parents. When I pulled my kids from the district three years ago, I was never asked to fill out a questionnaire or survey about my decision. No one from the district called me. No one even asked.

BVP did ask when my son left there. I appreciated that.

Sadly, the fight in Cumberland is all about dollars and has been forever. I only wish all of my own concerns and frustrations about the district could be fixed with money. I assure you, they can’t. Cultural sensitivity, sufficiently high expectations and consistency across classrooms and schools, for example, require that people change —they won’t just suddenly happen with an influx of dollars.

It’s easy to blame BVP for all the district’s woes. Districts across the country do the same thing. But the truth is, that is lazy thinking. Yes, the budgetary impact is substantial and relief is needed now by way of a change to the funding formula or an infusion of dollars from the state. Any district faced with the potential loss of all social workers and teaching assistants is obviously in need of help. But until we also get real about the intangibles that cost nothing to fix, we will be stuck pointing the finger at others when the solution is never that simple.

It would be unconscionable to pass a bill in either the House or the Senate that would give the Cumberland Town Council the authority to single out and target one (high performing) school and decide how many students from their community can attend, especially when there is no protection within the bill from them deciding to make that number zero.

A wise friend and fellow school committee member used to say to me, “keep knocking at the door” when despite best efforts, people refused to engage, respond, or even acknowledge us. So today, I pass that along.

Keep knocking at the door. Ask State Senator Ryan Pearson and House Representative Mia Ackerman to have an an honest and robust discussion about student outcomes, achievement gaps, and subgroup data. We avoid those discussions at our own peril as a community and as a state.





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