October 23, 2014
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‘Blended education’ charter school proposed for Kent County

A public charter school with a unique approach to education never before seen in the state could be headed to Kent County as early as fall of 2015.

On April 1, an application was filed with the Rhode Island Department of Education proposing the creation of the Kent County Prep Mayoral Academy. Katelyn Silva, chief communications officer for Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, explained her non-profit would be supporting the school throughout this process.

Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, or RIMA, is a non-profit that supports the growth of mayoral academies, or high-performing, diversely populated, regional public schools whose school board is governed by the mayor from one of the sending districts. In this case, the sending districts would be Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry.

“We support the school through application and the first few years of operation,” said Silva. “RIMA is not the official applicant on the application. We are a stamp of approval.”

In this case, Silva said the application was submitted by the school’s future leader, Jessica Waters, and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian.

What’s unique about Kent Country Prep is its proposed blended education format. Mirrored off the model from Summit Public Schools in California, blended education means a student will have traditional classroom learning with a teacher, as well as online-based learning that can be individualized by student’s abilities. There is also opportunity for work in smaller groups with a teacher.

“If you are a student who is advanced, they don’t need to wait for the class to catch up,” said Silva, adding that the same is true for students who may be struggling in a certain area or topic. “The computer technology can be on par with where he or she is.”

The blended education format will be universal across all subject areas at Kent County Prep, and every student regardless of ability will have double blocks of math and English Language Arts.

“Regarding Kent County Mayoral, what we’re offering is very unique to your area,” said Silva, in regards to blended education. “This is something not be offered anywhere else.”

Silva said Summit Public Schools has been very helpful providing resources. In fact, if the school is approved, Waters will be able to spend time in California and at other blended learning schools to learn best practices.

“We have a sharing and learning process with them,” said Silva of Summit. “They have been wildly successful.”

Kent County Prep would also pair each student with an advisor for mentoring purposes and provide opportunities for internships or other exploratory experiences to help students discover their passion. There will also be mandatory music and computer coding classes.

Kent County Prep would be a 6 through 12 program with extended school days from 8 a.m. to 3:10 p.m.; the school would open for 144 students in grades 6 and 7 and grow to 504 students total by 2020.

“Even at full-growth, it’s a really small program,” said Silva, who added the decision was made to combine the traditional middle school and high school grades to avoid what many students can find a difficult transition.

While the exact ratio of students from each of the three sending districts is still being determined, Silva said at least 50 percent of the population will come from Coventry because that is the rural district, and the other 50 percent will come from the urban districts of Warwick and West Warwick. There will also be a selection preference for low-income students.

“RIMA particularly tries to have socio-economic diversity,” said Silva. “Its just great for kids to get to know different cultures and different ideas.”

Silva explained that in the past few years the demand for charter schools in Rhode Island has been growing. One of RIMA’s schools, Blackstone Valley Prep, had 1,900 applications last year for 183 seats. According to Silva, statewide there were 11,800 applications for only 1,300 seats in charter schools.

“That’s more than 10,000 denied a choice,” she said. “We’re supporting the applications of these two schools to provide more choice.”

In addition to the Kent County school, an application was filed for a K through 8 mayoral academy in the Woonsocket area.

Silva believes parents have seen proof of the high-quality education provided by charter schools, and they are flocking to it. At Blackstone Valley Prep, their eighth grade had the highest rate of proficiency in math for the state on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).

“People are seeing we are a rigorous, college prep program, but also very joyful,” said Silva. “That balance has been very energizing for our families. Word is spreading.”

The work done by Blackstone Valley Prep is one of the reasons Avedisian is supportive of bringing a similar school to the area.

“The energetic partnership between faculty, students and staff at Blackstone Valley Prep is just amazing. Not only is the program comprehensive, including innovative arts, humanities and extra curriculum activities, but the overall improvement in the student’s scores are impressive,” said Avedisian in an email. “I think this model would be a great addition to Kent County.”

But the creation of Kent County Prep is not definite yet. The RIDE charter application process will continue until at least early 2015.

Elliot Krieger, spokesperson for RIDE, explained after potential charter operators submit their applications on April 1, RIDE staff members review them to ensure they are complete. Following the preliminary review, the applications are posted on RIDE’s website and two hearings are scheduled to allow the public to comment on the plans; that period is open for 60 days. The education commissioner then reviews the applications and makes recommendations to the Board of Education. In the fall, the board will vote on preliminary approvals, allowing applicants to begin the planning process. The board will vote final approval of applications in 2015.

According to Krieger, RIDE received a total of seven applications for charter schools looking to open in fall 2015. While there is no cap on the number of approvals the Board can make each year, there is a cap on the number of charter schools the state can have. The cap is 35; there are currently 19 listed on RIDE’s website. In the case of student tuition, since Kent County Prep would be a public charter school, school districts pay per student.

“The money follows the child. It would depend on what child was coming from what district,” said Silva.

Warwick Schools Chief Budgeting Officer Anthony Ferrucci explained tax dollars that support the school system are divided into shares per student; if a student decides to go to a charter school, their share goes to that school. For the 2013-2014 school year, Warwick Schools paid out $10,754 for 70 students attending charter schools. For 2014-2015, he is budgeting $12,800 for a possible 80 students to attend charter schools.

Ferrucci added that it would be interesting to see if students are interested in attending a charter school just because it is close to Warwick. In his experience, most students have chosen to attend a charter school for a specific program offered there, not just to attend one.

In terms of start-up costs for the school, Silva said RIMA covers year zero and start-up support through philanthropic dollars. There are also opportunities for charter grants for federal funding, but they don’t rely on that.

There is also no set location for the school yet; Silva said that would be determined later in the process. However, Avedisian did say the Town of Coventry has made an initial offering of a school building.

Despite the long application process, RIMA has already selected Waters as the school’s future principal.

“Jessica is a really strong and special candidate,” said Silva. “She has leadership qualities. We feel very strongly she will make a great school leader.”

Waters was the 2013 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year and won the Peter McWalters Professional Educator Award in 2012. She has experience in a charter school, as a member of the staff at Beacon Charter School for the Arts, where she is a chemistry and anatomy teacher.


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