November 23, 2014
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Regents vote on mayoral academy next Thursday

Round two of the Achievement First mayoral academy proposal could be coming to an end, as Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist will bring the application before the Board of Regents for a vote next week.

“We do anticipate bringing this before you for a vote at your next meeting, which is Feb. 2, and it will be my recommendation to approve this application,” Gist said at a Regents work session last Thursday at the Department of Education.

The meeting was scheduled for 11:30 a.m., which upset opponents of the proposal. Several speakers criticized the board for scheduling a meeting during working hours, especially as many of the public speakers come from public education, where their mornings are spent in the classroom.

Still, the board had to adjourn to executive session at 1:30 p.m., with public speakers remaining on the list to comment. Only one speaker, Christine Lopes, director of community and external relations for Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, spoke in favor of the application.

Cranston Superintendent Peter Nero believes that speaks volumes of the application currently pending, which would result in two elementary schools opening in Providence, one in 2013 and the other in 2014, that would pull students from Providence, Warwick, Cranston and North Providence.

An initial application, which the Board of Regents voted down last spring, would have located the schools in Cranston and the student body would have included only students from Cranston and Providence. After months of public hearings on that proposal, Cranston teachers and parents turned out in force to oppose the schools.

“It baffles me how we could go through that whole exercise and still Cranston is turning up in that application,” Nero said. “Obviously, the people of Cranston do not want this. I feel as though we weren’t heard.”

This is Warwick’s first time facing the application, but Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi says the opposition is just as ardent in his membership.

“The Warwick school administration, the union and the School Committee – we’re all against it,” he said.

In particular, Ginolfi takes issue with the governance of the proposed school. As a mayoral academy, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras would serve as chairman of the board (much like Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee does for Blackstone Valley Prep) and the school leadership would not be accountable to the school committees from the affected areas.

“In Warwick, the school committee is the one granted, by law, to appropriate funds for the schools and to manage the schools. This mayoral academy would take this out of their authority,” Ginolfi explained.

Cranston teacher Kathy Torregrossa pointed out that the teachers’ unions in all four affected communities oppose the proposal, as well as the school committees in Warwick, Cranston and North Providence. In Providence, the mayor appoints the school board.

“[The school committee] is my voice, as a taxpayer and a voter, on education issues, and I ask that you respect that,” Torregrossa said.

All four mayors have voiced support of the application.

Ginolfi and his Cranston counterpart, CTA President Lizbeth Larkin, question how their districts would make up the loss in funding if the application is approved. Under the new fair funding formula, dollars follow the student, so if no Warwick students enrolled, no money would be funneled into the Achievement First school. If students do enter the lottery system and are ultimately selected, however, the per pupil expenditure goes to AF.

The problem, opponents say, is that the loss of students is not significant enough to merit real savings through fewer teachers or classrooms.

Providence parent Osiris Harrell is skeptical of the application and of Achievement First as a whole. A self-proclaimed “Superman” for the kids in his district, Harrell questions why an entity that claims to be about education needs to hire lobbyists or take out advertisements in the newspaper.

“If this is really just good, then let it stand on its merit. Stop trying to manipulate my community,” he said.

Money would be better spent, added Cranston resident Richard Tomlins, on classroom resources.

“They’re a business, folks,” he said of Achievement First. “Where’s the money in the classroom? We will never, ever get back to basic education at the rate we’re going.”

Commissioner Gist and Board of Regents Chairman George Caruolo assured parents and teachers Thursday that the expansion of charter schools in Rhode Island is just one piece of education reform. Gist spoke of identifying best practices in charters and traditional public schools alike and finding ways to implement reforms like a longer school day and a longer school year.

“Enormous amounts of work have been put into exploring doing exactly what you’re talking about. It’s not ready for prime time yet, but there’s great hope that we could come forward with a plan,” Caruolo said.

Lopes, of RIMA, agreed that the Achievement First model is just one way of improving education.

“It’s one part of a multi-prong strategy. Parents and families need and want school choice,” she said.

That’s where you lose Jean Link, a parent of two children in Providence public schools. She doesn’t see support from the community for this proposal and believes that parents would rather see their tax dollars spent on improving education overall in a way that impacts all students, not just those selected through a lottery.

“Throughout all of these meetings, I keep hearing the selling point of choice,” she said. “Our Providence schoolchildren did not have a choice when their schools were closed and their teachers were fired. Our Providence schoolchildren did not have a choice when the school department decided not to maintain their school buildings. Our Providence schoolchildren did not have a choice that all their schools have not been brought up to 21st century technology. Our Providence schoolchildren did not have a choice when all their programs were cut – they were cut to the bare bones all in the name of budget constraints.”

Ginolfi thinks it’s not education reform but education dollars that mayoral academy proponents are after.

“There are those who have an agenda, including Achievement First, to come in and get a piece of the education dollars,” he said. “There’s a lot of money at stake. It’s a business.”

The next Board of Regents meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 2, at 4 p.m. in Room 501 of the Department of Education in Providence.


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