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projo.com
August 18, 2010

R.I. to receive federal money to expand charter schools

By Jennifer D. Jordan, Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. –– Rhode Island will receive several million dollars over the next three years — starting with $2.38 million the first year — from the U.S. Department of Education to expand public charter schools in the state.

The infusion will allow the state to double the number of these alternative schools serving primarily urban students and improve the quality of all charter schools, priorities of Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist.

Rhode Island has 15 public charter schools that serve more than 3,300 students. Demand for the schools is intense, with more than 3,600 students a year stuck on wait lists. Despite this, growth of charter schools in Rhode Island has been slow, due to a lack of state funds and a moratorium on the creation of new schools that was lifted a couple of years ago.

Rhode Island was one of 12 grant recipients that received a total of $136 million to expand public school options in the first year of the grant. Amounts for years two and three have not yet been disclosed by the federal government, said officials at the Rhode Island Department of Education, who are keeping their fingers crossed that the state will receive the full amount requested, $9.4 million. “I believe that public charter schools provide us with a wonderful opportunity to innovate and test new ideas about how we can best serve our students,” Gist said. “Effective charter schools provide options for families for quality public school alternatives.”

Gist’s push to expand and improve the state’s charter schools has sometimes ruffled feathers. In May and June, she criticized the uneven test scores of Highlander Charter School in Providence, indicating she might shut the school down after the 2010-11 school year. In the end, the school was given more time to improve and is currently working with other charter schools and state education officials to help establish a more rigorous process to assess the performance of charter schools.

Gist said Tuesday that she is not satisfied with all of the state’s charter schools, and some could be closed as a result of poor performance.

“But there will be a process for that,” she said. “We want to provide support for the schools and have an excellent accountability system that sets high standards. Ultimately, we want to have only high-performing charter schools in our state.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-financed public schools that have more operational freedoms than regular public schools. For example, they can require longer school days and a longer school year, small class sizes, student uniforms, and increased parental involvement. However, charters must comply with all state regulations, offering at least 180 days of instruction and yearly testing of students in grades 3-8 and grade 11.

Rhode Island will have 15 charter schools in the 2010-11 school year, with the opening of two new charter high schools this fall, Trinity Academy, a performing arts school in Providence, and the Greene School, an environmentally themed school in Exeter-West Greenwich. This year, the General Assembly lifted a cap that limited charter school growth, a move that enhanced the state’s Race to the Top application to win up to $75 million in federal education aid.

Existing charter schools as well as groups that want to open charter schools will be eligible to apply for the federal funds, said Gist. The money can be used to help approved charter schools get off the ground, as well as to improve instruction at existing charter schools and to provide outreach to communities about charter schools.

At least one organization already wants to apply for the federal funds, the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, which holds the charter for Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley, an elementary and middle school that serves students from Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln and Pawtucket.

The Mayoral Academies would like to open a second Democracy Prep elementary school next year. In addition, Rhode Island Mayoral Academies wants to hire Achievement First, a charter management operator, to open as many as five schools in Providence and Cranston, starting in 2011 or 2012.

“We are talking with many school operators both inside and outside Rhode Island about partnering with us to open additional mayoral academies,” said Michael Magee, CEO of the organization. “The fact that the state received the … grant will be very encouraging to them.”

President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan support the expansion of charter schools, although national studies show mixed results. Some charter schools show impressive academic gains for their students, but others perform the same as or in some cases worse than regular public schools.

While some charter schools have unionized teachers, including three in Rhode Island, teacher unions are often critical of charters, saying they siphon away badly needed resources from school districts.

To find out more about Rhode Island’s charter schools, visit:
http://www.richarterschools.com/

jjordan@projo.com

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