“This almost didn’t happen,” Ellie Wyatt, a retired public school teacher and member of the Rhode Island Coalition to Defend Public Education, tells me, shaking her head. She is talking about the battle her organization fought for years and lost last February. The decision to allow Achievement First, a national Charter Management Organization (CMO), to open two schools in Providence came down to a single vote. After months of protest on the part of charter school opponents, the state Board of Regents approved the schools on February 2, 2012. Just two months earlier the same board had rejected the organization’s proposal to build a similar school in Cranston.
On February 22, the lottery will close for the inaugural kindergarten and first-grade classes at the Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy, which will open its doors next September. Achievement First runs 22 elementary, middle, and high schools in Connecticut and New York, and the organization now has approval to open two new mayoral academies in Providence. While Rhode Island has seen a growth in charter schools in the past few years, this will be the first school to open in the state run by a CMO—a non-profit school operator that manages various schools while also looking for ways to expand.
Charter schools are the fastest-growing sector of American education, with the number of students in charter schools (including grassroots public charters, non-profit CMOs like Achievement First, and for-profit Education Management Organizations) increasing by 200,000 students in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Huffington Post. This brings the total number of charter school students to over 2 million, about 5 percent of the total public school student body.
Achievement First has been growing steadily since its flagship school, Amistad Academy Middle School in New Haven, Connecticut, opened in 1999. It earned praise from state officials and charter education advocates for raising test scores and providing a structured program. Despite their focus on testing, Amistad Academy and other Achievement First schools also use a motivation-based rhetoric with rituals like this: “Every morning, the music teacher kicks off Morning Motivation with a chant called ‘Are you going to have fun today?’” The schools’ designers believe they can have a highly regimented structure, a focus on testing-based achievement, and instill a sense of joy in its students. “In fact, we evaluate teachers on their ability to ensure that the J-Factor (the JOY factor) is high in every class and dominates regular school-wide celebrations,” reads the Achievement First website.
Not everyone is quite as taken with Achievement First. The schools have been critized for their increased reliance on grant funding from private organizations; for their lack of accountability to state and local government; for removing from their halls students with special needs, those who did not speak English at home, or students who otherwise struggle. All these complaints have been aimed more generally at the charter movement as a whole, as well as at other CMOs specifically. When the founder of Amistad Academy, Stephan Pryor, became Connecticut Commissioner of Education, some critics saw this as an unsavory alliance and a sign of the way state education policy was shifting. As Achievement First schools moved into New York in 2005, former parents, teachers, and the teachers’ unions came forward with public criticisms.
“It was a vicious circle,” Mary Taliaferrow, a former parent at one of Achievement First’s New York City schools, says about her experience dealing with school administrators in the movie The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. She was first alarmed by the school’s use of a “pull-out room,” a form of solitary confinement where disruptive or disrespectful children—those who, say, drop a pencil, shout out in class or wear shoes that violate the dress code—sit in silence for the remainder of the day. In a 2012 article in the Hartford Courant, Amistad Academy Dean of School Culture Peter Uwalaka proudly explains the use of the pull-out room, or “Reorientation Room,” as the school calls it. He describes the room as a place where misbehaving students, such as those who roll their eyes at a teacher, go to “get the extra culture they need.”
Albert Shanker was the president of the American Federation of Teachers when he first proposed the idea of charter schools in 1988. To him, they looked a bit different; while Shanker believed that charter schools should be approved both by the district and the teachers’ union, more than 90 percent of today’s charters are not unionized. He was also staunchly against vouchers, national corporations that would run the schools, and the privatization of funding; he turned against the charter movement when he saw it going in the direction of privatization in the 1990s.
By design, charter schools are meant to be “laboratories for practices” that can be replicated in the public schools, says Rick Richards, a former member of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s Offices of School Improvement and School Transformation. But with corporate charters, he says, administrators and structures of change are often inaccessible to parents and faculty, despite what administrators tout as a high degree of parental involvement.
Dr. Kenneth Wong, a professor of education and public policy at Brown University, sees the relationship between parents and charter schools as open and participatory, since parents have the choice of leaving a charter school if they don’t feel it addresses their child’s needs. In general, “charter schools are driven by competition,” Wong says. They “have to keep thinking about bringing in outside resources.”
The Rhode Island League of Charter Schools lists 15 schools in the state. Two of those, The Learning Community and Segue Academy, are in Central Falls, a city that garnered national attention in 2010 when superintendent Francis Gallo fired all of the teachers at Central Falls High. The Learning Community has attracted national attention, almost all of it supportive. A 2011 New York Times column dubbed it “The Central Falls Success” for turning around students’ test scores. The school has a unique relationship to the city that hosts it; through a “District-Charter Collaboration Compact,” The Learning Community works in tandem with the Central Falls School District to place Learning Community Lab reading specialists in all of the district’s schools. In turn, the district is working towards “equitable distribution of resources for public charter schools and district schools.” Additionally, as part of the contract, CFSD agreed to lift a “charter cap” limiting the number of charter schools that could open in its district to two. Business journalist Joe Nocera, who wrote the article, was encouraging about the goal of The Learning Community’s founders to “use their knowledge to improve public school districts in Rhode Island”—seemingly the perfect application of the “laboratory of best practices” model.
But Ellie Wyatt doesn’t consider that plausible. “You can’t duplicate the charter school movement in a public school,” she said, because charters are taking money out of the public school systems, while also having access to funds the public schools can’t access. She sees the new Achievement First school as the first step in a new wave of corporate charters, including online schools “like call centers” where students sit at computers the whole day through.
As Achievement First made a move to enter Rhode Island, Mayor Angel Taveras was one of its most enthusiastic supporters, joining with a coalition of mayors and lobbyists. Taveras may be the only city official with a say in the charter school’s governance; as a “mayoral academy,” it gives him a seat on its board. After visiting Amistad Academy, Governor Lincoln Chafee—who tried to reallocate Race to the Top funding intended for charter schools towards other parts of the public school system—was on board as well, saying he found the school “very impressive.”
An open letter to Chafee, Taveras, and other officials appeared on the site WeCanRI.org in November 2011, intended to refute their claim that Providence “demonstrated broad support” for approval of the new schools. It was signed by more than 30 local organizations, six city councilmen, a former president of the Providence School Board, teachers, and students. The letter-writers highlighted several complaints about Achievement First, first taking issue with its “no excuses” model of learning.
In the weeks leading up to the vote last February, the two sides came no closer to agreeing. In January 2012, months after the Cranston School Committee rejected a proposed Achievement First mayoral academy in its city and a month before the vote, Achievement First and Rhode Island Mayoral Academies refused to speak at a Cranston School Committee hearing. Days before the vote, several state politicians asked the Board of Regents to delay their decision until legislation that could impact the academies went into effect. Achievement First spokesman Bill Fischer said that the city couldn’t afford to wait: “Additional options are needed and needed now.”
On February 2, 2012, the state Board of Regents voted 5-4 to allow Achievement First to open two mayoral academies—the Providence Mayoral Academy, opening this fall, and another to open in 2014. A week later, the school board of Cranston approved a budget increase including the $2.4 million it will likely be forced to spend on Achievement First in the next six years.
Wyatt and Richards were both in the audience at a January 30 rally against making the NECAP—the New England Common Assessment Program, the state’s standardized test—a graduation requirement for high school students throughout Rhode Island. At the rally, members of the Providence Student Union, a coalition of students in public high schools around the city, spoke about why their future shouldn’t depend on a test score. “It’s not the fault of the students,” one speaker said.
“Standardized testing is sort of what started this,” Wyatt says. The charter school movement grew throughout the 2000s, specifically marketed as a way to improve students’ scores in the era of No Child Left Behind. Achievement First, like many other charter schools, touts its extended school day and summer programs as additional support aimed at closing the achievement gap. Yet what all this extra attention is dedicated towards is still very “outcome-based,” as Wong describes it, and that outcome is judged by the same standardized tests the public school students were protesting.
“It felt like the student was a widget. It felt like a factory,” Taliaferrow says. At the school where her son was enrolled, there was a constant push not just to improve student test scores but to expand, to get more students and open more schools. “It became the McDonalds of charter schools.”
EMMA WOHL B’14 can’t be duplicated.