The Mayor’s School for Gifted Youngsters

A cluster of third-graders, clad in khakis and blue polos, sit for lunch facing a world map marked with notecards on dozens of countries, telling the stories of the students’ families. These are the youth of Achievement First, one of Rhode Island’s four mayoral academies and a member of a unique network of charter schools overseen by the nonprofit Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA). Headed by school boards of mayors from neighboring cities and staffed by nonunionized teachers, mayoral academies are the mavericks of the Providence public school system. They are afforded the logistical autonomy and direct political accountability that other public schools are not. And perhaps even more strikingly, they’re working. Though across the country charter school networks spark controversy and show mixed results, RIMA’s commitment to diversity in the student body and dedicated support from local politicians have made the schools a nearly unimpeachable success.

Rhode Island debuted the mayoral academy (MA) model in 2009 with the opening of Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP), after the former mayor of Cumberland, Dan McKee, commissioned a study proving the creation of a different charter school network would be beneficial for the state. At the time, Rhode Island’s schools were publically struggling: In 2010, just about half of Providence public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in accordance with national standards from the No Child Left Behind Act. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) needed a solution, particularly one that would service the unique population of RI’s urban centers, which house a high proportion of English-language-learning (ELL) students. MAs offered potential for fundamental change: smaller public schools administered by a nonprofit to educate children from all over the state.

With entry conducted on a lottery basis, MAs maintain some of the benefits of public schools by filling classrooms with racially and socioeconomically diverse students. Their lottery systems are open to at least one urban and multiple suburban communities in RI. BVP — between its three elementary, two middle, and one high school — now serves about 1,400 students; 48 percent are Hispanic, 37 percent are White, and 11 percent are Black. Its students hail from across the state, with students from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland, and Lincoln. By comparison, RI’s population is roughly 81 percent White, 12 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Black according to the 2010 census. In this way, MAs attempt to simultaneously combat housing segregation and offer high-quality school choice options to families who were unable to exercise the most common, and frequently inaccessible, form of school choice: moving to a better district.

Though charter schools are certainly not new to RI, MAs differ from their traditional public school and charter counterparts due to their RIDE exemption from state tenure, pension, and prevailing wage laws. These exemptions — which RIMA specifically lobbied for — translate into flexible compensation for exceptional teachers who are currently able to pay into 401ks and receive peer-to-peer assistance from other staff members. Exemption from state tenure laws also enables MAs to conduct, if necessary, promotion and firing exercises with more ease than traditional public schools.

The academic results speak for themselves, as MAs tout remarkably low attrition rates and high performance while serving traditionally underserved populations.

In an interview with Brown Political Review, RIMA’s CEO Elsa Duré emphasized the rationale behind breaking down these restrictions: “Schools needed to have the flexibilities around how they make decisions around teachers so they can better serve their kids…If we have individuals who may be with us 2, 5, 15, 30 years, we want to make sure we have a retirement package that rewards them.” RIMA has also used its contractual flexibility to extend school days, lengthen the school year, and reduce student-teacher ratios. At BVP, for example, teachers complete two full weeks of professional development training in August. And each Wednesday is an early-release day for students, so that teachers are afforded two and a half hours of school-based learning and training to analyze student performance and plan their lessons.

The academic results speak for themselves; MAs tout remarkably low attrition rates and high performance while serving traditionally underserved populations. Achievement First has the vast majority of its students reading at or above grade level, though 26 percent are ELL students and 8 percent are students with developmental challenges. According to parent testimony, Achievement First incorporates these students into the standard classrooms and pulls them out for work sessions with specialists according to need. By omitting the separate, tracked system for students with higher needs and monitoring process among students at their respective grade level, the MAs craft an environment that encompasses as many levels of learning as possible.

Achievement First’s success is reminiscent of BVP, where 93 percent of Hispanic or Latino 8th grade students are proficient in math, 57 points higher than the state average. And according to the disaggregated Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers’ (PARCC) results from 2015, 55 percent of high school students at BVP Mayoral Academy met or exceeded ELA/Literacy standards. By comparison, 24 percent of students at Paul Cuffee Charter High School met or exceeded these same standards, and 17 percent of the Providence Public School District performed at this level. Further, the PARCC is considered reliable enough that city officials aim to make proficiency a requirement to graduate from high school starting with the class of 2017. In other words, students at MAs are outperforming their local peers across the board.

Opposition to MAs, however, isn’t about test scores; it’s about funding and the perceived privatization of public education. In Woonsocket last year, for example, the city council endeavored to rescind their mayor’s support for the newest MA, RISE Prep. Local families cited concerns that money would be siphoned from the area’s traditional public school. Those families aren’t being unreasonable; in 2010, the newly-passed Fair Funding Formula effectively enabled per-pupil funding (approximately $14,415 per student per school year in RI) to “follow the student” to their public school of choice. In practice, this means the money expected to enter, say, an ailing school like Mary Fogarty Elementary instead follows a student accepting a lottery placement to Achievement First in Federal Hill.

Since there could never be a mass exodus of pupils to MAs — RIDE caps the number of students in mayoral academies to a small percentage of the state’s student population — the MAs cannot be held responsible for major budgetary concerns of Rhode Island’s public schools. Nevertheless, MA opponents may soon see their funding concerns remedied. Introduced this February, Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget plan proposes that for each student leaving for a charter school, the district is to keep $350 of the per-pupil expenditure — and in areas where charter students make up more than 5 percent of pupils, like Providence, an additional $300 would remain in-district, amounting to a total of about $2.6 million. More broadly, the plan includes the expansion of state-funded pre-K, SAT tutoring, professional development, and facility repairs within traditional public schools. In this sense, what little cost the MAs do exact from the state budget will be accounted for. And even if there is some tradeoff, the costs surely seem to pale in comparison to the academic and personal achievements that students at MAs have demonstrated.

Through their unique programs, MAs are also contributing to RI’s educational ecosystem. RIMA and RI’s public schools are already engaging with one another and building two-way avenues for feedback; in recent years, partnerships were established with the Central Falls and Pawtucket districts. These constructive dialogues are rare because of the politics and stigma around perceived competition. But RIMA has shown a willingness to engage with its traditional counterparts. “The truth is that there are traditional district schools that are doing amazing things we can learn from,” Duré said. As the MA model becomes more integrated into RI’s culture, and thus affects a broader base of students, it will hopefully change charters’ negative reputation, encouraging collaboration between MAs, in-district and independent charters, and traditional public schools.

All told, RIMA’s network has pioneered a well-crafted two-way street for politicians and educators: Mayors have a tangible stake in their cities’ students, and educators have more direct pathways to communicate with RIDE. Particularly in this post-NCLB era, other states with many nearby urban and suburban communities may find that this new model could afford families another viable form of school choice. The flexibility to extend school days, provide teachers with internal support systems and just retirement packages, or celebrate multiculturalism with bilingual posters in the stairwells of public schools enables mayoral academies to get back to the basics: educating youth.