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Mayors rally for charter schools

August 16, 2011

PROVIDENCE — Cranston Mayor Alan Fung said he was so “highly impressed” with the student performance at Cumberland's Blackstone Valley Prep mayoral academy that it prompted him to propose a similar alternative public school for students in Cranston and Providence.
But the idea prompted controversy and opposition, both within his city and statewide, and Fung is currently engaged in a long process of trying to convince the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education to approve a mayoral academy for 88 Cranston students and 88 Providence students in kindergarten and first grade. The students who apply would be selected, as they are in Cumberland, by a lottery system. The board has scheduled a Sept. 1 vote on the application.
Fung's academy would be run by Achievement First, which he called “one of the best non-profit public school operators in the country.”
Fung originally wanted to start the school in September, 2012, but he said delay in getting the regents' approval will delay that until 2013, if it gets approval.
Fung and several other municipal officials -- including Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi and North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton – showed up at the Statehouse Tuesday to pressure Gov. Lincoln Chafee to join them in urging the regents to approve the plan. McKee, Lombardi and Hamilton are Democrats; Fung and Avedesian are Republicans.
Chafee, an Independent who calls himself a supporter of public schools, has been reluctant to embrace the mayoral academy concept and when he first took office he called for a “thoughtful pause” before establishing new academies.
The mayors want to shake him off that stand, albeit gently.
When asked by reporters what their message would be to the governor, they pushed Avedesian, Chafee's longtime friend and sometimes political ally, who succeeded Chafee as mayor of Warwick, to the fore to deliver the message diplomatically.
“I know that the governor is a fair, honest and open person,” Avedesian said. “He has invited dialogue and discussion and we will hopefully continue to bring information to him so that we can all agree at some point on some way that we can all move forward.”
McKee said the mayors met with Chafee a few weeks ago, but, “The governor was unable to take a position that would actually stand by us and promote the idea of mayors involved in public education.”
Chafee issued a written statement Tuesday that didn't give the mayors much cause for optimism. “There is considerable local opposition to the establishment of a mayoral academy in Cranston,” it said. “The Superintendent, the elected City Council, and the elected School Committee were all in opposition. Numerous parents also attended public hearings to voice their considerable concerns.
“I believe that Rhode Island's public education system is good, but it can be better,” Chafee added. “Charter schools are just one piece of improving public education in our state. For that reason, where and how we establish charter schools must be a strategic process.”
McKee made a dollars-and-cents argument in favor of the mayoral academy concept.
“Our inability as public schools to just achieve national average is costing residents in the state of Rhode Island somewhere between $300 million and $500 million of earning power,” he said. “The inability of public schools just to hit Massachusetts averages is costing Rhode Island resident somewhere between $1.7 billion and $2 billion of earning power.
“That's why mayors need to be involved in public schools,” McKee asserted.
Teachers at mayoral academies, a structure set up by the General Assembly in 2008 at the urging of McKee. The teachers at mayoral academies are not required to join a union, as are other public school teachers in the state. The school days and school years are longer than at other public schools and they receive 401(k) plans instead of pensions. Their pay is said to be roughly equivalent to that of other public school teachers.
Students, literally from kindergarten, are put on a track toward higher education. A kindergarten student starting in September would be identified as being in “the Class of 2028,” the year they would graduate from a four-year college. There are rigorous academic expectations and parents are actively encouraged to participate in their child's schooling.
Hamilton told The Call she attended the Statehouse event “to provide support,” to the effort. Hamilton said she has not moved to form a mayoral academy in North Smithfield, but she is considering it.
Reshma Singh, senior director for expansion at Achievement First, noted that, on 2011 state assessments, 82 percent of Achievement First fourth graders in New York reached proficiency in math, twice the rate of the public school host district. In an Achievement First high school in New Haven 100 percent of 10th graders were proficient, 25 percent above the rate in New Haven and above that of the wealthiest communities in Connecticut.
For two years in a row, 100 percent of the students at the Achievement First high school in New Haven were accepted into four-year colleges and universities.
“Achievement First is proving that demographic do not have to equal destiny.”

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