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The South County Charter School Debate

A growing desire for options to traditional public schools has led to an increase in charter schools across the state

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Many people think of charter schools as an option to failing public schools, often in inner cities. But a growing desire for options to traditional public schools has led to an increase in charter schools across the nation, even in suburban areas with good public schools.

In Rhode Island alone, charter school applications jumped to 14,628 in 2016 for just 1,609 open spots, an increase of over 8% from last year. Although charter schools serve just 5% of the students in the state, there is a great deal of controversy about them. Proponents argue that charter schools are places where innovative educational practices can be implemented on a small scale, so that lessons learned may be incorporated into all public schools. Critics believe that charter schools siphon funds away from the public schools, since funding follows the enrolled students.

In fact, the Rhode Island House Finance Committee announced budget changes in June that will result in decreased funding for state charter schools. The new formula allows students’ home districts to either withhold 7% per pupil or deduct various expenses, whichever amount is higher, from the funds they send to charter schools. Because urban charters generally receive more state funding while suburban charters rely primarily on local taxpayers, this formula impacts suburban charter schools the most.

In southern Rhode Island, we have three charter schools. They are such popular options that all three are currently filled to capacity, with waiting lists. Admission is based on a lottery system, for which parents may submit applications in late February or early March for enrollment the following fall.

In addition, although all three draw primarily from South County, each school has a handful of students traveling great distances to attend: from Central Falls and Cumberland to Foster-Glocester and Narragansett, and pretty much everywhere in between. Transportation varies from school to school, but they all have some options available to families free of charge.

Two of the schools start at kindergarten: The Compass School in Kingston and Kingston Hill Academy in Saunderstown. The Compass School serves students through eighth grade, while Kingston Hill Academy is for children through fifth grade. The Greene School, in West Greenwich, is a high school for ninth through twelfth graders. Each school has a unique mission and approach to education.

Educational Navigation
The Compass School uses a project-based curriculum that integrates academic disciplines, emphasizing social responsibility and environmental sustainability. With 169 students on their 27-acre campus, the school has multi-age classrooms that foster both learning and leadership. While there is no gym, library/media center or cafeteria, small classes promote strong teacher-student relationships and the ability to provide for individual learning needs.

Founded in 2002, the school has been housed in multiple locations; it has occupied the Kingston campus for about ten years. While the school’s state charter allows for 220 students, the physical plant limits capacity to its current enrollment. The entire school gathers outside weekly for assemblies, and students use the extensive grounds for physical education and picnic lunches.

Although the curriculum focuses on environmental sustainability and social responsibility, traditional subjects are not neglected. On the 2016 PARCC assessment, more than 75% of the students met or exceeded expectations in language arts and over 53% met or exceeded expectations in math. This ranks The Compass School students third in the state in language arts, and shows a 10% increase in math performance over 2015’s scores.

Director Brandee Lapisky is proud of the school’s performance on PARCC, but emphasizes that the school’s graduates are much more than their test scores. She shared that many of the school’s alumni remark on the lasting impact Compass has had on their lives. On a 2016 survey of alumni, one student wrote, “I continue to practice social responsibility by volunteering at a non-profit organization called RICJ. [I volunteer] with their Youth Decision program, helping youth 13-18 to become active, respectful members of their community.” Another alumna mentioned her work with the Environmental Club at college.

Recently, Ms. Lapisky learned that the school has been awarded a $25,000 grant from the Lattner Foundation. The school council, made up of nine voting members comprising parents, faculty/staff and community members, will meet this fall to determine how that money will be spent. 537 Old North Road, Kingston. 788-8322, CompassSchool.org

A School on a Hill
Kingston Hill Academy (KHA) is the top-performing elementary school in RI in language arts and the second-highest performer in math, with over 80% of its students meeting or exceeding expectations in both subject areas. The school’s mission is to provide students with an inclusive, individualized and challenging curriculum.

KHA opened in 2001 and now has 190 students in kindergarten through grade five. Principal Linda Paolillo says that the school would like to expand to have two classrooms at each grade level and is investigating the possibility of adding middle school students as well. There is already an RFP on KHA’s website seeking bids for building and parking lot expansion.

The school uses the Response to Intervention (RTI) framework to target instruction based on student needs. Because KHA has a full-time teacher and teacher’s assistant in every single classroom, they have a unique ability to provide every child with individualized attention and instruction. The low teacher-student ratio also allows for plenty of small group work and early intervention to address all learning needs.

Like all public and charter schools, KHA serves students with a range of abilities, from those with identified cognitive or physical disabilities to those who are functioning above grade level. Kingston Hill is able to teach students using full inclusion the majority of the time, meaning that all students are housed and learning in the same classrooms. In fact, four of their enrolled students have full-time one-on-one aides to assist them throughout the day.

Like Ms. Lapisky, Ms. Paolillo is proud of her school’s PARCC scores, but feels that that the most important thing about KHA is something less measurable: “Our school feels like a family. Our faculty and staff know all the kids, and we work to provide extra TLC when needed. It is truly a child-focused place, and we celebrate all of our students’ achievements. As a result, our students are happy and they want to come to school.”

The majority of KHA graduates go on to middle school in their home districts, although a few go to independent schools. Many of the alumni come back to speak with the fourth and fifth graders to talk about their transition, and, according to Ms. Paolillo, several have gone on to serve as valedictorians at their high schools. In addition, many former parents have loved the school so much that they continue to be involved as board members. 850 Stony Fort Road, Saunderstown. 783-8282, KingstonHill.org

Seeing Green
The only charter school in South County serving high school students, The Greene School has 200 pupils from 22 school districts. They hope to purchase property to allow them to expand their capacity in the next few years. Transportation is provided; in fact, bussing is the second largest expense behind faculty and staff salaries. The school uses Expeditionary Learning to provide direct experiences with nature, incorporating environmental science and technology.

Expeditionary learning is an approach that emphasizes active, challenging and meaningful hands-on experiences. All ninth, tenth and eleventh graders participate in two semester-long expeditions, while seniors complete a year-long expedition. Each expedition is focused on an in-depth study of a compelling topic (such as the issue of race and social justice) and combines elements that include guiding questions, fieldwork, discussions with experts, service learning and collaborative projects that are featured in a culminating event. Curricular content in the four core disciplines (english, math, science and history) is fully integrated into all expeditions.

In addition, students at Greene participate in “Crew” – a character development program in which 10-15 students meet daily to engage in stewardship projects, literacy and communication activities, and problem solving. Each Crew stays together for two years; at the end, each student participates in “Passage,” making a self-reflective presentation to an outside panel. The concept of Crew is based on the philosophy of holistic education envisioned by Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound.

Roughly 88% of The Greene School’s students graduate in four years, which is slightly higher than the state rate of 83%; the school’s performance on PARCC tests is not as good as other high schools in the state or in surrounding districts. One reason for this may be that, because the school offers an unusual high school experience, it attracts students for whom traditional public high school models are not working.

Students and parents at The Greene School value its diversity and its active, non-traditional learning atmosphere. Head of School Josh Laplante states that, “Through a rigorous, pre-college curriculum, we develop citizens and leaders engaged in finding peaceful and sustainable solutions to local and global challenges. We take traditional educational practices and standards and we really try to cultivate an innovative way of delivering instruction.” 94 John Potter Road, West Greenwich. 397-8600, TGSRI.org

Are Charter Schools Worth the Cost?
Suburban charter schools in particular are funded primarily through taxpayer dollars. Statewide, Rhode Island spends an average of $15,923 per student, although the amount varies by district. For example, per-pupil spending in Exeter-West Greenwich is $19,716; in North Kingstown, $15,450; in South Kingstown, $17,864; in Westerly, $18,820.

With the new budget cuts faced by charter schools, they still receive approximately 93% of the funding allotted for each student by the sending district. This is less than they have received in the past, but officials in students’ home districts feel that they should keep more funding. Superintendent Phil Auger of North Kingstown recently argued that students who leave for charter schools don’t save the district money: the home schools are still responsible for staffing classrooms and paying for utilities.

The budget cuts arose in response to a report issued in 2015 by the Special Legislative Commission to Study and Assess Rhode Island’s “Fair Funding Formula.” The report found that some high-cost expeditures, particularly those related to special education services, were disproportionately or exclusively carried by the districts. However, the commission also found that the “Fair Funding Formula” did not take into account building construction costs.

As Ms. Lapisky of the Compass School points out, “charter schools must dedicate a great deal of their funding to facilities, whereas traditional public schools are funded by the district.” Mr. Laplante of The Greene School said that the third highest expenditure in his school’s budget is rent. Public school buildings are funded and maintained by the district, independent of the per-pupil spending.

And Are They Providing a Better Education?

The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University says no. They found that while 17% of charter schools outperformed their local public school counterparts, 37% actually performed worse, and the remaining 46% performed about the same.

Mike Petrilli, a noted author and expert on public education, believes that charter schools in suburbs are important because they provide an alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach of public schools. As he says, “Even in upper-middle-class communities, not all parents want the same things for their kids.” He argues that, even though suburban charter schools rarely outperform their public school counterparts, they offer opportunities for
customization.

Interestingly, this is something that Rhode Island Department of Education’s Commissioner Ken Wagner is thinking about, as well. “We’ve been talking about ‘empowerment schools’ – schools that would have more autonomy to design their instructional programs. We still pretend that the school you’re assigned to based on where you live is magically going to be the best school for you. But we know that all kids are different and schools have strengths that they focus on. So one innovation that we hope we can get further on is allowing kids to go to other schools, not necessarily charter schools or private schools. Within the district school system, could we create space so that schools can specialize in the arts or sciences or dyslexia, for example?”

Obviously, this isn’t something that is going to happen overnight. Commissioner Wagner agrees that there are a host of logistical issues, such as bussing and scheduling, that go along with such a proposal. Until public schools can offer the diverse educational experiences that many families desire, perhaps charter schools can fill that need.

Tim Groves, Executive Director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, says that the rising application rates prove that charter schools are an option many families want. “Our schools provide unique learning experiences for children and foster innovation within the public education system,” he says. “This overwhelming demand for our schools reaffirms that we must continue working to support great public school options for all students.”