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As lawmakers consider blocking new charter schools, a proposed Providence middle school faces uncertainty

The Providence Preparatory Charter School wants to offer a 226-day school year and longer school days. But if the legislation passes, the school will never open

The Rhode Island State House on May 28, 2020.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE – If you try to look up math scores on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exam for Gilbert Stuart Middle School and Roger Williams Middle School in Providence, you’ll find only asterisks.

The two large schools, which combined educate more than 1,700 students in grades six through eight, posted such low proficiency rates during the 2018-’19 school year that the data is “suppressed to ensure confidentiality because greater than 95 percent of students did not meet expectations,” according to the state’s online assessment portal.

The results aren’t much better for any of Providence’s other middle schools, either. Fewer than 10 percent of the students at three schools are doing math at grade level. At the city’s best-performing middle school, Nathanael Greene, 19.5 percent of children are considered proficient in math.


While Providence still has a handful of bright spots at the elementary school level and the test-in Classical High School remains on the best schools in Rhode Island, the city’s middle schools are a different story. As pre-teen students enter the most difficult part of growing up, too many watch the door of opportunity close before they can fit into adult-sized clothes.

That’s why Toby Shepherd and a group of residents and educators decided last year to establish the Providence Preparatory Charter School (PVD Prep), a small middle school designed for 252 students in grades five through eight with an ambitious goal: to have every single eighth grader ace the Classical High School entrance exam.

Shepherd’s proposal won preliminary approval from the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education in December, but state lawmakers are considering legislation that would place a moratorium on all new charter schools for at least three years. The state Senate is expected to approve the bill on Wednesday, but it’s unclear when the House of Representatives will consider it.


“If that bills become law, then the school is not going to open,” Shepherd said. “I don’t know how it would be possible to press pause for three years.”

Supporters of the moratorium argue that charter schools help the few at the expense of the many. They say large-scale proposals from organizations like Achievement First and Excel Academy would draw thousands of students away from traditional public schools, and siphon financial resources away from already cash-strapped districts.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing last month, state Senator Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat, said the state’s approval of three new charter schools – including PVD Prep – and the expansion of three others would result in nearly 6,000 students moving from traditional public schools to charters schools over the next decade.

“We all know that with the funding of charter schools, resources come directly come from our traditional public schools, which in my estimation so desperately need every dime of funding for good outcomes for children,” Goodwin said.

It’s a familiar argument for anyone who has monitored the debate over charter schools in Rhode Island over the last decade. Charter advocates say that several schools – including the mayoral academies that predominately serve students in urban districts like Providence and Central Falls – far outperform traditional districts, and the results should speak for themselves.

Shepherd said his proposed school would have similarly high expectations for students, but he’s also trying to fill a niche at the middle school level.


While several charter schools offer elementary schools that feed into middle schools and some continue on to high school, Shepherd said he wants his students to come directly from the elementary schools in Providence.

PVD Prep’s plan calls for students to attend at least 226 days of school over the course of a full year – as opposed to the traditional 180-day schedule that typically runs from September until June – and the school day would be eight-and-a-half hours, far longer than in most schools.

The school would be tiny compared to other city middle schools, and Shepherd said he has proposed that a lottery system used to admit students at his school be weighted toward students who attend the lowest-performing elementary and middle schools in the district.

And like other charter schools that planned to open in the fall, Shepherd’s team is already at work. He signed a five-year lease for a building at 155 Harrison St., which used to house the Academy for Career Exploration. The school has already hosted events for interested families and is airing promotions on Spanish radio stations.

Lawmakers like Goodwin say a temporary pause on charter schools would allow state lawmakers to review the state’s education funding formula. Shepherd, who previously led the Nowell Leadership Academy, a charter school that caters to pregnant or parenting students, said he supports a financial review of schools, but not at the expense of schools that have already been approved.

“If a charter school moratorium is required in order to do that study, I would just request that it not be retroactive,” Shepherd said.


That’s where incoming Governor Daniel McKee and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green fall on the issue, too.

McKee, who as mayor of Cumberland helped usher in a wave of new charter schools to the state, has said he would not support a moratorium that includes already-approved schools like PVD Prep, but he has said that he is open to discussing a hold on future school openings.

Infante-Green, who helped lead the state takeover of Providence’s schools in 2019, has said she doesn’t intend to ask the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to consider opening more charter schools in the coming years. But in a letter to the Senate Education Committee, she said that voting for the bill “will further marginalize the voices of people of color in Rhode Island.”

“It will also send a message that the governance model of the school that a child attends is more important than the quality of the education that they receive,” Infante-Green said. “Instead of eliminating high-quality public charter school seats that serve the children of Providence and Central Falls, we need to examine why so many parents are looking to charters for their children.”

The legislation is widely expected to win approval from the Senate on Wednesday.

For now, Shepherd said he’s proceeding with caution with PVD Prep.

“I’m trying to focus on what’s within our control,” Shepherd said.

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.