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COMMENTARY

Providence needs to put children first

If traditional public schools are not willing to change, it is incumbent on our leaders to expand, build and replicate the models that are working, the former mayor of Providence says

In this March 7, 2020, photo, Achievement First charter school is seen in Providence, R.I.
In this March 7, 2020, photo, Achievement First charter school is seen in Providence, R.I.David Goldman/Associated Press

Public education should be focused on preparing our children to succeed. It would then stand to reason that discussions involving public education should always be centered around teaching and learning and – most importantly – our children.

However, that has not been the case in the discussion over Providence charter school Achievement First’s proposed use of space in the Providence Public Schools’ Charles M. Fortes Elementary School building. Much has been said, written, and tweeted about this move. The Providence Teachers Union has decried a lack of “transparency, honesty, and true collaboration” throughout this episode.

The union has been consistent in its vocal opposition to Achievement First since the school was established nearly a decade ago. But while the co-location of Achievement First at Charles M. Fortes Elementary School was not handled well, in this whole discussion about space, we have heard little to nothing about our students’ academic performance, especially the massive gap between Providence children enrolled at Achievement First and their peers in the Providence Public Schools.

It is clear that Achievement First is doing something right when it comes to teaching and learning. In 2018-2019, the most recent data available, Achievement First students posted impressive results on RICAS Assessment. In math, Achievement First students tested 54 percent proficient, outperforming the state (29.8 percent) and Providence (11.9 percent). Two of the state’s highest performing school districts, East Greenwich and Barrington, tested 54.1 percent and 64.6 percent proficient, respectively. In English Language Arts, Achievement First students tested 57.1 percent proficient, outperforming the state (38.5 percent) and Providence (17.2 percent). East Greenwich and Barrington tested 64.2 percent and 72.9 percent, respectively.

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During the pandemic and the 2020-2021 school year, while Providence struggled mightily with attendance and 60 percent of students were chronically absent, missing more than 18 days of school, Achievement First’s average attendance rate was 94.7 percent.

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When I, along with several other mayors, moved to open Achievement First, I hoped its longer school day, longer school year, strong curriculum, and principal autonomy, especially the ability to pick their teachers, would lead to better student outcomes which could serve as an example for other Providence public schools and be a catalyst for change.

We often hear there needs to be more collaboration between charter schools and traditional public schools. Sharing the same building certainly seems to provide a perfect opportunity to collaborate. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two by studying Achievement First’s best practices and adapting them for the Providence Public Schools.

Instead, what we have heard through the years is a litany of excuses for why Achievement First students perform so well while their peers in public schools are so far behind. In the face of this student achievement, the General Assembly, at the urging of teachers’ unions, has considered a range of bills to reduce funding to existing charter schools and the Senate passed a moratorium on new or expanded charter schools.

We have before us an example of what works. We should be doing more to expand high-performing schools instead of making excuses and putting up roadblocks. If traditional public schools are not willing to change, it is incumbent on our leaders to expand, build and replicate the models that are working. Let’s stop the political squabbling, focus on teaching and learning and put our children first.

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Angel Taveras is the former mayor of Providence.