PROVIDENCE — Mayor Jorge Elorza on Monday floated the idea of expanding the high-performing Achievement First charter school organization, but his proposal came with a twist — closing a less successful charter school in exchange for the expansion.
The upshot of Elorza’s controversial idea would be that the number of seats in Providence charter schools would not increase significantly, meaning that more students would not be able to leave the city’s troubled public school system.
Elorza serves as chairman of the Achievement First board of directors, but he has resisted a proposal to open a third elementary charter school that would predominately serve students from the capital city.
Elorza does not have the authority to close any charter schools, and other members of the Achievement First board of directors quickly took issue with the mayor’s idea during Monday’s board meeting. But Elorza said he will contact the state Department of Education to discuss shuttering another charter school.
The mayor did not identify which school he would seek to close.
“That’s not practical,” Reshma Singh, a board member, said during the meeting.
Singh told Elorza she was surprised he continues to express concern about the financial impact an Achievement First expansion would have on Providence even after a scathing report on the district was released by researchers from Johns Hopkins University.
Elorza told Singh her comments were unfair, noting that he is responsible for serving 25,000 students in Providence. The state’s education funding formula requires a majority of per pupil aid to follow the student no matter where they attend public school, so Elorza’s argues that his district loses money every time a student picks a charter school.
Achievement First currently serves 1,300 students from Providence, Cranston, Warwick and North Providence in grades kindergarten through the seventh grade, using two elementary schools and a middle school. The organization has already committed to opening a high school once its students reach the ninth grade.
In 2016, the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education also voted to allow Achievement First to open an additional elementary school, with the goal of eventually enrolling 3,100 students by 2026. But Achievement First’s board granted Elorza the final say over the expansion.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who is currently in the process of taking control of the Providence school system, quickly distanced herself from Elorza’s comments. Through a spokesperson, she called on the mayor to allow Achievement First to expand.
“Those are quality learning opportunities that are in demand by Providence families, and we believe the mayor should allow that expansion to move forward,” spokesperson Meg Geoghegan wrote in an e-mail. “Closing a charter school is an entirely separate conversation and process.”
Dacia Toll, a co-CEO and president of Achievement First, said more than 800 children are currently on the school’s waiting list for kindergarten and 500 kids are on the first grade waiting list.
Achievement First, a nonprofit that also runs schools in Connecticut and New York, opened its doors in Providence in 2013. The organization offers longer schools days and school years, and its teachers are not members of a union.
In 2018, 80 percent of third-graders at one of Achievement First’s elementary schools were proficient in English and 76 percent were proficient in math, according to scores on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System. For the entire state, only 34 percent of students were doing English at grade level and 27 percent were proficient in math.
Elorza, who has served on the Achievement First board since before he was mayor, was quick to praise the school’s accomplishments. But he suggested that opening another elementary school by next school year was “exceedingly unlikely.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Elorza told the board.
Toll, the president of the Achievement, corrected the mayor, suggesting the expansion could occur if the board approves it by next month.
“We could get a school open [next] fall,” she said.