Q&A: Why Achievement First wants to expand its charter schools in Providence

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The charter management organization that runs two high-performing elementary schools in Providence will learn next month whether it can move forward with a plan to expand to as many as 3,112 students over the next decade.

So why is Achievement First seeking to grow and what will it mean for the capital city?

Elizabeth Winangun, Achievement First’s associate director of external relations, sat down with WPRI.com to discuss the organization’s relationship with Providence, funding, the current expansion plan and more.

The interview has been lightly edited and annotated for length and clarity.

Has your goal always been to expand to middle school and high school?

We are currently approved for kindergarten through fifth grade at Providence Mayoral Academy and kindergarten through fourth grade at Iluminar Mayoral Academy. When we first came to Providence, our whole plan was to have two elementary schools that feed two middle schools that feed one high school, and in that moment, the department of education said [the application] was too big. They told apply for the initial five-year charter and prove ourselves.

So what does your current proposal look like?

It’s one application with two different pieces. One piece is growing our current schools to middle and high school. The other is adding an additional school, kindergarten through eighth grade. (Editor’s note: Mayor Jorge Elorza has said he supports the plan to open a middle school and high school, but has not committed to the third elementary school)

How much have you told parents whose children attend Achievement First about your expansion plans?

We’ve been totally transparent. We’ve told them we’re approved K-5 and K-4. We have to apply for our middle and high schools. We believe that if we’re serving kids well, the department of education will grant the expansion. And we tell them we’re going to need their help. The goal is to climb the mountain all the way to college with your kids. That’s what we tell them.

Let’s say you are approved for 3,112 students. Is the goal in Providence to continue to expand?

I think if you asked [Achievement First co-CEO and president] Dacia Toll, she’d say no. The other piece about growth for us is that we will have the additional capacity to really partner strongly and ideally move the needle for many more kids than the ones in our building.

The president of the Providence School Board has criticized Achievement First for failing to partner with the school district.

I don’t know that the school board president is privy to the multiple conversations that I’ve had with the Supt. Chris Maher and leadership in Providence. But within my first two weeks here, I reached out to Providence.

So what specifically have you done to partner with the district?

The superintendent and the director of curriculum brought the whole administrative team to one of our data days. We set aside a day every six or eight weeks and our entire team comes together and literally looks at student data and figures out the changes we need to make. We had them participate in the full day. We got incredibly positive feedback. Achievement First also created a hub that you can sign into and it gives you access to all of our materials and we’ve shared it with Providence public schools. And we’d share it with anyone. The next conversation we started at the very beginning of last year was if we could start a principal in residency program in Rhode Island. In New Haven, we train district principals and have been for about six years. In Connecticut, we can certify principals, which is different than in Rhode Island. This program is of no cost to this district except for paying the person they identify to be in the program.

A lot of these examples sound recent. Supt. Maher is only in his second year. Achievement First was open before that. Would you say you were a good partner to the district pre-Chris Maher?

When I first started here, I invited Supt. Susan Lusi and [top aide] Doris De Los Santos to come and visit. Sue couldn’t make it. Doris came. We started to have conversations about what we could share or do. And then Sue pivoted on her perspective on charter schools and the impact on the district. And then my communication with Doris was a one-way street.

So what can Achievement First do to help the district?

We totally look at collaboration as a two-way street. We absolutely believe we have as much to learn from Providence as they do from us, probably more. If there is one thing that is really powerful for us to share, it’s around training. The way that we work with adults to get everybody around the same mindset of working with kids and really believing in every student that walks through the door. One of the other things that I’d love to share is we have a school leader and then a director of operations. To me, if Providence could get to a place where they have a director of operations and a person who is strictly focused on academics, that would be amazing.

A lot of the opposition to the expansion comes down to money and whether Providence can afford this. What do you say when Providence officials say this just doesn’t make any sense financially?

I think the General Assembly did a pretty good job of trying to fix this. They’re allowing districts to hold back their fixed costs. By doing that, the way that we look at it, is the money that is coming to our school is following the child and we’re charged with educating that child. So it’s very hard for me to come up with a fiscal impact analysis when we have the kids.

Is there a way to find the expansion money elsewhere, like through private grants?

Before I took the position here, I wanted to know that we weren’t going to be fighting with small nonprofits for money in Rhode Island. I think we want to be a community partner, not seen as taking money from our community partners. The other thing is our mission is to show that you can operate on public dollars and do a great job by kids. So if we raise a lot of money, we kill our entire theory. Would we partner with Providence public schools to bring money in that would benefit both systems? Absolutely.

Achievement First has shown excellent initial results on the PARCC exam. What are you doing different than a traditional public school district?

I would say having a longer school day is critically important. Really focusing on school culture so that you have strong systems and expectations for kids and you hold them to those expectations. And really seeing kids as having limitless potential. We definitely don’t feed into this narrative of if you are a low-income student from a difficult neighborhood, then school is going to be really hard for you. We completely flip that upside down.

One criticism of charters schools has been that teachers tend to burn out quickly. Would you say this is accurate?

We believe that millennials look at career as a totally different thing than baby boomers. And the idea that someone wants to start a career at 21, stay in it for 30 years, and that it should be in a classroom, doesn’t make a lot of sense. We believe that young people who want to teach should teach. We don’t believe that you can, generally speaking, be highly effective for 30 years in a row in front of kids.

There is another argument that you “counsel” some kids out of Achievement First if they’re not the right fit. Does that happen in Providence?

No. Has it ever happened historically? Probably. But I would say that as a 15-year-old organization, we made tons of mistakes and we’re constantly course correcting. So in our younger years, we probably made those mistakes. I will say that in Rhode Island, we’re really lucky because we benefit from 10 years of mistakes and learning. We’ve never asked a child to leave our school. We’ve never expelled a child. We’re super clear with our families that we will serve children with special needs. We serve any student who lands on our doorstep.

The challenge in Providence schools is generally considered to be at the middle school level. Will you accept students from traditional elementary schools into Achievement First’s middle school?

Both the mayor and superintendent flagged that in the earliest parts of this conversation. Immediately we said we would be happy to start a middle school. We’ve done it in New York and Connecticut. We have middle schools with no feeders. So if the third K-8 school is approved, we’ll open as a middle school. We also backfill seats. So we will take kids in from the traditional public schools if seats become available.

Would you be willing to support Mayor Elorza’s position, which is to grow to a middle and high school for students currently enrolled in the two elementary schools?

We would never cut off our nose to spite our face and our strongest commitment is to families in our building first.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan