City, school leaders divided over Achievement First expansion plan

The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The mayors of Cranston, North Providence, Providence and Warwick all want Achievement First to continue serving its existing elementary school students through middle and high school, but they’re not in lockstep over the charter management organization’s current expansion proposal.

The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education heard more than three hours of public testimony for and against several charter school proposals Tuesday evening, with Achievement First’s plan to grow to 3,112 students by the 2026-27 school year taking center stage.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican, penned a letter to the council Tuesday asking members to oppose Achievement First’s request because it is larger than he originally envisioned. In a follow-up interview, he said he supports a smaller expansion that would total roughly 2,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12 over the next decade.

While North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, a Democrat, has signed on to Achievement First’s current growth plan, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian say they support a smaller expansion.

Elorza, a Democrat, told the council he supports allowing the organization’s two existing elementary schools to send students to middle and high school, but he is not ready to support a larger expansion that would include a third elementary school. Avedisian, a Republican, has sent a letter to the council expressing support for Elorza’s position.

Achievement First currently runs two elementary schools out of the same building on Hartford Avenue. As a mayoral academy, it accepts students from all four communities, but the vast majority of students live in the capital city.

The organization has asked the council to approve a growth plan that would allow the students enrolled in the two existing elementary schools to stay with Achievement First through high school. It has also asked to open another K-8 school that will ultimately feed into one high school. The organization is currently approved for 920 seats. By the 2026-27 school year, Achievement First would serve 3,112 students.

Tuesday’s council meeting came days after Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner expressed support for Achievement First’s full expansion, citing the organization’s track record for providing high-quality education in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.

Wagner’s endorsement has drawn the scorn of teachers’ union leaders and city politicians who say allowing more students to choose to attend non-traditional public schools will result in Providence and other communities losing out on millions of dollars in education aid because the majority of per-pupil school spending follows students no matter where they go to school.

Maribeth Reynolds-Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, called the public hearing process for the charter school expansion an “exercise in futility,” suggesting the council has always planned to approve Achievement First’s proposal.

“The fix has been in since the beginning,” she said. “And public schools, Providence public schools specifically, have been sold to the highest bidder, which is currently Achievement First, by Commissioner Wagner and the puppet master herself, Gina Raimondo.”

Other powerful labor leaders, including Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee and Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals President Frank Flynn, also spoke in opposition to the proposal.

But the majority of individuals who testified about Achievement First Tuesday encouraged the council to back the expansion.

Ramon Perez, an incoming Democrat state representative from House District 13, told the council he initially opposed charter schools, but his mind was changed when he visited Achievement First. Perez said he and his wife are expecting their first child soon and he wants the child to eventually attend Achievement First.

Courtney Richardson, a lifelong Providence resident whose child attends Achievement First, said the school has become a “safety zone” for her son. She said the culture has allowed him to excel in and out of school.

“Achievement First is my family. It’s more than a school,” Richardson told the council. “I believe in Achievement First because I know that they believe in my son and they believe in the community.”

The council is expected to vote on the expansion proposal Dec. 20.

Continue the discussion on Facebook

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