Achievement First’s plan to open new school delayed

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – An organization that runs several high-performing charter schools in Providence is delaying its plan to open another school next year, as city leaders haven’t budged on their concerns about the fiscal impact of more students attending non-traditional public schools.

Achievement First has already been approved to grow to 3,112 students by the 2026-27 school year. But a proposal to open another school as part of the expansion is on hold, according to Elizabeth Winangun, the organization’s director of external relations.

“We are looking forward to expanding to meet the demand from Rhode Island families, but we need more time to work out the finer points of how we can make this happen in collaboration with the mayor’s office to maximize AF’s positive impact on the education landscape in the greater Providence area,” Winangun said in a statement.

Achievement First currently operates three mayoral academies – Providence Mayoral Academy Elementary, Providence Mayoral Academy Middle and Iluminar Mayoral Academy – out of the same building on Hartford Avenue, serving students from Providence, Cranston, North Providence and Warwick. The vast majority of students attending the schools live in the capital city.

The existing schools are already approved to serve students from kindergarten through eighth grade, although Achievement First’s oldest students are currently in the fifth grade. The organization plans to add a grade each year and ultimately wants to open a high school, as it has in New York and Connecticut.

None of its current students will be affected by the decision to not open a third school next year. There are more than 700 students currently enrolled in Achievement First’s schools.

The state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted last year to allow Achievement First to expand to 3,112 students, which included a plan to open a new school beginning in the 2018-19 school year. But Mayor Jorge Elorza, who chairs the board of Achievement First, has said he won’t support the full expansion unless the organization finds a way to help the city cover millions of dollars Providence stands to lose from sending more students to charter schools.

Rhode Island’s school funding formula is designed to have the majority of per-pupil spending follow the student no matter where they attend public school, including public charter schools. But politicians and school district leaders have argued that traditional public schools are harmed when funding is diverted to charter schools.

A spokesperson for Elorza said the mayor’s position on the Achievement First expansion has not changed.

Despite some opposition, Achievement First has thrived in Providence.

The Providence Mayoral Academy was one of 28 schools in the state to earn “commended” status from the R.I. Department of Education last month based on its impressive test scores. While just 18% of fourth grade students in Providence were proficient in math during the 2016-17 school year, 60% of the fourth graders at Providence Mayoral Academy were proficient.

The only other school in Providence to earn a “commended” ranking was Classical High School, which requires students to take an entry exam.

Separately, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner has recommended to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education that Achievement First’s charter be renewed for another five years. The council is expected to vote on the renewal later this year.

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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