2 new charter schools may open in Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two new charter schools are on track to open in Rhode Island’s capital city.

The state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted Tuesday to grant preliminary approval to the Wangari Maathai Community School and Charette Charter School, two public charter schools that will eventually serve nearly 500 Providence students.

Both schools have to meet certain deadlines and conditions before they can be fully approved, according to Meg Geoghegan, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Education.

The Wangari Maathai Community School would eventually serve 324 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, but would open during the 2019-20 school year serving 144 students in kindergarten, first, fifth and sixth grades, according to the school’s charter application.

The school is being created by the Southside Community Land Trust, an organization founded in 1981 that now operates 21 community gardens in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls as well as several farms, according to its website.

The Charette Charter School is seeking to operate a 168-student high school, but would open with 88 students next year. The school’s establishing entity is The Davinci Center, a nonprofit social services organization that primarily serves families from the city’s North End.

In their application, school leaders said they are seeking to create an “urban planning theme-based blended learning school” where students would participate in a “pod-based blended learning environment while also working with the community to engage real-world examples of urban planning and historic preservation.”

Both schools applied for charters last year, but the council turned them down. In separate recommendations for approval to the council, state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said the schools improved their applications this year.

Wagner also cited the high demand for charter schools in Providence. He said 6,771 students in grades kindergarten through eight applied to attend a charter school for the current school year, but only 421 seats were available. At the high school level, only 304 charter school seats were awarded to 2,581 applicants.

Although there was little opposition to the new schools, the Providence school department did raise concerns about the financial hit it will take from students attending charter schools rather than traditional public schools. Under the state’s current education funding formula, the vast majority of per-pupil funding follows students no matter where they attend public school.

In letters to the R.I. Department of Education dated Nov. 1, Michael D’Antuono, the business manager for Providence schools, warned the “expansion of existing and addition of new charter school programs would cost Providence schools approximately $3.8 million” during the 2018-19 fiscal year.

“If the proposed expansion and new charter school seats are approved, more drastic budget cuts will be needed,” D’Antuono wrote. “This would, at the bare minimum, require the leadership team to identify non-mandatory programs and services that can be reduced or eliminated.”

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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