Broadly described, charter schools are publicly funded elementary, middle and high schools that have freedom from some of the rules, regulations, and policies that apply to other public schools. With this autonomy – which allows greater control over budget, instruction, assessment, governance, leadership, student population, teacher hiring and firing, professional development, and other factors – charter schools are accountable for producing certain student achievement results. In Rhode Island, schools' charters are granted by the state. Charter schools are not part of school districts; they regulated by their own governing boards and each functions as an independent districts.
Some outspoken advocates say that charter schools will save our public schools. Others assert that charter schools will destroy our public schools. The discussion of these possibilities is endlessly fascinating, but not germane to the immediate proceedings, so let’s move on.
As this school year began, the Providence Public Schools invited all of its schools to apply to the state to become “in-district” charter schools, a process that would ordinarily have begun a year ago. Two factors created the conditions for this development. The first was the Providence Public Schools’ urgent need for more flexibility in order to create better conditions for student achievement. The second was the availability of federal charter school funding administered by the Rhode Island Department of Education. The district envisioned that such schools would work with local education and social service partners to create and implement an educational program that would serve students within Providence. This process unfolded with extraordinary haste, which was somewhat understandable in order to capture an opportunity, but also unfortunate, because schools have been asked to take a tremendous leap of faith while basic questions remain unanswered.
Nevertheless, several schools asked for support from the district to submit charter applications in December 2012, which would allow them to be considered for charter status for 2013-2014 academic year. One is the East Side’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, which serves approximately 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade (and where two of my three kids are enrolled; our third is a King alum). King’s leadership team formed a partnership with The Learning Community charter school, a Central Falls school that serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. On October 1, King submitted a prospectus that described its vision for its reinvention as a charter school, which was approved on October 10. King will submit a full charter application to the state on December 1; by that date, the school’s faculty members (who would remain members of the Providence Teachers Union) and parents (whose children would remain students at King if they wish) will vote about whether to proceed with the charter application, which will go forward with majority approval by both groups.
Derrick Ciesla, King’s principal since 2009, believes that the potential upside for the school validates the risks of moving quickly. If King were an in-district charter school, the school community would have the opportunity to make decisions that would improve students’ academic achievement while bolstering family involvement. Cielsa says that increased independence from the district, combined with additional funding, would make possible “opportunities that we will otherwise never benefit from or have access to, namely, funding for special programs, more teachers, support staff, new books, computers and equipment.”
Ciesla also views the charter possibility as a way to have more control over student population. Like most public elementary schools in Providence, King is designated as a neighborhood school, which means that it may enroll up to 80 percent of its students from a neighborhood zone defined by the district as a mile around the school. However, due to school closures at the end of the 2010-2011 school year, district enrollment decisions, and other factors, well more than half of King’s students are from more than a mile away. King plans to ask for a variance to state charter law in order to remain a neighborhood school and to use the charter process to accelerate school improvement. This is so that King indeed remains (as it has been for many years) a school of choice for the diverse families that it has served for, in some cases, generations who come in part though not entirely from the East Side. “My goal is to close the achievement gap,” says Ciesla. “I want to do that with the students we are serving now as well as whatever students of whatever ethnicity we may serve in the future.”
King will convene several community conversations at which staff members, current families and interested neighbors can gather to give input, ask questions and understand the potential benefits and risks, including the benefits and risks of remaining a school that serves its neighborhood, however that may be defined. The school will also include parents on the team that will write the charter application.
“Everyone at MLK agrees that the most important thing here is to educate all of our children to the best of our abilities,” Ciesla notes. “It doesn't matter what background our students come from. I want to give each of them a solid learning foundation that will provide them with the chance to succeed in their education and in the rest of their lives.”