Although the East Side has good public school options, many parents choose to send their children to the independent and charter schools in our area. There are several charter school options for East Side residents, although none are located in our neighborhood. Charter schools that accept applications from Providence residents include 11 schools located in Providence and many more outside of Providence, from Cumberland to West Greenwich. Some parents choose to send their children to these schools because of the unique programming they offer; for example, the International Charter School in Pawtucket uses a dual language bilingual education model, in which all students learn 50% of the time in English and 50% of the time in either Spanish or Portuguese.
In Rhode Island alone, charter school applications jumped in 2016 to 14,628 for just 1,609 open spots, an increase of over 8% from last year. Although charter schools serve just 5% of the students in the state, there is a great deal of controversy about them. Proponents argue that charter schools are places where innovative educational practices can be implemented on a small scale, so that lessons learned may be incorporated into all public schools. Critics believe that charter schools siphon funds away from the public schools, since the majority of the funding follows the enrolled students.
Do charters give a better education?
The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University says no. They found that while 17% of charter schools outperformed their local public school counterparts, 37% actually performed worse, and the remaining 46% performed about the same.
Students at Providence charter schools tend to perform better than district schools on the PARCC assessment, although they do not perform as well as students statewide. One reason for this may be that Providence has a higher population of low-income students than other areas in the state, and income is highly correlated with test scores.
The exception is Village Green Virtual Charter School, where 59% of the students met or exceeded expectations in ELA/Literacy, compared with 38% statewide and 20% in Providence. This may be because its blended learning model encourages students to pace themselves and regular monitoring means that students quickly receive teacher assistance when needed.
Mike Petrilli, a noted author and expert on public education, believes that charter schools provide an alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach of public schools. He says, “Even in upper-middle-class communities, not all parents want the same things for their kids.” Therefore, even though charter schools may not outperform their public school counterparts, they offer opportunities for customization.
Interestingly, this is something that Rhode Island Department of Education’s Commissioner Ken Wagner is thinking about, as well. “We’ve been talking about ‘empowerment schools’ – schools that would have more autonomy to design their instructional programs. We still pretend that the school you’re assigned to based on where you live is magically going to be the best school for you. But we know that all kids are different and schools have strengths that they focus on. So one innovation that we hope we can get further on is allowing kids to go to other schools, not necessarily charter schools or private schools.”
Until public schools can offer the diverse range of educational experiences that many families desire, perhaps charter schools can fill that need.
Tim Groves, Executive Director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, says that the rising application rates prove that charter schools are an option many families want. “Our schools provide unique learning experiences for children and foster innovation within the public education system. This overwhelming demand for our schools reaffirms that we must continue working to support great public school options for all students.”
In the meantime, East Side residents are lucky to have a range of options available to us, from our neighborhood public schools to our acclaimed independent schools to the many charter schools that serve Providence students.