The Achievement First mayoral academy sponsored by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is on track to open in the fall of 2013, with the application period for students coming to a close at midnight on Feb. 22. Applicants from Warwick, Cranston, Providence and North Providence can submit their names for a random lottery through the school’s website, or by mailing, faxing or dropping off an application.
“The lottery is an open and random lottery. The only preference that is given to one student versus another is based on poverty indicators. We’re focusing, in these last few weeks, on pushing awareness,” said Benjamin Smith, the director of school operations for Achievement First Rhode Island.
Achievement First has a network of 22 non-profit, college-preparatory public charter schools in Connecticut, New York and now Rhode Island.
The mayoral academy proposal was first proposed by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung but, after ardent opposition from the Cranston Teachers Alliance and the Cranston School Committee, was rejected by the Board of Regents. Achievement First wasted no time submitting a similar application for Providence, with the support of Taveras. In February of 2012, the Regents voted 5-4 to grant preliminary approval to the proposal, which would now include students from all four communities.
“I like the format of the Mayoral Academy and know that it was created out of a philosophy not to be in competition to the school department but as a way for local elected officials to have more influence over educational policies,” said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. “Mayor Tavares is the lead sponsor of the new mayoral academy that is opening, but Mayor Fung, Mayor [Charles] Lombardi and I will all be involved in the process.”
Avedisian said not all four mayors would serve on the board, however, to avoid making the entity “too political.”
Despite the pushback from host communities, Smith says Rhode Island families are welcoming Achievement First with open arms. They have received more than 700 applications to date for the school.
“For a first-year startup in a new geography, we think it’s extraordinary demand. We think it demonstrates the desire for school choice,” Smith said.
Achievement First does not adhere to traditional classroom practices, or the number of curriculum hours regulated by the Rhode Island Department of Education. The school year will run from late August to mid-June, with a longer school day that lasts from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Avedisian believes the Achievement First mission and approach will benefit students in Warwick that are accepted. He likened it to the Blackstone Valley Democracy Prep charter school, governed by Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee.
“Blackstone Valley Prep has quickly shown me that there is a way to build a nurturing and empowering community of teachers, parents and business leaders, and I think that the amount of parental involvement can spur all schools to be stronger,” he said.
Smith says that Providence students have submitted the most applications, but the distribution among the remaining three communities is otherwise equal.
“The fact that we’re seeing such high interest that despite some of the abstract conversations that were being had about the effects and desirability of the school, the reality is when you put the option in front of families, they respond by applying,” he said.
The Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy is slated to open in late August of 2013 with a kindergarten and first grade, each with 88 students, for a total of 176 students.
The proposal is to add an elementary grade each year. The proposal also includes the option for opening a second school, which could open as early as 2014, but Smith says whether or not that will happen that soon remains unclear.
How many students will come from Warwick also remains unclear, as the lottery is essentially random. Smith said students with the “highest need” are weighted in the lottery.
The only other factor for entry is whether or not the student has a sibling who is selected for admission. There is a sibling preference built in to the lottery, so siblings will be able to attend the same school.
The opening date is fast approaching, but details are still being worked out, including a location. The Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School in Providence has been identified as Achievement First’s preferred site, but the lease is still in front of the Providence City Council. A vote is scheduled for Feb. 21. If approved, contractors will be in the building as soon as possible, making an estimated $10 million in improvements.
“We are primed up to begin renovations to the school, which will be very significant,” Smith said.
The $10 million will be invested over three to four years, in three phases. Funding comes from private philanthropy, the school’s facilities budget and multi-year debt payments and state/city facilities reimbursements.
Much of the funding comes directly from the state, an issue at the center of opposition to charter schools. Under the state’s fair funding formula, the money follows the student. So, for example, if it costs $15,000 per year to educate the average student, that $15,000 would come out of state allocations from the sending district and be given to Achievement First.
Opponents to the proposal fear what the financial impact could be on Warwick Public Schools. The numbers will not be available until March at the earliest.
“We are required, by the end of March, to give an initial statement on what our enrollment is and where our students are coming from,” Smith said.
Avedisian does not believe the impact will be significant.
“ If you were to look at all of the Warwick-based students that are in charter schools across the state, I think it is very limited,” he said. “I do not expect that there will be a negative impact to our school system at all. In fact, I hope that there is a way to bridge the two systems to make both of them stronger.”
Achievement First has hired seven teachers to date, four of whom are current Rhode Islanders, with a plan to bring in 22 to 25 teachers total for the first year. On Monday, the organization’s Board of Directors confirmed Morgan Carter as the founding school principal. Carter is a graduate of the University of Washington and Walden University, and was a founding teacher at Achievement First’s Amistad Academy Elementary School before becoming its academic dean.
The deadline for the lottery is Feb. 22 at midnight, and the lottery will be conducted on March 1.
“It’s a very simple method for families, which really only involves giving the information for your child and information for the guardian,” Smith said.
In addition to the families that sought out applications independently, Achievement First did a 3,600-person mailing, which included applications, across the four sending communities. Another 1,500 applications were mailed in Spanish. Some families also submitted applications through Providence’s school enrollment forms, which give guardians the option to indicate top school choices.
Smith and his colleagues are encouraging interested families to continue to apply in the final week.
“We just want to make sure that all families are aware of the option and that if it seems right for them and their children, they will have a fair shake in going through the lottery process,” he said. “We accept all students, regardless if English is their second language, if they have IEPs ... we are taking all students into the school and want, as part of our mission, to serve Rhode Island’s highest need students.”
To apply online, visit www.achievementfirst.org/enroll/rhode-island-student-enrollment/ or email admissionsRI@achievementfirst.org, or call 400-2081.