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Christine Lopes Metcalfe: Rhode Island Parents Want Choice

Friday, March 21, 2014


The message is clear: Rhode Island parents want choice

After more than a decade since opening the first public charter school in Rhode Island, it’s important to recognize the contribution that public charter schools make to the educational offerings in RI and the opportunities they provide families. A recent article in GoLocalProv reported the astounding 2013 public charter school lottery numbers – over 11,800 applications were submitted for around 1,300 open spots. Those numbers, almost double the number of applications seen just two years ago, are a reminder of how important it is to provide high quality public school options for students across the state.

Let’s start with the basics. We often hear misconceptions and misinformation about public charter schools, what they are and who they serve. First, public charter schools are just that: public schools. They are approved through the state Board of Education and are accountable to the same standards, assessments and transparency as any public school. They operate with some freedoms and flexibilities from certain laws and regulations in order to create innovative models and in turn, they are held to a greater level of accountability, requiring a rigorous review every five years. Because Rhode Island laws prohibit any for-profit entity from operating a public school, all of our public charter schools are run by non-profits and governed by a board that’s required to conduct public meetings.

Charter School Audience

Who do our public charter schools serve? Charter schools provide the opportunity to create programs and curriculum to serve a variety of student populations and experiences. Our public charter schools in Rhode Island have diverse and innovative models focused on, for example, the arts, trades, languages, engineering, college-prep and blended learning. The Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter High School attracts students looking to get a head start on their nursing career, enrolling in both high school and college courses to put them on a path to a viable career in healthcare. Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy serves students from four communities in the Blackstone Valley, intentionally bringing together urban and suburban students to create a culture of high expectations for all within a divers school setting.

Our public charter schools also serve a diverse student body, conducting a state-mandated lottery only when the number of applications exceeds the available number of seats in a given school year. Despite the misconception that charter schools somehow take only the best students, all of our public charter schools are required to accept any student that applies, and as stated above, only when demand is larger than the number of spots available is a lottery conducted. Since demand has risen, the lottery process is generally always a part of the process, but the public charter school is still required to accept any student who applies and receives a spot through the lottery.

And the numbers speak for themselves – as awareness and availability of public charter schools openings increase, so do the number of families seeking them out. As encouraging as it is to see those rising numbers, it is equally disheartening to know how many of those families have been placed on waitlists.

Call for Expansion

Christine Lopes Metcalfe

So why should we continue to expand public school choice for families in Rhode Island? I’ve seen examples of parents that have one child in a public charter or mayoral academy and the other child in a traditional public school. The reason? Each child thrives in different settings. If one shoe does not fit all, why do we assume one school type will meet the needs of all children? Shouldn’t we be able to provide more options rather than fewer? The opportunity to create more innovative models not only benefits the thousands of families who sit on waiting lists but also the traditional public school districts that serve the majority of our students. By sharing best practices and pushing for excellence alongside our public charters, perhaps we can create a climate where the demand for choice spills over to all public schools. Our public school students could have the opportunity not just to attend their neighborhood school but maybe any school in their district or neighboring community. With a small physical footprint and diverse school offerings and models, expanding public school choice in Rhode Island can be a win for every student in our state. Our families have sent a clear message – it’s up to us to act.

Christine Lopes Metcalfe is the executive director of RI-CAN: The Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now, an education advocacy organization working to enact smart public policies so that every Rhode Island child has access to a great public school.


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