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Julia Steiny: Can Charter Schools Save Providence?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

 

The windowless basement meeting room buzzed with excited, nervous chatter. Rival schools were about to sit down to get to know one another, rather intimately.

Nine schools in the Providence School District have agreed to consider converting to charter status, by partnering with one of Rhode Island’s excellent charter schools. Together they’ll adapt the charter-school's educational strategy, write up their co-created new design, and apply for charter status from the state.

The new joint-venture schools will remain district-run and unionized. These sorts of district-school conversions are not terribly common, but they do exist -- mainly because faculties get so frustrated with certain district policies, curriculum or labor-contract provisions that they want the flexibility that comes with charter status. In Providence's case, the district itself is encouraging the conversions.

Actually, this was whole point of the charter-school movement from its inception in the early 1990s -- to encourage experiments and innovations that could spread back to the regular district schools. But the way history played out, charters and district schools felt pitted against one another, bitterly competing for resources, students and praise.

True, tiny Central Falls, also in Rhode Island, has a nationally-recognized collaboration among district schools and the charters that serve that city’s children. But it’s the only collaboration of its kind I’ve ever heard of, until now.

Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi introduced this highly-unusual meet-and-greet as the “collective brain child” of Providence’s leadership, including the School Board chair and the President of the teachers union.

Surely they'd noticed that almost all of the local charters soared in the recent “Report Card” state rankings.

By contrast, fully half of the Providence Public Schools are “chronically low-performing,” which is ed-speak for failing and coming under state scrutiny.

Even so, it’s bold for any district to welcome a range of ideas with proven track records from the oft-resented charters.

During the first hour of the meeting, each presenter was supposed to make an absurdly short, 2-minute presentation. Schools sketched out a wide range of successful strategies. Power-point slides, changing every 8 seconds in the background, presented stats faster than anyone could read. It was a little nuts.

Also pitching their strategies as potential partners were a few more familiar and non-controversial providers – social services, volunteer organizations.

Then, for the second hour, the presenters occupied tables where district teachers and school staff could ask questions.

Several people called the event “educational speed dating.”

Superintendent Lusi was blunt about what she was hoping her schools would get from collaborating with the charters: community, capacity and resources. “First, charters are characterized as being cohesive communities of parents, students and staff. Secondly, for over a year Providence has been building partnerships to bring more capacity and expertise to our schools. We’re still looking for more value-added partnerships.”

Lastly, sighs Lusi, “We need the resources. The RI Department of Education has 3 million dollars that can be used for charter start-ups.” Regular district schools can get a piece of that pie, but only if they convert to charter status.

Nationally, the public is frustrated with the pace of school reform, creating intense pressure to satisfy the parents’ and public’s demand for better school options. Either district schools can become the change we all want to see, or they'll let competition put them out of business.

Ironically, most charter schools nationally are just as academically mediocre as the regular public schools kids are trying to escape. But since charter schools live or die on their ability to attract and keep students and families, they’re famous for being warm, welcoming places that parents prefer to the often-hidebound, district schools.

So consider this little clash of cultures. Many of the Providence district attendees expressed a strong desire to improve their relationship with parents. One charter director conceded that involving urban parents is a super-tough job. So his teachers all visit their students’ homes before school opens in the fall, to meet or re-connect with the family and talk about their mutual expectations for the year.

A Providence teacher asked, “Who does these visits?” The Director enthused, “The classroom teachers. And giving the parents a business card, saying call me any time; this is my cell phone number, that creates a relationship that’s crazy powerful.”

“The teachers give out their cell phone numbers?” asked one. “Yeah,” said the Director. And there was an uncomfortable pause.

Charter and district-school cultures are very different. I asked Superintendent Lusi if she thought her schools would be willing to be flexible.

She shrugged and said, “We’ve got to do something. We need so much help. We’re not going to get anywhere without getting out of the box. This seems promising.”

Even more enthused was Dr. Robert Pilkington, now applying to start his fourth charter school. “This is historic! This is the crucible. This is what it was supposed to be all about at the get-go. There’s no anger here. Just collegial involvement!”

I’m not sure there wasn’t a smidge of anger. But hey, everyone there seemed fairly serious about collaborating. I only wish Congress could also grow up and learn to collaborate in the best interests of all.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

 

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