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Guest MINDSETTER™ Mayor Dan McKee: Mayoral Academies Can Turn Rhode Island Around

Monday, March 26, 2012


Recently, realtors working with two of Rhode Island’s Fortune 500 companies told me that new employees at those companies are typically advised to look for homes in Massachusetts, where the public schools are better.

The economic loss of this reality is staggering.

I would have liked to have told them that Rhode Island school districts are positioned to do whatever it takes to compete academically with Massachusetts and the world. However, until voters elect more transformational school committee members to replace status quo thinking members in districts, to say so would be premature.

This is an extraordinarily difficult and pivotal moment for Rhode Island. At a time when Rhode Island’s cities and towns are teetering financially, the greatest threat to their survival is that cynicism and despair will drive our families out of the state entirely, leaving us a body without the backbone we need to rise up from the floor. Rhode Island families and businesses, as well as those considering moving to our state, need signs of hope, indications that we are willing to adapt and improve the way we operate our state and serve the people.

One such sign of hope is Blackstone Valley Prep (BVP) Mayoral Academy, a network of three public schools now serving over 500 Rhode Island children from Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln and Pawtucket.

This year BVP Mayoral Academy middle school students, who as a group entered the 5th grade far behind state proficiency averages, improved by 25 percentage points in reading and 41 percentage points in math. 89% of 6th graders scored proficient in math on the NECAP test after just one year in a mayoral academy, The BVP Mayoral Academy students outperform all but two sixth grades in RI in math trailing their peers in Barrington Middle School and Compass Charter School in South Kingstown..

Most impressively, in their socio-economically diverse schools BVP Mayoral Academy did not merely “close the achievement gap” between groups from different backgrounds and of different means. More importantly for Rhode Island is that the mayoral academy program catapulted all students toward true global competitiveness.

In June 2008 the House of Representatives had a thoughtful debate about whether it should allow municipal leaders to open excellent regional public schools for children in their communities, and whether these schools should receive increased autonomy and flexibility in exchange for increased public accountability. The answer was yes. The General Assembly created mayoral academies.

That day, Speaker Gordon Fox spoke about his reasons for supporting the legislation. “Vote yes to our children’s future,” the Speaker said, “and let’s give the mayoral academies, with the chief executive officers, the people that run our cities and towns, the opportunity to put a plan together with the best and brightest minds in this world, all for the betterment of Rhode Island.”

In turns out that Speaker Fox and his colleagues in the General Assembly who voted for the mayoral academy legislation were not only courageous but wise.

In 2008, there were those who claimed that mayoral academies would somehow “diminish the quality of education rather than improve it.” In 2012, however, it is obvious that mayors can oversee a network of diverse, regional public schools in a highly accountable, responsible and successful way. Mayoral Academies, given greater autonomy, can nimbly adopt national best practices in a way that leads to rapid and dramatic student success within the parameters of typical budgets.

If embraced Mayoral Academies can help provide the leverage for the change Rhode Island families and businesses are seeking in all public schools.

Municipal leaders did not become involved in mayoral academies simply to improve the lives of the students currently enrolled or the few thousand who might enroll in the future. Municipal Leaders from current or approved mayoral academy enrolling districts represent about half of Rhode Island’s total population and half its public school students. Our responsibility is to them all.

As we marshal our efforts and work together to secure the future of our state, let us remember this: successful innovations should be nurtured and grown, and that those who seek to thwart them are acting out of ignorance or callous self-interest rather than in the best interest of the people of Rhode Island.

Dan McKee is the Mayor of Cumberland.

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