On Charter Schools and Integration: A Case Study

Blackstone Valley Prep phys-ed teacher Jay Murray is also trained in phonics; here he conducts a pirate-themed reading lesson, rewarding correct answers by putting "gold coins" in each child's treasure chest.

Yesterday Bob Herbert published a very good column about why racial and socioeconomic integration remain important education reform goals, even though saying so much has become politically taboo.

Educators know that it is very difficult to get consistently good results in schools characterized by high concentrations of poverty. The best teachers tend to avoid such schools. Expectations regarding student achievement are frequently much lower, and there are lower levels of parental involvement. These, of course, are the very schools in which so many black and Hispanic children are enrolled.

One reason we don't have a real political conversation about how to counteract school segregation is because of the rise, since the mid-1990s, of the charter school movement. Charter networks such as KIPP and Achievement First were founded in inner city neighborhoods by educators who wanted to prove that extraordinary efforts could lead to big achievement gains for poor kids. When some of these schools posted high standardized test scores, the conversation shifted; though there have always been inner city schools that beat the odds, the charter school movement displayed real media savvy in annoucing to the world that there were "finally" proof points showing that all children, "no matter what their zip code" (to borrow the parlance of Teach for America), could achieve academic success. Since then, educators, policy wonks, and union offcials who continue to cite the very real challenges posed by residential segregation, family poverty, and neighborhood degradation have often been accused of defending the unacceptable "status quo" in urban education and of making "excuses" for the failures of incompetent schools and teachers.

Given the charter school movement's role in shifting the education reform debate away from integration, I've long been intrigued by the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA), a charter school management model built upon the idea that integration does matter. RIMA was founded in 2008 by Daniel McKee, the mayor of well-heeled Cumberland, RI, and Michael Magee, a former Rhode Island School of Design professor with deep ties to the national education reform movement. McKee and Magee convinced the Rhode Island legislature to pass a law allowing mayors of neighboring towns and cities to form partnerships to issue school charters; the resulting schools must be regional, accepting students by lottery from both urban and suburban districts.

This idea borrows heavily from the older magnet school movement, which sought integration by locating high-achieving themed high schools in inner-city neighborhoods. What's different about RIMA is that in order to make the charter school even more attractive to suburban parents, it is located on the suburban side of city lines. 

The result is RIMA's first school, Blackstone Valley Prep, one of the most diverse schools of any kind I have ever visited. BVP currently draws 252 kindergartners, first-graders, and fifth-graders from two low-income cities, Pawtucket and Central Falls, and two affluent towns, Lincoln and Cumberland. Fifty-five percent of the students are black and Latino, 65 percent are poor, and 43 percent are English language learners.

In its pedagogical methods, BVP is a traditional "no excuses " charter, with uniforms, an extended learning day, and privately-funded extras, including free breakfast and a gorgeous, newly renovated building. Administrators and teachers greet students each morning with a handshake and eye contact, the kids are expected to line up and walk through the hallways in silence, and there are songs and chants to help the students memorize their multiplication tables and phonics principles. Standardized test gains and scores are impressive. 

BVP kindergartners and first-graders "get their wiggles out" after their daily breakfast and morning meeting.

Nationally, it has been an open question whether middle-class and affluent parents, who tend to bristle against too much testing and strict discipline, would embrace the "no excuses" charter model. But BVP has attracted interest from all four communities the school serves: The lottery for next year will include 267 students from Cumberland, where the school is located; 178 from Central Falls; 253 from Pawtucket; and 32 from Lincoln. 

While the success of BVP can't be solely attributed to the diversity of its student population, it truly was extraordinary to sit-in on the school's classes last Thursday and observe such a wide variety of children learning and playing together. The school's family council brings together parents from vastly different neighborhoods who "normally, in regular Rhode Island social life, would never interact with one another," Magee said.

This is in stark contrast to Central Falls High School, which I also visited last week. As Rhode Island education writer Tom Hoffman pointed out in a recent comment, there is something absurd about Central Falls, a tiny city struggling with severe economic problems, operating a stand-alone school district. The mostly poor, Latino students in Central Falls' traditional public schools are completely isolated from kids in better-off, geographically contiguous school districts. 

RIMA is currently awaiting word on whether the state will allow it to open five new regional charter schools in a partnership between the city of Providence and the town of Cranston. As politically unfeasible as it may be, the benefits of this integration model could be extended to many more children through efforts to consolidate very small districts in a way that decreases the educational isolation of poor children of color.

While there's a lot to like about RIMA, there are also some downsides: RIMA requires mayors to chair or co-chair each charter school's board, which raises questions about whether the schools will be particularly susceptible to political influence and thus unstable. Financial wrangling led to BVP's board severing ties to the school's original management partner, the New York-based Democracy Prep charter school network, in the middle of this schoolyear. Luckily, the in-school teaching and administrative staffs remained consistent throughout the transition. 

All in all, RIMA is doing important work in showing that diversity does matter for kids, both academically and in building character and community. As states across the country scale up their charter school sectors, I hope many more experiment with regional integration. 

Read more: Research shows good teachers flee segregated schools

The practicalities of school integration

Why housing policy is school policy

8 thoughts on “On Charter Schools and Integration: A Case Study

  1. Tom Hoffman

    “RIMA is currently awaiting word on whether the state will allow it to open five new regional charter schools in a partnership between the city of Providence and the town of Cranston.”

    As a resident of Providence, I know nothing about this, or, for that matter, what it even means.

  2. Tom Hoffman

    Well, if that’s the case, it is a BIG SECRET. I think they’ve just got plans for four more. There were only applications for three charters total in RI this year.

    Also, as far as I can tell, while the first Achievement First school, aiming to be open next year, would include students from Cranston and Providence, it wasn’t actually supported by Providence’s former mayor. I don’t know what Taveras thinks of it.

    But it is weird that a “mayoral academy” doesn’t seem to require the active support of the mayors of all the affected cities.

  3. Jacob

    Actually Tom, all mayoral academies have a board chaired by the mayor or town official in teh cities where they draw students.

  4. Phil Tegeler

    Thanks for pointing out that charter schools don’t have to be racially segregated – in fact in many states they can achieve racial and economic integration more easily than regular public schools because they are not limited by local school boundaries. The U.S. Department of Education has even included school diversity as a competitive funding priority in the charter school program. See the National Coalition on School Diversity’s advocacy brief on this issue at http://www.school-diversity.org.


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