Selected readings on US charter schools
For years, it was the poster child for urban neglect, a place where students skipped school in record numbers, where bathrooms were vandalized, where teachers were dispirited and ignored.
The pediment above the main entrance was so rotten that children had to enter the building through another doorway.
Two years ago, the School Committee closed the school over the objection of many neighborhood parents, who felt it anchored the Hartford Avenue neighborhood.
Now, Perry is undergoing a rebirth, this time as the first out-of-state charter school in Rhode Island.
The sign above the front door says Achievement First Mayoral Academy, one of a network of 20 schools in Connecticut and Brooklyn, N.Y., operating with the belief that the right mix of rigorous academic focus, teacher training and high student expectations can trump the liability of growing up poor.
It is also a mayoral academy, which means that a separate board, led by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, provides the oversight typically performed by a school committee.
Achievement First, a nonprofit, opened three weeks ago with 176 students in kindergarten and first grade. It plans to add grades until the school reaches 528 students in year five. The charter company has spent $4 million on renovations, from asbestos remediation to refurbished floors.
Primary colors dominate. Big signs ask students to work hard, be nice and never settle for so-so. Each class is named after a college and students refer to themselves as being from this university or that one.
Inside the classroom, instruction looks very different from what you see in the typical public school.
The class is very structured. Teachers use cues like handclapping to keep students focused. Not a minute is wasted. (One teacher timed how long it took her students to pass out pencils and paper.)
Teachers use the same language to correct and reward behavior. They constantly exhort students to SLANT: Sit up straight, listen, ask and answer questions, nod to signal engagement and track the teacher with their eyes.
Even the 5-year-olds have mastered the classroom rules. When several adults enter the room, only a couple of students turn their heads and they are quickly redirected to face the teacher, who uses a hand signal.
There is a feeling of urgency in the classroom, a sense that every moment is precious.
During visits to four classrooms, not one child was squirming or speaking out of turn.
Achievement First, which calls its discipline “warm-strict, warm-demanding,” says its behavioral code is designed to maximize instruction and minimize disruptions. Because every teacher uses a common language, students know the rules.
In June, however, a state report found that several Achievement First schools in Connecticut had among the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the state, even for students in kindergarten and first grade, according to the Hartford Courant.
In an opinion piece in the Courant, Dacia Toll, the network’s president, acknowledged the problem and said her organization is committed to finding alternatives.
Critics say that Achievement First uses discipline measures that shame and ostracize students, including something called “re-orientation,” where students wear a white shirt over their school uniform and are removed from classes such as music and physical education.
In an interview Thursday, Achievement First spokeswoman Amanda Pinto and Benjamin Smith, chief of operations for Achievement First’s Providence school, said their organization takes the report very seriously and has already drastically reduced suspensions at one Connecticut elementary school.
“We praise loud and correct soft,” Pinto said.
“We believe that this school is a joyous place,” Smith said. “We don’t have a punitive culture. Every school has its own methods.”
They would not say, however, whether any of the disciplinary measures that have drawn criticism will be used in Providence.
The children at the Providence school seem to be having fun. The teacher sounds like a cheerleader, exhorting her students to “Rub your brain” and “Give yourself a hug.” Corrections are handled deftly, and there is plenty of praise.
In one first-grade class, the teacher leads her children in a nonsense song that includes lots of rhyming, which gives children a chance to stand up and shake out the wiggles.
Although classes are large, each room has two teachers, which allows for small-group instruction.
And there is an emphasis on independent learning. In one class, two groups of students work alone, while students at two other tables are reading with their teachers. On a boldly colored carpet, two children play with felt word tiles.
In another corner, one boy is curled up in a beanbag chair, with a giant teddy bear and a book in his arms.
Achievement First calls itself a “no-excuses” school. A longer school day, intensive training for teachers and high expectations for students are the keys to robust academic performance, it says.
The charter network prides itself on getting kids to class. The attendance rate is posted outside every classroom. Thursday it was 90 percent, which Smith attributed to confusion over the Jewish holidays, which Providence public school students have off. Typically, Smith said, the school has an attendance rate of 98 percent.
One of the criticisms of Achievement First is that its students aren’t as poor as the children in the districts from which they draw. And far fewer students with special needs and those who need to learn English attend the charters — a particular issue in Providence, where the majority of students are Latino.
Smith said the Providence campus hasn’t compiled its demographic data yet, but said that about 86 percent of the students come from Providence, 12 percent from Cranston and 1 percent each from North Providence and Warwick.
He also said that the Providence school has more English-language-learners than any other schools in the network. Moreover, the principal has a background working with English-language-learners and the school has a teacher dedicated to working with special education students and those learning English.
Source: Providence Journal – by Linda Borg