Posts Tagged charter schools

How Governments Abuse and Neglect Kids

Published by — Once again, adults battling to force cutbacks in charter schools are ignoring what’s best for students.

(Photo: George Hodan, Creative Commons)

When still young and blissfully naive, I was appointed to the Providence School Board.  I was sure my clever, well-informed interview with the outgoing Mayor had knocked it out of the park.  I later discovered I was merely a goad to the in-coming Mayor.  No big deal; I was there anyway, getting what I later called my PhD in urban education.

Within about six months I realized I’d stumbled into a nasty political power game.  Tax money was collected from the public in the name of educating kids, but then passed among the adult players.  The battles — legal, contractual, fiscal, regulatory — left the students themselves looking like the ball that rolls off the court while team players are having at each other.  The adults had lawyers, precedents and policies backing them.  The kids had no voice to speak of, and were, in my eyes, getting a super raw deal.  I left my old life and started working for them.

Perhaps the adults didn’t see how their actions affected kids.  Perhaps they didn’t care.  Likely, most would have argued that they cared deeply for students, but were powerless against the status quo.  During many years as an education journalist, I saw this same set of perverse priorities played out, from feds to states to local authorities.  Rhode Island is not unique.  Still.  Government officials should always be asking if their decisions will nurture the kids, no matter what the sector.  And Education has no excuse not to.

Public battles between adults over money and power hurt kids.

Fights that seem to be deliberately instigated are particularly pernicious.  Here’s what set me off this time:

Last fall Legislators convened a Commission to adjust the state’s funding formula for per pupil expenditure (ppe).  A state’s education funding formula is a mind-numbingly complex set of metrics designed to determine how much funding the state will assure each student.  The variables include special categories of students — those with special needs, English language learners, poverty — along with each municipality’s different ability to pay.  That’s a super-simple version.  A taste of the student-based complexities are here in appendix “B.”

Every state hates their funding formula.  None are perfect.  They balance scarce public dollars against a bazillion demands on each penny, so a funding formula is not something to be tweaked in a couple of months by a committee.

This Legislative Commission’s charge was to explore whether or not the regular district schools were getting their fair share, as compared with the public charter schools.  Ooo, red flag.  The real missions seemed designed to turn up the heat under the ever-simmering tensions between the charters and their traditional counterparts.  To add more tension to the game, any adjustments would have to be revenue neutral, meaning no new money on the table.  Zero-sum games inevitably create winners and losers.  Any change means some loser kids will take it in the neck.

RI’s per-pupil expenditure is 40% higher than the national average.  Its student performance is the lowest in New England.  (See here.)  But overall, the charters, with their 5.2% of the public-school population, are high performers, especially given that 80% of their kids are low-income and/or children of color.  They are not beloved by the districts.

Someone got this battle started, eyes wide open. 

The issues the adults are arguing about are real.  True, a disproportionate number of high-cost special-needs kids are in the district schools.  Also true: charters are reimbursed only 30% for their buildings and repairs while districts get 80%.  And so it goes, with this and that placed on each side of the scales, charter versus district.

But adding a weird element to this case, the Commission unearthed a surprise.  In 2014, the Department of Education started deviating from the funding formula by changing the math to give more money to the traditional districts.  The decline in charter funding is now up to $360 per kid.  Weirder still, the officials didn’t send the memo explaining to the charters that their funding was decreasing.  Now, added to that loss, the Commission decided to reduce the charter share by another $350 per pupil.  Suddenly most charters will have a structural deficit that will badly wound their programs.  The families of their kids are freaking out — and with good reason.

Per usual, depriving certain kids is being done in the name of fairness, equity and educational quality.  It’s bizarre that the Commission feels okay about doing this.  The easiest fix would have been to run the formula as enacted and take the issues to a more comprehensive Commission.  If that was going to take too long, find additional money to balance the scales without hurting kids.  And don’t say there’s no money.  Legislatures can always find money when they want.

Shame on the State for allowing this war.  End it.  And for heaven’s sake, stop doing this to the kids.  How come they always slip people’s minds?

(Photo: George Hodan, Creative Commons)


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Unintended Segregation in Schools of Last Resort

Published by — Charter schools can be great for the kids who get in, but what about the kids who don’t?


An odd clatter of wheelchairs and colorful walking supports accompanies a little convoy of physically-challenged middle-school students heading to lunch.  Blind kids find their way using sticks with tennis balls on the end.  Others, quite ambulatory, also have obvious challenges.

Not among this sizable group are other students with such challenging behaviors that they’re entitled to Individual Education Plans (IEP), the designation for special education.  This middle school is in a district where urban poverty is so pervasive that kids are steeped in trauma and family chaos, which can result in behaviors that make learning hard for everyone involved.  A high-functioning learning environment depends on a critical mass of students who have somehow acquired middle class, generally cooperative social skills.  Together these kids model healthy, community-appropriate behavior to their challenged peers.

The urban middle school referenced above has far more special needs children (23%) than the state average (15%).  Almost every student is poor.

District schools are socio-economically segregated.

The tiny state of Rhode Island has a million people divided into 36 separate school districts, some densely urban and poor.  The cost of housing in any given district generally determines the class of the students attending its schools.  The U.S. has more than 14,000 school districts, so RI is not alone in creating legal segregation via the district system.  So first, wrap your head around state and national policies that support the socio-economic segregation, which correlates with racial segregation.

Secondarily and accidently, charter schools make some segregation worse.

Alas, Rhode Island no longer publishes the “type of schooling” by district, which might prove my suspicions that our urban middle school loses more students to charter schools than any other in the state.  Its higher-functioning families fill out applications and with luck, leave.  The application deadline disadvantages families who change their residence because of poverty, divorce, or other family issues.  And some families don’t bother with charters.  Their kids remain in the district school.

Mind you, this is no knock on charters.  They’ve been a huge boon to families and students desperate for alternatives to their local school.  In general, RI’s charters are all better than the schools in the district they reside, so you can’t blame the parents.  Nationally the number of kids on wait lists for charters can exceed the enrollment of the schools they’re trying to get into.  Charters are public schools, publicly funded, publicly accountable and subject to the same bazillion state regulations as district schools.

Especially in RI, charters have been huge assets.  Some specialize in hard-to-educate populations.  The International Charter School, a dual-language school, embraces new-immigrant, English-language learners as much-desired assets.  Other charters have social-and-emotional strategies for traumatized or disengaged students.  But generally, charters are too small to be all things to the full range of special needs students.

So, as families leave, charters create schools of last resort as an unintended consequence.  Our urban middle school above was already segregated and then lost a goodly portion of its higher-functioning population, further distilling the special needs.

The annual assault on charters. 

Every year, district employees, parents and local politicians launch new attacks against charters, as though starving charters would improve district performance.  This year, the General Assembly assembled a Legislative Commission to Study and Assess Rhode Island’s “Fair Funding Formula.”  Funding formulas are the state policies designed to distribute equitably state and local money via standardized per-pupil funding.  Charter supporters have been rightfully fearful because district advocates greatly outnumber charter supporters among local politicians.

The Commission produced a report, with no recommendations, made available only as a press release.  Actually, their conclusions were fair and surprisingly balanced.  And to their credit, they flagged the very real problem, noted above, regarding special education.

Solutions to schools of last resort will require honesty and creativity.

First, be honest.  The district system leads to segregation.  Charters only add proportionally to the problem.  Reducing the quality of education for the charter kids isn’t a healthy solution to the increased segregation of an already-segregated school.

Second, be creative.  For example, The Grace School, which is not a public school, specializes in educating high-needs students.  Some years back they opened their doors to “typical” kids on a tuition basis.  Like the English-language learners at International, Grace’s students with serious challenges are valuable assets mingled among “typical” students, with all learning deep lessons in empathy and life.  All students get small classes and the attentions of special educators who are experts in differentiating instruction for the challenged, the middling and the gifted.

In other words, if charter school kids seem to be getting a better deal, learn from their schools how we might give district kids a better deal, too.  Don’t even dream of turning back the clock and making anything worse for any kid, especially not those thriving in charters.  Focus on the kids…  All of them.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The First School District to Put Itself Out of Business

Published by — Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

In 2003, Louisiana’s state department of education created the Recovery School District (RSD).  New Orleans’s schools were among the worst in the country, so the state asked the RSD to start with 5 that were the worst of the worst.  While the RSD officials knew the state would likely add more schools, they never dreamed that in 2005, Hurricane Katrina would suddenly jack the total number up to 102.

The jury is in.  The RSD did a whole lot better by the kids than the old Orleans Parish School District.  The graduation rate is up by 23 percentage points since 2005.  In 2007 only 23 percent of the kids K-12 were on grade level in math and reading, but now 57 percent are.  Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

The critical thing to know is that the RSD never wanted to be a traditional school district.  They weren’t sure what their district structure would or should look like.  But they knew the traditional Central Office model hadn’t worked in spectacular ways, so they seized the opportunity to avoid reproducing it.  Good choice.

I’ve always marveled that Central Offices have managed to hang on as the industry standard.  Except in tiny districts, Central Offices make life-altering decisions about kids’ education at a distance from the schools themselves.  They negotiate labor contracts and set policies that principals have to make work, somehow.  Central Offices often require certain professional-development training without consulting building-level staff.  Such decisions, labor contracts and districtwide policies effectively micro-manage the work of people who actually know the unique set of students attending their building.  Repeatedly, reformers tried to collapse the disconnect by implementing “site-based management,” whereby the school controls budgets, curriculum, hiring and so forth.  But such efforts rarely withstand Central Office’s overwhelming urges to reclaim and subjugate schools.

Furthermore, Central Office is a natural petri dish for culturing adult needs that infect the educational health of the kids.  Look no further than the 2003 Orleans Parish District which couldn’t account for $71 million in federal dollars.  Its School Board President was headed to jail for taking bribes — on top of managing terrible schools.  So the RSD accidently became the nation’s first radical experiment in Central Office redesign.

When Katrina hit, neither the Orleans nor the Recover districts had much capacity to speak of.  In the wake of the storm, they had to get schools up and running fast.  Orleans, with a Board that still fights publicly, held onto a handful of higher-performing schools in less-devastated areas.  The RSD had the rest and so turned to charter operators, both big charter management organizations and small independent groups who submitted proposals.  The state and feds both kicked in dollars to rehab some of the old school buildings.  And fortunately, some of the charter-world’s best young talent, who’d already started successful schools elsewhere, were excited by the prospect of creating new schools in the city then riveting the nation’s attention.

The RSD was still managing 34 traditional schools even as it handed out charters.  But what a pain.  Acting as Central Office by default, they still had to hire staff, develop policy and manage endless individual budgets.  Try as they might, their schools were of poorer quality than the charters, on average.

Charters are effectively contracts, usually for 5 years.  If their officials mismanage funds or produce failing students, the charter is revoked.  Closing any school is upsetting and unpleasant, but with charters everyone knows the rules of accountability up front.  So increasingly, the RSD transferred their own authority to independent operators who manage themselves, and have full responsibility to use educational strategies that actually succeed.  Or go out of business, as some have.

Eventually the RSD announced they would phase out their own Central Office duties entirely.  As of this coming fall, the RSD will have no district-run schools.  They will be a lean infrastructure that oversees a portfolio of charter schools.  Their responsibilities will include collecting data and holding all schools to accountability standards.  They built a single-application system so parents can apply to 8 schools at once, ranking their preferences, instead of dropping off applications all over town.  That system allows the RSD to monitor equity and access for all kids, especially those with special needs.  Likely they’ll help the schools where economies of scale apply, with health insurance and technology purchases, for example.  The first pure-charter experiment will surely stumble and make mistakes — and already has — but the new problems will never be as inhumane as letting kids languish in terrible schools indefinitely.  And the lessons learned could be invaluable for other cities struggling with their school systems.

In fact, the officials governing the schools in Washington D.C., Newark, Kansas City and Detroit are closely watching this experiment.  Would converting to an all-charter portfolio pull more of their students out of the academic mud?  Fortunately New Orleans has experimented so bravely that a cure for Central Office ineffectiveness might be on the horizon.  Stay tuned on this one.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Expeditionary Learning – Journeying Through Compelling Content

Published by — Expeditionary Learning is a project-based educational approach that takes students on intellectual voyages.

Open since 2010, Greene Charter School in West Greenwich, RI, is one of a network of a large and growing network of “Expeditionary Learning” (EL) schools.

“Expeditionary learning” sounds deliciously exotic, like maybe what Marco Polo was doing or Dr. Livingston on a scientific exploration of the African jungle.  Fact-gathering treks through terrain that requires shots and exotic transportation.

Heaven knows some students have a daily expedition riding Greene’s bio-diesel buses from as far away as Westerly, to the south, or super-urban Central Falls, north of Providence.  They arrive at the Greene campus out in Rhode Island’s boonies after as much as an hour-and-a-half each way, but boast an attendance rate above state average.  A donor gave the school the buses to support the Board’s insistence on creating a diverse school available to urban students.  (The current 9th grade class has 41 percent students eligible for subsidized lunch, up from the 12th grade’s 9 percent.  Word has gotten out.)But Greene’s expeditions are actually classroom voyages through topic areas, although working out in the field, outside or off-campus, is integral to the EL experience.  These academic explorations are semester-long, in-depth examinations of an issue that integrate at least two core academic subjects.  Greene has an environmental science focus, so one of those two is usually science.  (Most EL schools are either science or arts-focused.)

For example, the 9th graders begin their high-school careers studying food in all its complexity.  Greene’s Vice Principal, Melissa Hall, says that the students start by reading the The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  “They write food journals (recording precisely what they eat); they study mass-produced food products versus local.  What does organic really mean?  They look at food over the course of time and food seasonality.”  Together, kids and teachers draw a 100-mile radius from the school site itself to figure out what’s within that reach.  What does it cost to bring local produce to table versus the price of transporting strawberries from Mexico?  And what are the trade-offs of energy-intensive indoor farming in wintery New England, where nothing grows outdoors in the winter?

Fun questions.

Greene’s EL consultants work with the faculty to backwards-design such projects, so while kids pursue their hot topic, they’re also learning the straight-up academic requirements, specifically of the Common Core.  With students lured into questioning the food they generally take for granted, teachers make sure they test well, at least comfortably above state average.

A central idea of this approach is students “owning” their own learning.  Every classroom has a copy of the 10 EL Design Principles.  Number one, “The Primacy of Self-discovery,” explains that “People discover their abilities, values, passions and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected.”  If kids aren’t invested in their own learning, it’s an uphill battle for the teachers.  Head of School, Deanna Duncan, puts it this way:  “Good teaching happens when the teachers themselves are engaged in learning.”  Turning the pages of a textbook is a tedious way to teach and learn.

Demona, an 11th grader from Providence, describes “expeditionary” this way: “They take a large topic and put it in English, science, history and get it to all come together.  (The food project) makes you really aware of what you’re putting into your body.  I’ve changed my diet.”  She adds, “It’s a really rigorous course.  I did not feel prepared for the level of rigor here.”

So these expeditions are the ultimate in hands-on learning.  The originators of the approach wanted to infuse public education with the best practices of Outward Bound.  While expensive, OB has had great success with getting disengaged kids out into the wilderness, where skills and courage they didn’t even know they had rise to the surface.  Prospective Greene students too must be willing to go camping, which has been a deal-breaker for some.

The academic expeditions always result in some sort of product that demonstrates — or not — that students actually understand the topic at hand.  The food project culminates in an 8-course dinner that the 9th-graders prepare, only with local food, to the extent possible.  Kids work with local suppliers, farmers and chefs, bringing the real world to their learning.  Preparing the dinner has become one of the week-long courses called “intensives,” learning experiences that happen both in the spring and fall.  Intensives give the school a change to support the strong achievers’ pursuit of a big project or personal passion, or to give struggling students the academic help they need to keep up in academically-rigorous classes.  The dinner intensive is a plum project that motivates students to get their academic act together.

EL is growing quickly, with 32 schools in New England and many more elsewhere.  Two-thirds of the EL schools are regular district schools; the rest are charters.

The Greene Board is thrilled with how EL is working out for their students.  The reasons include EL’s approach to school culture and climate, which I’ll discuss next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Determined Parents Start A School For Atypical Kids

Published by — The schools available to these parents’ kids were maddeningly non-responsive.

Dr. Amy Pratt looks me dead in the eye when she says, “The Greene Charter School would not exist if it weren’t for me and the parents.”  Christa Andrews, another co-founding-Board member of Greene, looks a little exhausted from it all, but nods approvingly.  Parent-created charter schools are a rare breed, and for good reason.

The school opened in 2010 in semi-rural West Greenwich, Rhode Island.  But its conception took place easily 10, 12 years earlier.  The Pratts, two veterinarians, run an animal hospital and clinic.  Pet-owning clients often gathered at the table in the break room to chit-chat, which often included sharing their frustrations with their children’s schools.  If only, they repeatedly mused together, if only they could start one of their own.

The universal complaint?  The schools were maddeningly non-responsive.  They didn’t seem to care.  Often they flat-out ignored parents’ concerns.  “No” came way too easily.  For example, Pratt’s son is deaf in one ear.  While the condition has its complications, enhanced sound systems and staff accommodations are neither expensive nor unreasonable.  But somehow the solutions were always partial.  The final straw was a middle school official forwarding Pratt a note from the administrators that said, “Tell the mother that that’s what she gets.”  What?  And if it’s not enough or doesn’t work?  “That’s what she gets?”

Other unhappy parents had special needs issues, but many didn’t.  Some kids struggled academically or socially.  Andrews’ break-point was when her oldest son hit the wall of his middle schools’ competitive, cliquey social scene.  With four kids, she couldn’t be battling every day just to get them to school.  She searched for alternatives.  There were none.

Interestingly, the private schools provided these women little relief.  Pratt snatched her young son from one of the priciest schools in RI when she found that the administration never told the teachers about her son’s deaf ear.

And Andrews says, “I went to private schools when I was young.  I didn’t want my kids in that (rarified) atmosphere.  But I didn’t want them bored or isolated either.”

It was thus the charter school movement itself was born.

In 1992, the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, after a 1991 law made it possible to open schools relative free of the oppressive regulations that still make it hard for schools to be responsive to the kids in front of them.  Now, about 4.6 percent of America’s public-school kids attend charters.  Charters aren’t perfect, but they’re more accountable to parents because if they’re not responsive, they wither and die.

Not unreasonably, most charter laws mandate interested parents to partner with institutions or educators.  But in practical fact, Greene is very unusual because few charters actually result from parent groups.  Kids mature, move on; parents often do, too.  Starting a school from scratch is a monstrous task.  Recently, “parent-trigger” laws help parents transform their regular public school into a charter, but these schools already have buildings, equipment, staff and infrastructure.  And often parents bring in a Charter Management Organizations (CMO), like KIPP and Achievement First, because as educational franchisers, they’re equipped with a business plan that quickly gets a school up and running.  Parents get an alternative, but have no say in the planning.

It was love at first sight.

By the fall of 2007, Greene had the makings of a rag-tag Board who’d been educating themselves about educational alternatives.  The RI League of Charters and the state Department of Education were as supportive as they could be.  The state had a temporary moratorium on opening new charters and zero money to help start-ups.  Still, one fateful afternoon, hopeful parents and official allies gathered to hear folks give a pitch about Expeditionary Learning (EL).  EL is an educational approach, not a CMO.  They work with school communities to help them build educational responses to their needs.

When the pitch was done, no one moved or spoke.  At last they looked at each other and for the first time said confidently, “We can do this.”

I’ll discuss Expeditionary Learning and this remarkable school in coming weeks, but for today the message is:  Parents shouldn’t have to work so hard to find school staff who “own” their kids.

Yes, some parents are unreasonably demanding.  Many blame the school for their kids’ lack of discipline.  Public schools have no way to hold parents accountable for supporting their kids’ education.  Private schools just chuck such kids and parents out, further burdening the public system.  Parents can be hard.

But they would be less hard if they had plenty of public choices.

By the time Greene finally opened in 2010, Pratt’s son was finishing up at a private high school, which had been an onerous daily schlep for the Pratts.  “Throughout it all, I retained a 10 percent illusion that this school would be for him.”  And it is, sort of.  It’s a living monument to him and to parents’ powerful needs to spare such kids from battling to be heard and addressed.  Parents and kids deserve better.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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‘Our School Culture Kicks Butt’

Published by — “The kids can tell we’re setting them up for success.”

Like many urban teens, Jessica Coello was obviously smart and capable, but totally turned off from school.  When she was in grade, thinking about high school, someone suggested she visit Blackstone Academy Charter School — recently recognized as 1 of 12 schools “Commended” by the state.

Blackstone’s Open House was love at first sight.  At the time, she couldn’t say why, exactly, but now she says that its atmosphere was “just so personal.  Students know their teachers on a personal basis.”

She applied.  But no.  On average, over 200 students apply for 45 ninth-grade seats.  She applied again sophomore year.  Again, no luck.  So for two years she sleepwalked through a fairly typical comprehensive urban high school.  She tested into honors classes, “but I fell under the radar.  I admit I didn’t do my best.  I just know that we were super-antsy to get out of there the second the bell rang at 3:00.”

Third time’s the charm.  She entered Blackstone as a junior and almost overnight, this drag-butt student came alive academically.  “The minute I got here, I was on the honor roll.  I learned graphic design; I participated in class; I was making movies, winning awards, and starting my own  photography business.  It was the teachers.  They opened up whole new worlds I never knew of.”

Mind you, vibrant schools can’t thrive on great teachers alone, but also engaged students, who’ve caught the excitement and possibilities of mastery.  Adults and kids alike feel part of a community that’s cooperating with academic expectations and pursuing personal passions, such as Coello’s love of cameras.  Great school culture allows everyone to teach and learn at their max.

Blackstone students do senior projects, which involve applying cross-disciplinary skills and knowledge to a real-world product of the kid’s choice.  Students test-drive skills in a protected environment, confronting whatever lessons lie in wait for them.

For hers, Coello asked to become the teaching assistant in Elizabeth Schibuk’s “Film for Social Change” course.  This win/win situation gave Coello more time and mentoring with a mentor teacher.  And Schibuk got Coello’s impressive tech skills in exchange.  The class identified and researched three social issues dear to their hearts that became short movies, with Coello’s expertise.  Coello also wrote a senior thesis about film’s power to teach about social issues.

But she didn’t ask just to make movies, she also asked to teach.  Therein lay some big, nasty surprises.

“I was responsible for the technology portion of the class — how to film, what’s a green screen; how to use it; how to use angles and edit footage.  But teaching was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had in my life.  And the most difficult part of my project.  Teaching is about having the ability to get them (the students) interested in what you’re saying and then to retain the information.  You would think that the hardest part would be the editing process, but they got that.  I had real trouble with some students getting their work done.  I really could feel that I hadn’t had the classes about how to teach.  Having them look at you real bored and not understanding was soooo nerve-wracking.”

Are you feeling just a bit vindicated, teachers?  I would be.

But Schibuk is very familiar with the rude awakenings lurking in senior projects and coached Coello through the challenges to a happy, sunset ending.  The Cable Car Cinema agreed to showcase the class’s three films —  on immigration, bullying and stereotyping — to a house packed with staff, family and friends.  A dream come true.

Blackstone’s students are 86 percent eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator).  Another senior is going to Wesleyan on a free ride.

I asked Head of School Kyleen Carpenter how they work their magic.  She sat up straight and all but barked, “No one wants to hear this, which is why I really want to say: Our school culture kicks butt.  Everyone’s here to learn; no one’s here to screw around.  And we will achieve at a high level, whatever that takes.  I used to have a line outside my door with kids who said f. u. to a teacher, or did something wrong.  No more.  You can’t buy culture; you can’t make it.  You have to have consistent expectations in every single class, and to celebrate achievement.”

Most incoming Blackstone students go first to a summer program where, frankly, the cultural indoctrination starts.  To be a happy, productive community, everyone has to leave street habits at the door; no calling each other ugly names, disrupting or lashing out — not kids; not adults.  Carpenter says, “As corny as it sounds, a great culture is a commitment to relentless happiness. Also, throw ‘no excuses’ out the door. These kids have plenty of excuses.  But we help them address and remove those excuses so they can get to work. We do not pretend they don’t exist.  No, it’s not all roses and puppy dogs.  But we talk about the problems and don’t hide them.”

And so Coello got off the more-traveled urban path to nowhere.  She’s going to college to study business.

Carpenter says, “Most importantly, the kids can tell we’re setting them up for success.”

We’ll know education is working when all schools can say that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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A Struggling Urban School District Turns to Charters for Help

Published By — In an unusual move, the Providence School District invites charters in to pitch their strategies.

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 and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Advanced Math & Science Charter School, Part II

Published by — Part II on the AMSA Charter School examines how the school can promise every student will become advanced.

When Jay Sweeney joined the staff at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School (AMSA), he was the only non-Russian in the math department. The school is in the middle of Massachusetts, so huh?

Now the school’s Principal, Sweeney explains that the original charter required that at least half of those teaching in math-related courses also have experience working in an industry using the skills they teach at AMSA. Sweeney himself worked for years at Intel and various start-up companies before becoming a teacher.

But perhaps as a sad comment on the quality of American math/science education, most of AMSA’s industry-experienced teachers, who now make up 60 percent of the total, were born and educated elsewhere – Asia, Russia, India.

People from those countries are also more familiar with AMSA’s highly unusual academic strategy, which they describe as an “Eastern Block” curriculum.

The lead designer of the school’s original charter was Dr. Julia Sigalovsky, herself a persecuted Russian Jew who fled to Israel before coming to this country. She and her colleagues designed AMSA’s original charter to model its curriculum after the one she knew.

So, for starters, in grades 6-12, students’ schedules include 50 percent more math than typical American schools – 7 and ½ hours per week. Math, according to AMSA’s philosophy, is the language of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. Beef up math, you beef up STEM.

Makes sense.

An AMSA kid’s week is divided into 35 periods. Of those, 10 are devoted to science and 10 to math or computer science.

I recommend checking out their elaborate curriculum, laid out grade by grade, on page five of the charter.

Geometry is not a separate subject, but woven into various subjects. Social studies is divided into history and geography. English Language Arts is split into English language and Literature. To my relief, the Literature is unapologetically classical. The 8th graders study Dante, Petrarch and non-European medieval poetry!

The charter states, “Contrary to the widely-accepted belief that every subject must be intimately connected to a student’s everyday life, the Academy believes that the foundational principles and laws of academic disciplines designed to explore the world and universe are fundamentally more interesting to and useful for students.”

This place has nerve.

The moment they arrive, students are assessed and placed in ability-level groups in their math/science courses. They’re randomly assigned to humanities courses.

In math and science, AMSA skips middle school altogether and starts immediately with high school, with all 6th graders taking Algebra 1. Students are working on or done with Algebra II by the 8th grade.

College starts in 9th, when textbooks all become college level. By the 12th grade 90 percent of the students have taken some level of Calculus. AMSA ignores the curriculum sequence required by the middle-school MCAS tests and focuses instead on acing the 10th-grade MCAS, which they do. (See last week’s column.)

But wait! There’s no freaking way kids can do this, at least not when randomly chosen by charter lottery. Most of the students come from working-class towns with lackluster schools.

Sweeney full-on crows as he presents his “proudest accomplishment,” a graph showing the improvement of the most challenged students in the class of 2012, comprising a third of that class. In their math-related courses, they are the “college prep” group. (See graphs below.) Year after year, many middle-school students arrive with dismal MCAS scores – “In need of improvement” or “Warning,” the two lowest levels. By 10th grade, almost all have reached “Proficiency” or “Advanced.”

Though all students study the same curriculum, some take the math-based subjects more slowly than others. Given this level of rigor, in the lazy land of American teenagers, teachers are relentless about checking the students’ understanding with tests developed in-school, as well as some bought off-the-shelf and those mandated by the state. Every single student must have the foundational concepts so they are building on solid ground as the work gets increasingly complex and sophisticated.

An 8th period at the end of each day allows the school to support any students who are struggling in any subject and to strengthen the language of English-language learners. Academic hotshots use it to accelerate in whatever subject they please.

The point is that with support, all students can advance impressively. AMSA manages to make good on their charter’s seemingly outrageous promise:

The “Advanced” in the Academy’s name means that every student will become an advanced student. The Academy’s innovative educational approach will ensure that students previously considered “not capable” or “underachievers” will reach a level of knowledge that is currently considered only reachable by a few gifted and talented students. The “middle achievers” of the student population will find themselves enthusiastic, engaged and passionate about learning. Those who are chronically under-challenged and bored will thrive.

Sweeney says that the school’s goal is that “EVERY student will be able to solve any STEM problem presented to them.”

Oh and BTW: there’s also art instruction and after-school sports and clubs.

Next week we’ll look at the role computer science plays in both pushing and pulling in AMSA’s diverse learners.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears 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, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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