Friday, May 21, 2010

Gist Pulling the Plug on Highlander


PROVIDENCE — Making good on her vow to toughen oversight of the state’s 13 publicly funded charter schools and close ones she finds academically lacking, Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist recommended Thursday that a popular Providence charter school be granted only a one-year provisional extension.

She raised the very real possibility that the Highlander Charter School would be shut down after June 2011.

“I am very concerned about the performance of this school,” Gist told the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education during a work session.

According to her recommendation, she wants to give the school a year’s grace period “so that families can plan to pursue other educational opportunities,” an alarming sign to the school’s supporters.

Even by the standards of the past few months, this is straight-up national political posturing and grandstanding that has nothing, nothing to do with the needs of children in this community, or, for that matter, furthering education reform in Rhode Island.

Now I'm going to have to spend part of my weekend making spreadsheets and graphs to illustrate this, but it isn't really that complicated. What are the "other educational opportunities" available to K-8 public school parents living in this neighborhood? The very schools Ms. Gist identified as "persistently lowest performing:" Charlotte Woods Elementary, Lillian Feinstein Elementary, Roger Williams Middle School. I can assure you that Highlander's squiggly lines on my charts will be higher.

Not that any given family in this neighborhood actually has a very good chance of getting their kindergartener into Highlander, the ProJo reported in 2008 that "Highlander (had) 462 applicants for 26 spots."

This is paternalism and neo-colonialism taken to a bizarre new extreme. It is not only the poor people in this neighborhood who line up to get into Highlander, they have to hope to luck out over all the (often more affluent) outsiders clamoring to attend the school. And Gist wants to take it away from all of us.

On top of all that, Highlander recently moved into a new facility, a renovated factory building they share with Providence CityArts, which obviously provides a rich opportunities for well integrated enrichment and after-school programs. Are we going to throw away that resource? What message does this send to community organizations interested in deeply integrated collaboration with charter schools?

And Highlander is really "CVS Highlander," which represents an investment by one of the larger corporations headquartered in Rhode Island. What kind of message does this send to potential donors to Rhode Island charters, particularly ones aimed at low-income students, if they're subject to closure for quixotic political reasons?

Actually, if you read the whole ProJo article, you know the answer to the last two questions. The message is "Stay away from community-based charter schools, stick with CMO-managed 'mayoral academies.'" But for how long will they be the flavor of the month, especially since they're only dependent on maintaining an unprecedented set of relationships between RIDE, out of state CMO's, RIMA, the school's board of directors and community, and various consortia of urban and suburban mayors?

The mind reels.


Claus von Zastrow said...

The choice raises some interesting questions about the choice movement. School choice purists would argue that parents and students ultimately decide what schools should stay open and what schools should close. If they like the product, that should be good enough, the thinking goes. Those who argue for greater regulation of charters would close them for inadequate performance (which, apparently, can be in the eye of the regulatory beholder).

The two ideas don't always coexist easily.

Tom Hoffman said...

Particularly since Highlander is somewhat more integrated than nearby PPSD schools. That's kind of what I was trying to get at when I said this takes paternalism to a new extreme. It is one thing to say poor families don't expect enough of their neighborhood schools, but if you wanted to, you could easily fill the incoming class of Highlander with middle class white kids. In fact, once the word got out you were filling it with middle class white kids, you could fill it five times over.

Teacher on the edge said...

Well done on this Tom, you've hit a number of nails on the head. I hope the Regents don't bow to the obvious political play here. If they do, true school choice is on its way out here.

Unknown said...

"...they have to hope to luck out over all the (often more affluent) outsiders clamoring to attend the school."

Actually, the majority of spots at Highlander are reserved for Providence residents. Outsiders like me need to be even luckier than Providence residents (low income or otherwise) to get our kids in.

Unknown said...

Tom, I came across your blog while researching Commissioner Gist's opinion of and recent actions against RI's charter schools. I am a parent of two Highlander Charter students and have been for seven years. We are lucky; we had a choice of either a suburban, mostly white-bread, average Warwick public school, or Highlander, since my son was chosen via the lottery for Kindergarten. The diversity of Highlander is part of its strength, and both we as a family, and we as a school community, have benefited. The school is also focused on social justice and has become active in its S. Providence community, advocating peace and safety. THIS is the kind of educational opportunity that all children need - urban, suburban, and rural alike. Highlander should be held up as a shining example of innovation, rather than demonized by Ms. Gist, to further her dubious agenda regarding the homogenization of our state's charters.