Achievement First, a big box charter operator from Connecticut, opens its first school in Rhode Island this month. Plans for Achievement First in Rhode Island originally called for a network of public charter schools serving students in Kindergarten through the end of high school, but the proposal almost immediately ran into opposition from parents and teachers.
Achievement First already operates several schools in New York and Connecticut, including its flagship school, Amistad Academy, which has garnered praise for lifting student achievement in a tough part of New Haven. Opponents, however, point to a less impressive record of academic success in some of the network's other schools and complain about overly-zealous discipline practices.
In Rhode Island, Achievement First initially sought to open a school in Cranston, but parents and teachers protested, complaining that another charter school would draw students, and the state funding that follows them, away from the city’s other public schools.
The organization then moved its proposal to Providence, eventually winning approval from state officials, but only after another long and contentious public debate. The school, opening in August, draws students from Providence, Cranston, North Providence and Warwick. It will start with a Kindergarten and first grade and later add third and fourth grade classrooms.
Teachers unions have long disliked the special category of charter school that Achievement First sought to open in Rhode Island, which is known as a mayoral academy. The schools are exempt from prevailing wage laws and do not contribute to the state pension fund.
Supporters argue the freedom to compensate teachers as the school sees fit and provide 401(k) accounts instead of pensions are among the key factors in their ability to attract good teachers and manage their budgets. Mayoral Academies, like all public charter schools in Rhode Island, are subject to oversight by state education officials.