Achievement First is a brand new charter school in Providence that also operates schools in Connecticut and New York. Critics fought hard to keep it from opening in Rhode Island, arguing that among other problems, it would take money away from other public schools. But supporters and organizers from Achievement First say they are offering an alternative to public schools that are struggling. Rhode Island Public Radio's Education Reporter Elisabeth Harrison took a tour of the Providence school.
In a classroom on the first grade hallway at Achievement First Providence, teacher Tracy Raposo sits at a small table surrounded by about 15 six and seven-year-olds, each wearing a matching blue polo shirt. She leads them through a reading exercise, showing them how to move their eyes from one line of text to the next.
Reading is a big focus at all Achievement First schools, where students spend at least three hours a day studying reading, writing and vocabulary. On a recent visit, one Kindergarten classroom was planning more than four hours.
But not all of that reading is just about learning English, it can have elements of science and social studies too. In another first grade classroom, 30 students sit on a large rug decorated with rainbow-colored squares and look up intently at teacher Emily James, who is reading a story about sharks. James stops for a moment to ask the students why some sharks in the story have sharp teeth while others do not.
“I want you to turn and talk to your partner and see if you can figure out why different sharks have different kinds of teeth,” said James, adding "wait for it," then clapping her hands.
The instant they hear the clap, all 30 students turn simultaneously to a partner and start chattering away. This is just one example of how Achievement First runs its classrooms. It requires students to follow specific rules, pay attention and speak only when prompted by the teacher.
“They have really creative and intelligent minds,” said Ben Smith.
Smith is the Director of School Operations at Achievement First Providence, which means he does the logistical part of the principals’ job, so the principal can focus on academics. Smith said an exercise like the shark question is both social and intellectual.
“So combining that excitement, you know how kids feel about sharks, right? It’s exciting. But also with interacting with each other and dealing with something that’s not just teacher led, not just being told learn the following thing, but being asked questions that are a little more open ended,” said Smith.
Achievement First prides itself on a challenging but engaging academic program that includes high expectations for every student, no matter what their background, and the network’s schools in Connecticut and New York have made some impressive academic gains.
But critics say the schools’ highly structured environment may come at a price. In Connecticut, officials are reviewing high suspension rates at two Achievement First schools. And Attorney Lynn Cochrane filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of several middle school parents, who say teachers were insensitive to learning disorders and behavioral problems, or failed to diagnose them quickly enough.
Cochrane says Achievement First punished these students repeatedly for behavior that is typically difficult to control for a student with issues like Attention Deficit Disorder.
“They were getting demerits and being sent to reflection rooms out of the classroom for things such as repeatedly tapping the desk or blurting answers out loud or not making eye contact,” said Cochrane. “And there’s this cascade effect that can easily land a kid in an out of school suspension. To compound the problem, once a student is removed from the classroom, they’re not given their actual classwork and so it makes it almost impossible for them to keep their grade up.”
Achievement First later settled the civil rights complaint, agreeing to provide special training about learning disabilities and other issues, including depression and mood disorders. Achievement First also says it has taken steps to cut down on suspensions, and despite the concerns about discipline, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras says he believes Achievement First Providence will provide a better model for educating urban students.
“I believe that the school in providence is performing very well, I’ve been there several times and I’ve seen nothing but just a lot of engagement,” said Taveras. “I also saw parents being very engaged, so that’s been our experience thus far and we’ll continue to make sure that they operate well and that the needs of everyone, all our kids are served.”
Right now Achievement First Providence serves 180 Kindergartners and First graders from Providence, Cranston, Warwick and North Providence, but the school will grow over the next four years to go through fifth grade. Eventually, Achievement First is hoping to add a middle school and at least one more elementary school in Rhode Island.
School leaders say they have learned from the mistakes that other Achievement First schools have made in the past, and they hope the public will judge them by their results. Their goal is to have test scores that rival the best public schools in the state.