Expanding charter schools motivating change in Pawtucket schools

Expanding charter schools motivating change in Pawtucket schools

PAWTUCKET - Plans to expand area charter schools are helping to inspire a new emphasis on excellence and a better way of doing things in Pawtucket Public Schools, according to local educators.

Supt. Patti DiCenso told The Breeze that local school officials can't help but notice the good things that are going on at schools like Blackstone Valley Prep in Cumberland and Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket, and it's causing them to come up with new ways to make families want to keep their students here.

DiCenso said the Rhode Island Board of Regents last week heard a request from Blackstone Academy to increase enrollment by another 90 students next year.

Blackstone Valley Prep has approvals in place to add another elementary school and another middle school as part of a plan to eventually service 2,000 students, up from 1,200 students currently.

Both schools draw heavily from Pawtucket, said DiCenso.

"Are we concerned? Yes," she said. "But this is not a new thing for us."

The planned expansions of those two charter schools will likely add to the total of 1,399 city students who attended charter and vocational schools in 2013-2014, said DiCenso.

"Are we noticing that the charters are going up? Yes, we are," said DiCenso. "We have to look at what we're providing to be competitive."

School officials are already implementing a broad array of improvements to make Pawtucket schools a more attractive option, said DiCenso. One of the most significant strategies is offering more advanced placement courses at the city's high schools, she said, "a very big draw" for families.

DiCenso has also "relocated and repurposed" math specialists in city elementary schools to boost the programs, and administrators are implementing new technology programs in the schools. A new program to bring Chromebooks at two grade levels will hopefully accomplish what it has in other communities, developing a new interest in learning for many students.

"We need to make people see that we're moving forward," said DiCenso.

A school improvement bond this fall will go a long way toward improving the reputation of city schools, said DiCenso, as parents would have greater confidence in the facilities their students are learning in.

Staff members across the district are working on improving customer service, said DiCenso.

"We have to make sure they don't feel they have to look for other options," she said. "That's on us. I don't want to be the victim."

DiCenso said school staff need to be more proactive in letting parents know that "you don't have to leave Pawtucket."

"We need to be excellent," she said. "I want excellence for my children; I want excellence for all children in Pawtucket."

There is plenty of evidence that Pawtucket schools are improving, said DiCenso, including better graduation rates and improved test scores.

Currently there are 13 charter and vocational schools that draw students from Pawtucket, at a total combined cost of $3,589,059. The ones with the biggest number of students are:

* Davies Career and Technical High School, with 489 students and a total cost to the Pawtucket district of $1.09 million.

* Blackstone Valley Prep, with 383 students and a total cost to the district of $1.04 million.

* International Charter School, with 128 students and $349,056 in costs to the local district.

* The Learning Community, with 126 students and a cost of $343,602 to the local district.

* Blackstone Academy, with 91 students and $248,157 in costs to the local district.

Pawtucket pays $2,229 in annual tuition to both Davies and The Met, according to figures from the Pawtucket School Department, and $2,727 per student to the other 11 schools, including Blackstone Valley Prep and the Blackstone Academy.

The cost of educating a student in Pawtucket Public Schools is about $15,000 per student, said DiCenso, and there is not a corresponding savings for each student who leaves. The charter and vocational schools get the state financial aid for each student who ends up going to an outside school, she said.

Enrollment in Pawtucket schools continues to go up even as students depart for schools outside the district, said DiCenso. For each 100 students or so, the city needs one core subject teacher, she said.

One of the positives about the expansion of the Blackstone Academy is that the school will start accepting students from Providence, said DiCenso, meaning there will be less of an overall impact from the expansion on the Pawtucket School Department. Currently the school draws students only from Pawtucket and neighboring Central Falls.

"The more they open up their pool of applicants, the better it is for Pawtucket," she said.

Pawtucket school officials hope to at the very least begin "leveling off" with the number of students who are leaving for other schools, said DiCenso, and the bigger goal is to actually see a decrease in the number of students leaving.

Charter and vocational schools are not entities to be feared, she said, as each student deserves every opportunity at success. She said the goal of every employee in the Pawtucket School Department should be to make sure city schools are providing those same opportunities.