New charter school proposal draws mixed reactions

New charter school proposal draws mixed reactions

WOONSOCKET – A new charter school is looking to move into the city, and the plan is drawing mixed reviews from city officials who say an application filed with the Rhode Island Department of Education last month caught them off guard.

Nuestro Mundo is a proposed K-8 public charter school that hopes to open in the city in the fall of 2020 with 138 students in grades kindergarten, 1 and 2. According to its application, the school plans to add a grade level every year after the initial launch, expanding to serve 414 students in grades K-8 by 2026.

Though the school will be open to students from all Rhode Island communities, the application notes it expects to draw as many as 80 percent of the student body from Woonsocket and will actively recruit students from the city’s English- and Spanish-speaking communities.

“The city is an ideal location, as there is a critical need for the unique programming that our school will offer,” the application notes. “While Woonsocket is a vibrant and diverse city, there are also challenges with access to resources.”

According to its application, Nuestro Mundo, Spanish for “Our World,” will offer a dual language immersion program targeted to help children achieve biliteracy in both English and Spanish. The school also seeks to emphasize environmental awareness and sustainability among its students and has the support of the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone among other environmental organizations.

Joseph Maruszcazk and Kathryn Cardamone, two employees of the Mendon-Upton Regional School District, are the co-founders of the school, according to the application. Maruszcazk, who currently serves as Mendon-Upton superintendent and previously directed the Kingston Hill Academy charter school in South Kingstown, will serve as executive director of the new school. Cardamone, who directs the district’s Spanish immersion program, will serve as program director.

Though the state does not require charter schools to receive approval from their host cities before opening, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt told The Valley Breeze this week she was approached by two individuals who met with her to discuss opening a new charter school in Woonsocket. Baldelli-Hunt, who has supported the charter school model in the past, said she told school representatives they would need to include other city officials in the process.

“I did indicate to the individuals that I thought it was imperative that the council or the council president at a minimum be included in the conversation, and they were receptive to that,” she said. “Because, generally speaking, we know the community better than someone from the outside coming in.”

However, Council President Daniel Gendron told The Valley Breeze he was never contacted by representatives of Nuestro Mundo and only learned of the application to RIDE this week. Baldelli-Hunt said she was also unaware until recently that the school had gone forward with the application to RIDE and was planning to hold a meeting to discuss the proposal with the council.

“It’s clear that Beacon Charter School, Founders Academy, RISE Prep – they’re successful at what they do, and there is an extensive waitlist from parents who are looking for alternative public education,” she said. “I have a list of questions, as I’m sure the council president does and others do too, so it’ll be interesting to hear a little more about their curriculum and what their goals are with the school.”

City councilors, it appears, were not the only ones out of the loop about the possible new school. Both Supt. Patrick McGee and School Committee Chairman Paul Bourget told The Breeze they were unaware of the proposal until this week and hadn’t yet reviewed the details of the application. Bourget added he was adamantly against a new charter school coming in to the city, citing concerns the school could strip state and local funds from the city’s existing public schools.

“If they’re looking for a charter school, we don’t need another one to bleed off public funds,” he said. “It’s going to be another half million that we have to cover, maybe more, and it’ll definitely affect our state funding.”

By his estimate, he said, the city already pays about $900,000 in charter school tuition payments per year and loses between $1.5 and $2.5 million in state aid annually due to the corresponding decrease in enrollment. Bourget pointed out the district has been hobbled with financial constraints over the past decade and said the state should fully fund charter schools if it wishes to consider them.

“It’s not like I want to deny education, but if the state wants to fund them, they should completely fund them and not affect the public school system in this city,” he said.

Though it’s unclear where the proposed school hopes to locate within the city, Gendron noted that due to an ordinance passed by the council, any state or municipal use of a building will require approval by the City Council. The council established the requirement in the wake of a debate over RISE Prep Mayoral Academy’s relocation earlier this year.

According to RIDE's website, the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education will make a preliminary decision on the proposal in the winter, with a final decision issued in the spring. A public comment period on all new charter school applications continues until Nov. 1, with a public hearing on the proposal currently scheduled for Sept. 18 at Woonsocket Harris Public Library.