Left to right, Providence School Board member Ty’Relle Stephens, Black Lives Matter RI Co-Founder Brother Gary Dantzler, Providence Democratic Rep. Enrique Sanchez, and Providence School Board member Night Jean Muhingabo speak at a press conference in front of the Providence Public School District Administration Building on Friday, June 23, 2023. The press conference was called to ask the state and district to pause several planned school closures. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Two Providence School Board members gathered with a state legislator and activist outside district headquarters Friday to call on the school district and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to pause the controversial closure of two elementary schools.
It was the last day of the school year and the final day of operation for the Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary School at 1450 Broad St. and Carl G. Lauro Elementary School at 99 Kenyon St. The closures of the two schools were made public in December, surprising students, parents, and teachers.
Those speaking at the conference said the closures coincided with an increase in property purchases from area charter schools.
“This shows that [Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green] does not care about the community,” said Night Jean Muhingabo, the Providence School Board member who organized the press conference. “I personally learned about the closures on Twitter.
“We ask all School Board members and parents to speak out about this.”
Also present were Providence School Board Member Ty’Relle Stephens, Providence Democratic Rep. Enrique Sanchez, and Black Lives Matter RI Co-Founder Brother Gary Dantzler.
RIDE spokesman Victor Morente said the school closures are final.
“There are no plans to stop the process,” he said in an email Friday. “The City has ownership of school buildings, and the district plays no role in the decision making for future use once they cease operations.”
A spokesman for Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said that charter schools are a key aspect of the city’s educational system.
There are no plans to stop the process. The City has ownership of school buildings, and the district plays no role in the decision making for future use once they cease operations
– Rhode Island Department of Education spokesman Victor Morente
“These schools are an important part of the education system in Providence with about 20% of our students attending charter schools,” Joshua Estrella said in an email. “These are public school students and the Mayor is committed to supporting both traditional public schools and high performing charter schools who serve our children.”
Justification of closure plans
The Department of Education justified the closures with falling enrollment at the schools and concerns about their state of repair. The announcement was part of a $500 million facilities plan for Providence Public Schools. A third school, Gilbert Stuart Middle School at 188 Princeton Ave., is scheduled to close in 2025.
Between 2017 and 2022, October enrollment at Feinstein dropped over 40% from 462 students to 277, and at Lauro they fell 43%, according to data from RIDE.
Enrollment in public schools throughout Providence fell 14% from 24,075 in October 2017 to 20,725 in October 2022.
Sanchez said a large amount of that comes from the toxicity associated with the state takeover of the school district in 2019.
“We have been faced with a state takeover of Providence schools that has not delivered,” he said.
Fears of “charterization”
The conference came less than a day after the Providence City Council tabled a lease for the Charles N. Fortes Elementary School, now run as Achievement First Promesa Elementary. The school currently operates under a licensing agreement signed in 2021 with the administration of former Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.
The agreement would allow Achievement First — a charter school operator with schools in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York — to pay a symbolic $1 annual rent to the city for the building’s use and obligates them to spend $2.5 million on capital improvements. The lease would last for five years, with options to extend it five times over the next 25 years.
The original lease, supported by Smiley, would have been for 20 years and allowed for extensions up to 40 years. It was adjusted in response to concerns from multiple community members.
“I think there is sort of valid concern among legislators, students, and families in PVD where they say ‘wait a minute,’” said Robert Cotto, Jr., a researcher of school choice initiatives based out of Trinity College and a researcher on school choice initiatives, in an interview Friday. “That’s an example of how you close a school, say it’s not necessary due to falling enrollment, and now it’s being given over to a semi-private charter company.
“You see two schools being closed and say, wait a minute, is this about to happen again?”
Cotto said the most concerning aspects of charter schools are how they take students out of public school systems — thus reducing funding — and the selectiveness of their enrollment.
“That sort of strategy displaces communities,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Achievement First said they remain hopeful for an extension on their lease at Fortes Elementary, where they began operations after an agreement with the administration of Mayor Jorge Elorza in 2021.
“We are hopeful that the City Council will soon permit AF Promesa Elementary to stay in the Fortes building long-term,” Jacqui Alessi, associate chief of strategic communications at Achievement First, said in an email Friday. “Absent a long-term lease, we will not be able to make needed facilities upgrades that will benefit the young people who attend school in the building.
“Regardless of the outcome, we will continue to collaborate with all our partners to provide a high-quality public education to the students who attend AF Promesa Elementary School.”
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