Providence City Council to consider charter school lease renewal

After two more elementary schools close for good, parents fear a regional player in school choice will seek to open another site on city’s South Side.

By: - June 26, 2023 5:48 pm

The final dismissal for students, teachers, and families at Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary School in Providence on Friday, June 23, 2023, at 3:30 p.m. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — The closure of two schools in the capital city’s South Side may open the door to the expansion of charter schools, a prospect many parents want to stop. 

Meanwhile, discussion and vote on a lease agreement for Achievement First Promesa Elementary to continue operating at the site of the former Charles N. Fortes Elementary School on Daboll Street — a proposal supported by Providence Mayor Brett Smiley — is scheduled to go before the City Council Tuesday at 5 p.m. 

Providence School Board members lead call for state to pause school closures

Under the lease, Achievement First would pay a symbolic $1 annual rent to the city for the use of the former Fortes Elementary building for five years, with options for four more extensions up to 25 years. It also obligates them to spend $2.5 million on capital improvements. The charter school began to operate out of the building in 2021 under a two-year agreement with the city that is set to expire on Friday, June 30.

The Achievement First lease renewal comes as two Providence elementary schools — Alan G. Feinstein Elementary on Broad Street and Carl G. Lauro Elementary on Kenyon Street — closed their doors for good on Friday, the last day of classes for the 2022 to 2023 school year in the Providence Public School District. The Rhode Island Department of Education announced the closures in December, citing declining enrollment at the schools and maintenance issues. 

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said in an email to Rhode Island Current that the city will conduct “a transparent bidding process” to determine the next occupants for the buildings in the coming months.

“Throughout this process, I will continue to advocate for and support our students and ensure that our families have accessible options for high-quality education opportunities in Providence.”

Achievement First said they are optimistic about the lease.

“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. “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.”

When asked about possible expansion into Feinstein and Lauro, Alessi said that Achievement First is currently focused on the Promesa lease.

Providence Teacher’s Union President Maribeth Calabro called the school’s closure shameful.

“The discussions regarding the closed schools from our perspective was from a brick and mortar stand point but the reality is that those schools were vibrant, living, learning communities where students felt safe and could thrive!” Calabro said in an email. “Sadly, we have heard this song before. The lack of concern, transparency and honesty is unnerving.

“It is not lost on the families, and educators of those school communities that they have been further marginalized and disrespected to appease the charter conglomerate,” she continued. “If this, in fact, the case, it is the final act of disrespect to all who have learned, grown, and loved those schools.  Charter schools are not public schools, they just take over public school spaces.”

Charter fears

Several parents of students expressed concern that the schools were being closed to lease them out to charter organizations such as Achievement First.

“I feel like they’re targeting communities of color and we’re being displaced,” said Carlos Cedeno, a Washington Park resident, parent of two Feinstein Elementary students, and organizer of an effort to stop the closures, in Spanish. “And it hurts more because they are closing the school to make room for a charter school.”

Between 2017 and 2022, October enrollment at Feinstein dropped over 40% from 462 students to 277, and 43% at Lauro, 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. 

Achievement First began operating Promesa in 2021, after an agreement with the administration of former Mayor Jorge Elorza. The charter school company — which has schools in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York — currently operates three schools in Providence, including: Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy Elementary School, Promesa, and Achievement First Providence High School.

The company also operates Achievement First Illuminar Academy Elementary School in Cranston.

A farewell and questions of the future

Tears left tracks down 9-year old Promise Tippos’ face on Friday, her last day at Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary School, after dismissal at 3:30 p.m. 

“Why do we have to get out of the school?” Tippos said, sniffles escaping from between her words, as she put on her seat belt in the back seat. “It’s not even falling apart.

“I will miss my teachers,” she continued while her father, Dempsey Tippos, looked on from the driver’s seat. “I miss my teachers that I love.”

Several parents and guardians of Feinstein told Rhode Island Current said they worry that a charter school may move into the location. 

“I think it’s the same stuff in a different color,” said Luz Cirino, a grandparent picking up her granddaughter at Feinstein, when asked how she felt about the rumors of a charter school. “It’s not helping anybody.”

“We organized and tried to stop it,” said Dempsey Tippos, Promise’s father. “But what more can we do?”

Why do we have to get out of the school? It’s not even falling apart.

– Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary School student Promise Tippos

Robert M. Cotto, Jr., a school choice researcher based out of Trinity College, said he sees a pattern of closed schools being leased to charter schools in the city.

“There seems to be some interconnection between the development priorities in Providence and these schools,” Cotto said. 

He added that charter schools can transform and displace neighborhood residents as they are able to be more selective in the students they accept, unlike public schools who are legally required to take in all students.

“I think there is sort of valid concern among legislators, students, and families in Providence,” he said. 

At its core though, the issue for many residents remains looking out for what is most precious to them: their children.  

“These kids are just trying to make it,” Cirino said. “It’s just not fair. 

This story has been updated to reflect when Achievement First initially occupied the former Charles N. Fortes Elementary School.


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