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RIDE recommends against expansion for Blackstone Academy

June 14, 2011

In the controversy over Achievement First’s bid to open a Mayoral Academy in Cranston, little attention has been paid to Blackstone Academy, a Pawtucket charter school whose application for an expansion is up for a vote this week.

Blackstone wants to add 11 students to its 154-member student body. School leaders tell me the expansion is a question of finances: the school is losing some federal funding but will be able to cover costs for another academic year with the tuition 11 extra students would bring from the state.

Department of Education officials have recommended that the Board of Regents turn down Blackstone’s request. In her written recommendation, State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist says the school has not shown the kind of consistent high performance that should be required for the charter school to grow.

“Under our new expectations only charter schools that are high performing should expand,” Gist writes. “The improvements in the school’s math program are noteworthy, and I hope that they can be sustained. The school, however, has failed to meet AYP performance requirements in two of the last three school years.”

According to RIDE’s analysis, Blackstone outperformed its sending districts, Pawtucket and Central Falls, by nearly every measure in the 2009-2010 school year. The school’s students had higher average scores on the state test of Math and English, and its four-year graduation rate of nearly 88 percent far outpaces the 50.6 percent rate for Central Falls and the 58 percent rate in Pawtucket. It is also better than the state average: 75.8 percent.

However, RIDE staff note that Blackstone enrolls a smaller percentage of special education and limited English proficiency students, calling it “a less challenging population of students than its sending districts.” The report does note that Blackstone has a higher percentage of students in poverty than schools in its sending districts.

School officials say they believe the characterization of the school population as “less challenging” is unfair, given that its mission is to help students at risk of dropping out or otherwise falling through the cracks at local public schools. They also point out that enrollment is determined by lottery, so any differences in student demographics are difficult to remedy.

The recommendation against expansion for Blackstone brings up some interesting questions about the meaning of “high performing.” Should this label apply to charter schools who perform at or above the level of their surrounding districts, or should it apply only to those schools whose test scores rival the best districts in the state? And are standardized test scores the bottom line when it comes to measuring school quality?

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