Clairelise Rodriguez is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

Ed reformers are often painted as optimists, people who expect too much of our public schools. Some say that the achievement gap, while tragic, is too big a problem to be solved by providing excellent public schools to all. Some say poor kids and kids of color just have too much to overcome, so they can’t be expected to learn at the same level as their wealthier peers.

Ed reformers say the opposite. We say every kid can—and should—achieve at a high level.

We’re not just a bunch of starry-eyed idealists, however. There’s a reason we believe great schools change everything: we’ve seen it happen.

Across the country there are bright spots, public schools that are beating the odds and getting all kids to achieve. Kids that were once failing miserably are now succeeding. Poor kids and kids of color—the ones deemed too disadvantaged to learn—are giving their white and wealthier peers a run for their money. These are the schools that give us ed reformers hope and fuel our conviction that the achievement gap is in fact closeable.

Achievement First is one such example. The network of 20 public charter schools across Connecticut and New York has earned national acclaim for its astounding success in closing the achievement gap. Here are just a few highlights of the Achievement First story (to get the full story, read RI-CAN’s issue brief, Putting Achievement First or watch this PBS special on Amistad Academy in New Haven):

  • In 2007, Achievement First’s Amistad Academy was highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education as a nationwide model for closing the achievement gap.
  • In 2008, an Achievement First school in New York City performed in the top one percent of all district schools, ranking fourth among nearly 1,100 K–8 schools in the city. And in June 2010, Achievement First graduated its first senior class, with 100 percent of its students accepted into four-year colleges or universities.
  • At Amistad Academy middle school, the achievement gap in reading between economically disadvantaged incoming classes of fifth-graders and their non-disadvantaged peers statewide is nearly 50 points, similar to the achievement gap in other Connecticut schools. However, by the eighth grade, Amistad Academy cuts the gap by two- thirds, to only 19 percentage points. Meanwhile, in other Connecticut schools, the achievement gap persists between fifth and eighth grade.
  • By the time students at Amistad Academy reach eighth grade, the achievement gap in math is eliminated entirely. These students, all of whom qualify for the federal free lunch program, actually outperform non-disadvantaged students across Connecticut. In other Connecticut schools, the eighth grade achievement gap in math remains nearly unchanged over the middle school years.

When Achievement First announced its intention to apply to open a school in Rhode Island, RI-CAN (along with the rest of 50CAN) was thrilled, and naturally ready to lend its support. This past summer the RI-CAN team—spearheaded by Executive Director Maryellen Butke—threw its weight behind Achievement First’s application to open a school in Cranston serving Cranston and Providence students. In addition to putting together a video of parents voicing their support, RI-CAN also collected 400 letters of intent to apply to Achievement First from parents in Cranston and Providence and over 350 signatures on a petition to support Achievement First.

The proposal was unfortunately voted down by the Board of Regents, but the good news is that Achievement First hasn’t given up: it submitted another proposal, this time to open the Achievement First Mayoral Academy in Providence. Next week the Board of Regents is holding two community hearings to gauge community support for the proposal.

This is where RI-CAN comes in. As I type team RI-CAN is hard at work gathering people to come to the hearings and show their support for Achievement First next Wednesday and Thursday nights. In addition to getting people to testify, RI-CAN will also outfit all supporters with matching t-shirts to send a clear, visible message to the Board of Regents: it’s time to put achievement first in Providence.

If you’re a Rhode Islander, I urge you to come and RSVP for at least one of the hearings by clicking on the links below (if you don’t hail from Lil Rhody but have a friend who does, invite them!).

Achievement First is one of those special schools that give ed reformers hope. And RI-CAN is hard at work to make sure so that Providence kids can have hope, too.



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