Earlier this month, I had the chance to speak in front of teachers and school leaders at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy (BVP), a charter network in Rhode Island, as part of a panel discussion during staff orientation on how the school fits into the education ecosystem in Rhode Island.
I was there to provide a national perspective on BVP as well as other charter schools that intentionally enroll diverse student bodies (a topic that Richard Kahlenberg and I discuss in our book, A Smarter Charter). But for me, the discussion served as an important reminder of the role that states play in shaping charter school policy. While Rhode Island is a small state—the smallest by land mass, and forty-third by population—it has developed an innovative charter school model that promotes student diversity and regional partnership.
The Mayoral Academy Model
BVP is a “mayoral academy,” a special type of charter school that was written into Rhode Island state law in 2008, at the urging of a bipartisan coalition of mayors led by Cumberland mayor Daniel J. McKee. Frustrated by the state’s poor educational outcomes, and the largest Latino-white student achievement gap in the country, despite high per-pupil expenditures McKee worked closely with adviser Michael Magee to fashion a model school that would serve as a response to these challenges.
The pair envisioned a new kind of charter school built on regional partnerships between urban and suburban communities, enrolling geographically, socioeconomically, and racially diverse student bodies. As Magee has stated, “Perhaps new schools of choice could strategically ignore the old boundaries.”
Blackstone Valley Prep opened as the first mayoral academy in 2009. Under its current expansion plan, the network will eventually serve 2,400 students in three elementary, three middle, and one high school.
BVP serves four Rhode Island communities in the northeast corner of the state, two urban and two suburban. Although they are geographically clustered, the four areas together represent a broad socioeconomic range, with median income ranging from $32,759 in the city of Central Falls to $75,445 in suburban Lincoln.
Blackstone Valley Prep draws students from all four communities, and as a result its student body is socioeconomically and racially/ethnically diverse. Across BVP’s current elementary and middle schools, roughly 65 percent of students are low income. The largest racial/ethnic groups are Hispanic students, who make up roughly 40-60 percent of students on each campus, and white students, who constitute 30-40 percent of the student body.
Blackstone Valley Prep has shown strong results in its first five years. Last year, BVP students surpassed state averages on standardized tests in every grade and subject, and the school is reducing achievement gaps. In eighth grade reading, for example, the gap in the percentage of BVP low-income versus non-low-income students passing the state test is just 6 percentage points, as compared to a statewide gap of 25 percentage points. On the same test, the Latino-white achievement gap at BVP is just 2 percentage points, compared to 29 percentage points statewide.
These test results are impressive, and the individual stories of Blackstone Valley Prep’s scholars are also persuasive. You can read about four BVP scholars below in these snapshots created by Rhode Island Mayoral Academies.
Lessons for Other States
Rhode Island wants to build on this success, and so more mayoral academies are in the works. Rhode Island Mayoral Academies—the “harbormaster” or “incubator” organization created to help get mayoral academies off the ground—recently helped start Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy serving Cranston, North Providence, Providence, and Warwick. And applications for two more mayoral academies to serve different regions are the in pipeline.
The regional model embraced by mayoral academies is valuable because it creates greater opportunities for promoting socioeconomically and racially diverse enrollment, providing a way around district and attendance boundaries that are too often drawn in ways that divide communities by demographics.
Integrated schools serve important civic goals of promoting democratic engagement across diverse populations, promoting tolerance, and reducing stereotypes. Diverse learning environments help foster twenty-first-century skills of complex communication and critical thinking. And a long line of social science research shows that one of the best ways to help boost the achievement of low-income students is to give them the chance to attend economically mixed schools.
Current state charter school laws vary—in some cases, enrollment is open to students across a state or region, but in other cases it isn’t. In New York, for example, charter schools must give preference to students in the district where the charter school is located, making it difficult for schools to draw students from multiple districts. And even if enrollment is open to students across a region, achieving that in practice may be difficult depending on the challenges of recruiting students and providing transportation.
By building partnerships between municipalities, the mayoral academy model creates a broad base of support for regional charter schools that helps ensure these schools will serve students from throughout the region and have the support needed to do so.
Rhode Island’s mayoral academies are helping raise the state’s academic performance and promote integration.Other states would do well to examine this model with an eye toward creating their own opportunities for regional charter schools.