This article, written by Linda Borg, originally appeared in the Providence Journal.
The school day begins early at Iluminar, an Achievement First charter school. At 7:15 a.m., the doors open and children stream though the doors of the former Perry Middle School, a sprawling edifice long marked by failure.
Achievement First runs two elementary schools in Providence that share the same school on Hartford Avenue. These schools are part of a network of 32 charter schools in Connecticut and New York.
Iluminar’s principal, Kevin Lohela, is at the door, greeting each child with high fives and words of encouragement.
“Grow that brain today,” he says.
“Princess Tiara, welcome to your kingdom,” he tells a girl wearing a small crown.
Some children receive hugs. Lohela knows each child by name.
Achievement First, the first out-of-state charter school in Rhode Island, has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since it opened its first school here four years ago.
The network has been accused of grabbing the best students from the public schools, siphoning precious dollars away from traditional public schools and pushing out students who don’t meet its demanding code of discipline.
But supporters, including a number of families, say the school gets results.
On the math portion of the latest state standardized achievement test, Achievement First students outperformed their peers in the state’s top-performing schools — Barrington, East Greenwich and Jamestown. Ninety-six percent of its K-2 students scored proficient in reading.
“When I was in a public school, they taught to the lowest common denominator,” says Kathleen Lestor, who has two sons at AF. “Here, they teach up.”
Achievement First wants to more than triple its enrollment, to 3,112 children, a plan that has reignited criticism from those who say it will create a parallel school system in Providence, home to 87 percent of the charter’s students. On Friday, that plan won the solid support of the state’s education commissioner, Ken Wagner. On Tuesday, it goes before the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Journal spent a couple of days at Achievement First to see how it differs from a regular public school.
First, the school day is much longer — nearly 9 hours, from 7:15 a.m. until 4:10 p.m. — than the roughly 6.5 hours in the Providence elementary schools. This allows the school to set aside time for recess, physical education, dance and, for struggling students, extra help in math and English.
Secondly, uniforms are mandatory — orange shirts at Iluminar, blue shirts at Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy. Although there is no penalty for students who are out of uniform, parents must sign a written pledge that says, “I know that my scholar must wear his or her complete uniform every day.”
But it’s what takes place inside the classroom that distinguishes this charter school from many regular public schools.
First, the teachers are young, mostly in their 20s and early 30s. Compare that with the average age of a regular public school teacher — 46 years old. Although some charter schools have experienced high teacher turnover rates, Achievement First says its retention rate is 86 percent over a one-year period.
There are two teachers in every classroom of 30 students, making it easier to work with smaller groups of students.
And there are two deans: one responsible only for academics, another who takes care of everything else — from a broken boiler to a late bus. This frees up the dean of academics to focus on student performance and visit classrooms.
A frequent criticism of Achievement First is that its disciplinary code is punitive and unforgiving.
Achievement First, which calls its discipline “warm-strict, warm-demanding,” says a uniform discipline policy helps students feel safe because they know that expectations are the same in every classroom.
During a visit to an Achievement First school in New Haven four years ago, this reporter observed a child standing in a corner as punishment. Nothing like that was seen during a visit to the Providence schools, and spokeswoman Amanda Pinto said Providence doesn’t use a merit system to reward — or punish — students for misbehaving.
But the consequences, spelled out in a contract signed by the school and parent, say that after nine absences, the student “may not be promoted to the next grade.” Five tardies count as one absence. And “all absences count as absences,” including when a child is sick. But charter spokesman Amanda Pinto says no student has been held back for this reason.
Elizabeth Winangun, the school’s associate director of community relations, acknowledges that Achievement First, during its 12 years of operation, has made mistakes. With a total enrollment of 27,000 students, there have been overzealous principals and staff. No two schools are exactly the same.
“We name our mistakes all the time,” Winangun says. “Our big thing this year is a spike in warm-demanding. Some of our teachers are good at warmth but lose rigor.”
Several parents interviewed by the Journal say that they welcome the clear expectations, and that their children are showing more respect around the house and in school. One grandparent, Peter Nicholson, said the discipline code initially felt like “boot camp,” but now said, “I’m seeing the difference in Victoria” — her respect for her parents and for others.
Diana Ferreira likes the strictness. When her third-grader complained that his classmates were disruptive, she met with the dean, and he and his staff cracked down on the misbehavior right away, pulling the chronic offenders out of class.
“It’s keeping the problem small and moving on,” Ferreira says.
This has been an issue elsewhere, however. In 2013, the Connecticut Department of Education reported that Achievement First charter schools had among the highest rates of suspension or expulsion in the state. At AF’s Hartford Academy Middle School, nearly 50 percent of students had received an in-school or out-of-school suspension or expulsion, the highest in the report.
Pinto says the out-of-school suspension rate for both Providence schools is 6 percent. No student, she says, has been expelled during its four years of operation.
One of the hallmarks of Achievement First is a shared language that teachers use to settle students, ask and answer questions and track the teacher. Wiggling fingers means sending a classmate love or encouragement, hand on nose is needing a tissue.
During a tour of Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy four years ago, the language felt much more scripted. One teacher timed how long her students took to pass out pencils and papers.
Today, those behavioral cues feel more natural, part of the ebb and flow of the classroom.
As parent Kathleen Lestor says, the early regimentation was “like having an outline to write it.”
At Iluminar, the classroom is very structured. Rarely is a child fidgeting, talking out of turn or gazing into space. A visitor is told not to interrupt instruction. There is a feeling of urgency, that every minute is precious.
Every day begins with a “morning motivation” in which students share the school’s mission. In one first-grade classroom, the students chanted, “The more I read, the more I know!”
“What are we?” the teacher asked.
“We are brilliant!” the students said in unison.
This sounds gimmicky. But it’s one way that Achievement First establishes shared values.
Critics, however, say there is no joy in the classroom, that students, most of whom are black or Latino, are treated in ways that would be unacceptable to white, middle-class parents. Winangun doesn’t mince words: “We live in a white culture, so it’s important to learn these skills” — making eye contact, shaking hands, speaking loudly and clearly.
So is the belief that every child, regardless of race, country of origin or economic status, will be prepared for college. The message is constantly reinforced: each classroom is named after a college, and students identify with that particular university, often the one attended by their teacher.
Michelle Davidson said her son, a third-grader, hated going to class in a regular public school because he wasn’t challenged. When he arrived at AF, that began to change:
“They believe you can reach the sky,” she says. “That’s the X factor — the culture and the empowerment of the teacher.”
“We’re particularly careful that adults are not making excuses for the kids,” Winangun said. “We do not use poverty as an excuse. It’s not an indicator of intelligence or how far a child can fly. Education is the only way that any person can dig their way out of poverty. I think a lot of people in urban schools make decisions about kids before they ever work with them.”
The Achievement First network has been accused of turning away students who have significant special needs.
In 2015, Achievement First in New York City was hit with a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of five students at its Crown Heights school. The suit claimed that the school did not provide mandated special-education services and that students were punished for behavior that arose from their disabilities.
Two years earlier, the charter school signed a federal civil rights agreement in which it promised to improve training for staff and do a better job of providing special-needs students with services.
Winangun says special needs are not a problem in Rhode Island. She brings a Journal reporter into a class where nine special-education students are working alongside their peers. One student has substantial developmental delays, especially with speech. The school, Winangun says, found ways to keep her in a regular classroom with the help of daily speech therapy, physical therapy and regular meetings with a social worker.
“We haven’t outplaced one special-education child this year,” she says.
Davidson says she’s seen the effect of a teacher’s focus. “I have a daughter who is very shy,” she said. “That child is now at an advanced level. She just needed someone to believe in her. The school gave her the right teacher and the right encouragement.”
Another cornerstone of Achievement First is the importance of parent involvement. This may be the secret sauce that enables “no excuses” charter-school students to achieve at much higher levels than their regular public school peers.
Although students are selected in a blind lottery, parents must sign a 15-page contract that commits them to getting their children to school on time — in uniform — reading with them 25 minutes a night and attending all mandatory school events. This has led to charges that the charter network skims the best students, those with the most engaged families, from the regular public schools, leaving the weaker students behind.
Public schools must take all comers. If a child is chronically late or absent, he or she isn’t held back. A public school student who is suspended for dangerous or disruptive behavior typically returns to the classroom (but may be moved to a different school).
Parents, however, say Achievement First has welcomed them in ways that their traditional public schools did not.
“Before, I was treated like a problem parent,” says Davidson, who has three children at AF. “Here, it’s a partnership.”
When her son wasn’t sufficiently challenged in public school, Lester says, the school kept telling her that he was doing “great,” but they wouldn’t let her in the classroom.
“They didn’t want me there,” she says. “Here, my voice is heard.”