(Photo by Meg O'Neil)
By Meg O’Neil
Newport is one step closer to opening a new charter school in 2014. It was announced on Monday, Feb. 4 that the Rhode Island Department of Education had formally accepted the initial planning Prospectus for the Newport County STEAM Academy – a school that will specialize in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.
With the approval, the Academy will now prepare a final proposal to be submitted to the Department of Education by March 1. As part of the review and approval process, the Department of Education and Commissioner Deborah Gist will conduct several public hearings in Newport, allowing county residents to voice their opinion on the idea of the charter school.
If the school gets full approval, it expects to open its doors at the Newport County Boys & Girls Club facility at 95 Church St. on Historic Hill by September 2014. To start, the school will cater to elementary aged students through grade 8, adding a high school grade level in subsequent years at a separate location somewhere on Aquidneck Island. Looking even further ahead, the school could also add a grade 13 to offer students an Associates’ Degree by partnering with area colleges.
If approved, it will become the 17th charter school in the state, and be part of a growing movement nationally to recast education.
In recent years, charter schools across the country that had come to be known as STEM schools have pushed towards a STEAM model – paying particular mind to the intersection of art and design and how they relate to with business and technology.
The Newport County STEAM Academy plans to use the Boys & Girls Club building during school hours. The building will continue to operate as the Boys & Girls Club in the afternoon as an afterschool facility.
According to the Prospectus, the building on Church Street was opened in 1874 and was one of the first co-educational public high schools in the state established exclusively for college preparation. Today, the Boys & Girls Club facility has been refurbished with wireless computer labs, updated classrooms, art space, full-sized gymnasium, teen center, kitchen, and large indoor swimming pool.
Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Joanne Hoopes said the partnership will allow for the afterschool program to continue what they do now. “This is a great opportunity for us to work directly with teachers and support what they’re doing during the school day and gear our afterschool activities to be a continuation of what was learned during class,” she said.
The Boys & Girls Club will be used to house the lower elementary classrooms. Space for upper grade levels is still being sought. Classroom space may be available at the Corporate Park in Middletown, or the possibility exists of using one of the existing elementary schools in Newport that will be closed when the new Pell Elementary School opens this fall.
A team of founding members began planning for the Newport County STEAM Academy last year as a community effort. Two of them are Barbara McGann and Middletown Councilman Chris Semonelli.
McGann, a Newport native and retired Navy Rear Admiral, was previously the assistant superintendent of Boston Public Schools, CEO of the Marlborough, Mass. public schools and most recently founded the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough in 2005.
McGann says her goal is to create the premier model STEAM School for the state of Rhode Island.
To do that, the Newport STEAM Academy aims to use fabrication labs to foster manufacturing skills, science labs, and to become a “very hands on, real world, problem solving school."
Partnering and collaborating with other area schools and universities such as the Rhode Island School of Design and Salve Regina University, as well as local businesses, will be key to the success of the STEAM Academy, McGann said.
“The jobs that our kids are going to have aren’t even invented yet,” she says. “It used to be acceptable to prepare children with basic skills to go on to college and then join the workforce. That’s just not enough anymore in a global economy. We’ve got to be graduating critical thinkers and problem solvers.”
McGann said she has a simple formula that will allow for the STEAM Academy to succeed:
“Setting incredibly high standards; Effective instruction and hiring the best teachers you can find; Teachers have to know how to continuously use data and student work to inform instruction; and most importantly, you’ve got to have powerful, positive relationships through the school – from the janitors to the school leader. You’ve got to make sure there is a caring, loving adult in the life of every single child.”
Operating as an independent charter school and open to all students in Newport County, the STEAM Academy would not belong to the Newport Public School District, but would operate independently under the governance of an appointed board. The STEAM Academy already is seeking a school principal. Once they have been approved by the Department of Education, new charter schools can receive funding up to $400,000 to help develop curriculum and to make building updates.
With no collective bargaining or teacher unions or teacher seniority, McGann said that charter schools are able to operate with “tremendous freedom and flexibility.” In exchange for that flexibility, the Rhode Island Department of Education has higher expectations from charter schools compared to their public school counterparts. “The Department of Education expects you to outperform the public school districts that send students to the charter school – which we intend to do,” she said.
Additionally, McGann said the state standards are set much higher than the common core. “When you set very high standards, students will stretch to meet them,” she said.
According to Councilman Semonelli, if charter schools do not exceed their set standards within five years, the schools are forced to close. “This is an aggressive undertaking, and we have to exceed the standards. Ultimately, the students will benefit from that,” he said.
The Newport Country STEAM Academy would be like a public school in that there is no tuition. Instead, designated public funds follow the child. The per pupil cost varies from district to district. Newport has one of the highest per pupil costs in the state, hovering around $20,000.
Because of the way funds are allocated to charter schools, public opinion on them tends to be mixed.
Speaking for himself, Newport School Superintendent John H. Ambrogi said that he is generally not a fan of charter schools. “I feel charter schools siphon off much-needed money for public education, and I think if people focused more on public schools that exist, and were more active and aggressive in terms of their involvement, then we could achieve what people in charter schools are trying to achieve.”
However, Ambrogi also pointed out that if the STEAM Academy could be a “game changer” in terms of a forecast in future enrollment for Newport public schools. “Everyone has been clamoring about how the new Pell School is not large enough … the proposed charter school could have a substantial impact on our numbers,” Ambrogi said.
With approximately 2,200 currently enrolled in Newport public schools, Ambrogi said he is concerned with the impact a charter school in Newport could have on an already small district.
For Semonelli, the idea of charter school on Aquidneck Island and available to all students in the county makes sense, especially after regionalization efforts have so often failed. “By the time the public school budget money goes through all the filters and reaches the students, the money just isn’t there ... I’m not taking anything away from our current teachers – they’re just encumbered with regulations and it ties their hands. Our objective is to untie their hands,” he said. “The STEAM Academy will give us the flexibility that I’ve been trying to accomplish from across the table with school committees.”
The STEAM Academy has received initial planning approval from the Department of Education, but final word on their March 1 proposal is not expected for several months. If the Department declines the STEAM Academy proposal, the charter school can resubmit a proposal by December 1.
The community is invited to attend an open house at the Newport Boys & Girls Club at 95 Church St. on Wednesday, Feb. 13. At 5:30 p.m., McGann will provide an overview of the school. Childcare and refreshments will be provided.