Rhode Island District Superintendent Describes Start of Collaboration with Charter Schools

A collaboration between a charter school and the Central Falls School District in Rhode Island that began five years ago has broadened into a formal cooperation compact involving area charter schools and may gain $100,000 in support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The effort began with a small step, according to district Superintendent Frances Gallo. She was visting homes soon after she started her job in 2007, and during one stop the family got a call that their daughter had received a spot in a charter school through the lottery.

“They were so excited,” Gallo said in a September 2011 interview with the National Charter School Resource Center. “So the next day I visited the charter schools in the area so I could see who they were, what they were all about and how they compared in both demographics and in achievement to the public schools that I had just taken a leadership role in.”

The demographics of The Learning Community closely matched the district’s. “They were doing some absolutely astounding work in reading and their scores proved it,” Gallo said.

The charter school was willing to share its methods. A pilot project has grown to cover district kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2. Early childhood literacy scores have increased 54 percent, according to Gallo.

District teachers visited the charter school. “They could see for themselves that it really depends on what we’re doing in the classroom and that we had so much more that we could be doing,” Gallo said. “We really started a big push on reading and how kids can achieve, speaking always in really positive terms and then providing what is called a safety net so that every six weeks we’re testing students with diagnostics and spotting immediate needs and grouping and regrouping on a continuing basis.”

Gallo said those two elements, “one a little soft and subjective, the other very supported by data, made all the difference in the world.”

Initial expansion of the program wasn’t mandatory. “We just offered it on a voluntary basis to a larger group and those were the teachers who wanted it to work. And based on those successes we wrote it into the policy – that we would definitely use the safety net approach, we would use the particular units of study that The Learning Community charter was using.”

The collaboration with The Learning Community was the subject of a report in the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s Voices in Urban Education.

The district, which has approximately 3,000 students, branched out to establish ties with other charter schools in the area. “We all started to get together. We know each other. We kept working with each other,” Gallo said.

Someone heard about the Gates Foundation project to encourage charter-district collaboration. “We said why not put all of this to pen and really get something going on a more formal basis,” she said.

She said a Central Falls program budget will be submitted to the foundation and that $100,000 is anticipated for continuing the effort.

An advisory council that would help schools and parents understand issues impacting special education could be established as part of the collaboration. “We have a full-time special education director and we’ve noticed that  each of the charter schools really searches high and low for some support,” Gallo said. “We’ve been very open in supporting them in regard to special education.”

Collaboration also could extend to creating a central bank of assessment questions, pooling purchasing for greater efficiency and savings, or sharing a school lunch program. Charter schools serve other districts in addition to Central Falls. Gallo said if the cooperative program succeeds, other districts could be contacted to participate. A copy of the compact and work plan are available on the district's website district-charter compact.