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South side residents don’t want to lose John Hope Settlement House to proposed charter school



Last night well over 100 community members filled the South Side Community Center at a meeting convened by Providence City Councilor Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) to look into the surprising news that the historic, 90-year old John Hope Settlement House will be turning over 98 percent of it’s space to a newly forming charter school. The Wangari Maathai Community School plans to open a K-8 charter school at John Hope in the 2019-2020 school year, pending final approval from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). The school is to be named for Wangarĩ Muta Maathai, a renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel laureate.

At the meeting, it was said that the John Hope Settlement House board “signed an agreement” with the school with only two board members voting against the agreement. However, board member Anastasia Williams, who is also a state representative representing District 9 in Providence as a Democrat, denied having seen the document in question. Here’s the document that was being passed around. I have been unable to verify its authenticity with Wangari Maathai Community School officials. In an email I was told that school organizers may be able to answer my questions sometime around midweek, next week.

The meeting at the South Side Cultural Center was occasionally heated, as the community’s attachment to the John Hope Settlement House runs deep and has historic roots. Many expressed doubt in the current board, and it is well known that John Hope has been a troubled institution for some time now. Still in addition to keeping the charter school out, many in attendance were also hoping to save and revitalize John Hope.

“This is not a done deal as of yet, and that’s why we’re having this meeting now, because to my understanding, they made this decision without any of us knowing anything about it,” said Suzanne Cook, one of the co-organizers of the event.

Many felt that the way the school is being organized is an attempt by West Side gentrifiers to exclude local, West End youth from the student selection process. There is some evidence of this.

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The application for the school asserts that one reason the school is needed is because of the long wait lists at other charter schools in Providence. The application reads, in part:

“The second part of our decision has to do with need and choice. There is significant demand for Kindergarten and 1st grade seats, with close to 1,000 families on some charter wait lists. Most of those families must make alternate decisions and we believe that, at least in our first four years when we will accept incoming 5th graders, many of those families will welcome the opportunity for another option. Further demonstrating a need for more quality middle school seats is the fact that the Providence Public School District has been challenged in recent years to identify enough seats to meet growing demand. While we can only offer 72 seats for 5th and 6th graders, it will, nevertheless, help ease some of the District’s swelling classrooms.”

Yet when the school conducted its lottery for students, before having secured a location, only 85 potential students applied for the 125 available slots. What little outreach there seems to have been was almost entirely focused on the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA)’s play space and the West Side Parents Google group, though I have not been able to confirm this with school officials. Here’s the outreach plan in the application:

“Our outreach efforts will stretch into every neighborhood in Providence but will target the West End, Federal Hill, Southside, Mt Pleasant, Manton, Wanskuck, Silver Lake, and Olneyville neighborhoods (most densely populated with families living in poverty.) Once we have secured a facility, we will heavily recruit within the area surrounding the school building. Bilingual informational fliers will be posted in corner markets, other local businesses, libraries, community centers (such as West End & Davey Lopes Community Centers), day care centers, preschools (such as Mariposa, Genesis Center, Children’s Friend), doctors’ offices/health centers (such as Providence Community Health Centers), and distributed through other non-profit partners and friends who serve youth in the City (including Community MusicWorks, DownCity Design, SCLT, West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation, John Hope Settlement House, and Federal Hill House), through events produced by neighborhood associations, through local churches, mosques and social service organizations (such as Dorcas International, Family Services of RI, and ONE.) We will also plan to hold several Informational Nights at neighborhood organizations to attract families interested in our school as an option for their child’s education.

“Electronically, the same information will be sent to the 110+ families who are members of the West Side Parents Google group, members of West Side Play Space, posted on our own school website, and posted on various community Facebook pages. And, finally, we will go door-to-door within a 10 block radius of our proposed school building to ensure all members of the community learn about the opportunity to send their children to our new school.”

In response to this piece, Caleb Borchers, WBNA Board President and Kari Lang, WBNA Executive Director write, “West Side Play Space, referenced in this article, is a sub-program of West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA), a nonprofit organization in the West End. WBNA has stated on public record that it is opposed to the expansion of charter schools in Providence, and has publicly opposed the Wangari Maathai Community School. While some West Side Play Space leaders (past and present) are individually involved with the formation of this charter school, WBNA wishes to clarify that it is not associated with nor does it support this project. WBNA remains committed to our decades-long held value of supporting our traditional neighborhood public schools.”

Jessica Jennings, who owns and runs the West Side Parents Google group and speaking as a resident and not as part of the WBNA, informed me that “while there was a very early meeting posted in that group by its founder about this charter school (around three years ago), there has since been no promotion of the school on that Google group… It is controversial in our neighborhood.” Jennings referenced her oped in GoLocal.

According to sources and unconfirmed by school officials, there has already been a lottery held, and this was before John Hope was settled on as a possible location, so local community outreach could not have been done and in fact, so little outreach was done that the City Councilor for the Ward John Hope is located in, Mary Kay Harris, had no idea about the school.

The Rhode Island statute on enrollment lotteries for charter schools says that, “[w]hen fewer students apply than there are seats available, all applicants shall be offered enrollment into the school. When more students apply than are seats available, the school shall conduct a random lottery to determine enrollment. For charter schools that do not have defined enrollment percentages from their sending districts in their charter, lotteries shall be held no later than a date set by the Commissioner in the school year before the year in which students are to enroll. Charter schools shall use a lottery application developed by the Commissioner. Weighted lotteries are permissible if the Commissioner deems it necessary to fulfill statutory requirements.”

Here’s more of the video from the meeting at the South Side Community Center:

Mary Kay Harris:

Suzette Cook:

Keith Oliveira, executive director of the League of Charter Schools spoke strongly in favor of charter schools and said they were needed, though losing the John Hope Settlement House to build one was tough for him. Event co-organizer Serviuscountered that charter schools are “fundamentally undemocratic.”

“This whole idea that charter schools are going to be the solution for us, and the solution, possibly, to save John Hope, is a seductive one and one that has been used in state, over state, over state and they’ve taken over public institutions and not only public institutions: Black institutions that people have built through struggle and through years,” said Servius. “Charter schools are an active threat to Black communities, poor communities and working class communities because they take things out of the public domain.”

Representative Williams was silent throughout the meeting until the very end, when she got up to defend her service on the John Hope Settlement House board. This report in the Providence Journal incorrectly states that “No members of the organization’s board of trustees spoke at the meeting.”

City Councilor Harris is planning a community meeting with the organizers of the Wangari Maathai Community School.

GoLocal has been covering some of this here:

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.