Where are Providence’s Missing Students?


In January, the Providence Public School District (PPSD) and the RI Department of Education (RIDE), which oversees the district, proudly shared updates on their “Newer and Fewer” school building renovation plan. The crux of the $500 million plan is to replace or renovate the district’s current stock of 39 mostly aging, neglected and crumbling school buildings with a smaller number of “new or like-new” buildings.

The ”fewer” part of the plan involves consolidating a number of separate elementary and middle schools into new buildings hosting students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The state of our buildings was one of many dire conditions identified in the 2019 Johns Hopkins report that led to the state takeover of Providence Schools. If the takeover has done nothing else, it has at least broken the fiscal and political logjam that blocked effective reconstruction of our city’s school buildings for decades.

But can shiny new buildings save a district that serves fewer and fewer students each year?

PPSD has closed four schools in the last four years as district enrollment has dropped off year by year. In 2015, the Providence Public School District enrolled about 24,000 students. There were 21,000 enrolled in 2019, the first year of the takeover. The number this school year is about 19,600.

By 2030, the District plans to have seats for just 17,000 students. That’s the target for their “Fewer and Newer” district-wide school construction and renovation plan update from January. (See link above.)

Why are PPSD enrollments declining so sharply? Birth rates here have fallen over the last 20 years and so have the number of children in our city. The decline has been largest among children under 10, the children who will need schools over the next decade.

Demographics alone, however, would explain an enrollment drop of less than one percent per year on a statewide basis according to a December report from RIPEC called Empty Seats. But RIDE data show that PPSD enrollments have fallen by between 3% and 5% per year over the last four years. That’s 600 to 1,000 students each year, more than the student population of an average sized PPSD school.

In fact, competing school options have much more to do with the drop in PPSD enrollments. To understand our city’s full public education challenge, you have to look at all our public school students, not just those in schools operated by PPSD.

Charter schools are public schools. So are state-operated schools like Davies Vocational and state-authorized “collaborative” schools like the Met Career and Tech high school and UCAP middle school. We also send a handful of kids to municipal schools in other communities. All of these are public schools because they operate using public funding and are open to eligible students tuition-free.

And, if they enroll Providence students, Providence must pay them. Each non-district public school with students from Providence receives a per capita tuition payment from Providence as the “sending” district.

COVID closed all public schools in Rhode Island in March of 2020. The next fall, public school enrollments dropped sharply everywhere. Providence lost 800 public school students including PPSD, charter and other alternative public schools. But kids didn’t desert all schools equally: PPSD lost 1,200 students, while charters added 400. The other public school options stayed about the same.

Rhode Island’s original charter schools promised to pave the way for wider public school change by serving as pilot programs and laboratories for new kinds of school culture and teaching. They hoped that those improvements would be adopted by larger public systems once proven at the small school level.

That never happened. Traditional public schools weren’t very interested in what was happening at charters. But parents were. Charter school waiting lists grew and grew. Opening a new charter was, and is, a daunting bureaucratic, administrative and financial challenge. But once opened, the state’s formula for tuition reimbursement from the “sending” district made it possible to survive. And the demand for charter enrollment far exceeded supply.

Year by year, new schools applied for and received charters and existing charters added seats.  In 2013, Achievement First, a larger charter organization with schools in New York and Connecticut, became the first multi-school charter operator in Rhode Island when they opened Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy. They now run five charters in Providence.

As new charter seats opened up, students grabbed them. In 2010, 995 Providence students attended six charter schools.  In the current school year, according to a RIDE projection, 6,132 Providence students attend 26 different charter schools. Between 2013 and 2022, charter enrollment of Providence students grew at an average rate of 16% every year.

Today more than 20% of all public school students in the city attend charters. That proportion could be 25% or more by the time all our new and like-new schools come on line in 2030.

A new statewide charter enrollment system which allows parents to apply to multiple charter schools at once has supported the trend. Julie Nora, Director of the International Charter School in Pawtucket says, “We are located in Pawtucket, so the largest number of applications has always come from here.  However, in the past few years since RIDE began using the Enroll RI application system, the number of Providence residents has been increasing each year.  Last year, we had more applications from Providence than Pawtucket for the first time.”

When a single student leaves a PPSD school, they take up to $18,840 in state and local funding with them, depending on family income. They leave an empty seat behind. The district reduces costs by consolidating the remaining students into fewer schools. It may also stop investing in some buildings, anticipating eventual closure.

And that leaves many families and students who were happy with their district schools feeling betrayed by abrupt school closures. Over the last four years, students and families at Fortes, Lima, Carl Lauro and Broad Street Schools have found themselves ejected from schools they liked and scrambling to find others.

New PPSD school buildings are certainly needed, but they may not be sufficient to stem this tide.

As charter schools grow, they thrive. As PPSD shrinks, even schools that are relatively successful and well-loved have been closed. Teachers are laid off, mental health workers are reassigned, extra academic support programs are ended. Charters may be great for the lucky minority who literally win the lottery to get in. But what will their good fortune mean for thousands of Providence students for whom there is no alternative charter seat?

We’ve seen a massive shift of responsibility for public education away from our city wide district and onto the shoulders of charter schools. If the number of charter seats keeps growing, there’s no reason to think they won’t be filled, leaving more empty PPSD seats behind, perhaps even in the brand-new school buildings now being created.

Between the pull of new charter seats and the push of district school closures, it’s clear that thousands of Providence parents and students have moved from PPSD to charters and thousands more are likely to follow. What’s not clear is whether this movement is part of a coherent plan to provide equal education for all Providence students. It’s certainly not a plan that has been openly discussed or shared.

Charter schools are public schools . But they have significant differences from traditional district public schools.

Each charter is a mini-district of its own with an independent board of directors, likely to include parents and community members. Charters rely on voluntary enrollments to maintain their budgets, so they have an interest in being responsive to students and families. Charters may enroll students from several communities.  Charters are accountable to RIDE and the statewide Council on Elementary and Secondary Education through annual reporting and the five-year recertification process, but not to local elected officials or the Providence School Board. Charter teachers do not currently have union representation.

Charter school buildings are not all palaces, but students and parents like the smaller, more intimate classes and communities at charter schools and their ability to establish and sustain a consistent school culture.

District schools, for better and for worse, have a unified citywide administration and (in theory) instructional strategy. Under non-takeover conditions, school administrators are responsible to the Mayor and local elected officials on the School Board and City Council, who, in turn, are responsible to voters. District schools enroll only Providence students. Parents may participate in building-level and district wide advisory groups. Teachers are represented by their union in collective bargaining.

Over the years, PPSD has successfully created some innovative schools that earn the same kind of student belonging and loyalty that charters often inspire . But over and over, district leaders have abandoned innovative initiatives that mirror the best practices of charter schools, further eroding PPSD’s competitiveness with charters. The closing of 360 High School is just the latest example.

Whatever one’s opinion of charter schools, Providence is now well on its way to a hybrid public education “system” that pits its traditional unified district schools against a dispersed collection of independently-managed charter schools in a race for students and their critical funding.

Yet public policy discussions are still focused on PPSD alone, which teaches a smaller proportion of our children every year. Neither PPSD nor RIDE have a publicly available plan for Providence students that includes or accounts for the major role that charters now play in public education here.

Jonathan Howard is Co-founder of Cause & Effect, Inc., a consulting company that provides strategic planning facilitation, fund development planning and board strengthening to mission-driven organizations. He is a long- time resident of Providence. His three children all attended Providence Public Schools from kindergarten through high school.