NORTH SMITHFIELD – Proponents of Rhode Island’s school choice program say that the competition – and accompanying potential loss in revenue – motivates districts across the state to continually improve, and gives families access to more options in education.
But for the students who opt to attend school outside of their home town, the motivation is typically social rather than educational, according to North Smithfield Supt. Michael St. Jean.
“It’s not an academic choice, which is frustrating,” St. Jean said. “We pay their tuition.”
The number of students from North Smithfield who are attending school in another district for a vocational or career and technical program has been increasing, St. Jean noted, a trend that drains money from a public school system required by law to fund the educations of those who seek alternatives.
St. Jean said 80 kids who live in North Smithfield are currently enrolled in charter school, vocational, or career and technical education programs elsewhere, up from 72 in 2020, making a school choice decision that costs the district roughly $800,000 annually.
“We had a spike this year,” the superintendent said during a presentation on enrollment to members of the School Committee at their meeting in November.
Charter schools in neighboring Woonsocket make up the bulk of the loss, with 13 North Smithfield students currently attending Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, and another 44 enrolled at RISE Prep Mayoral Academy, a number that has increased steadily since the school’s launch in 2015.
Enrollment at Woonsocket Career and Technical Center is down from its recent peak of 16 students in 2019 to just two this year, but five North Smithfield students are now attending at Davies Vocational.
St. Jean said that this year marks the first time the district has also lost students to neighboring public schools’ CTE programs, including four at Ponaganset, two in Burrillville and two in Scituate.
“This is CTE competition,” St. Jean said. “We have students that have moved into North Smithfield, but they still want to go to their old high school where their friends are. It really is a social choice for most students.”
The superintendent said that he calls each parent to discuss the decision and explain what the town’s public schools have to offer.
“Academically, one of our strengths is, we’re one of the highest rated high schools in the state,” he said.
“It’s a cost to us,” St. Jean said. “I would much rather have that $800,000 invested back in our schools. We don’t have the ability to say ‘no.'”
Total enrollment in North Smithfield Public Schools, which hit 1,849 in 2008, was at 1,614 as of this October. The New England School Development Council projects that the number will remain relatively level in the coming years.
Offsetting the cost of the out-of-district placements are 11 students from other Rhode Island towns currently enrolled in North Smithfield’s CTE programs. North Smithfield High School offers career and technical programs in Music, Engineering, and Business and Finance.
The superintendent said two students from out-of-town have graduated through the NSHS programs, and district officials are hoping to launch an additional CTE next year in construction.
“We’re hoping to offer that to North Smithfield students as well,” St. Jean said. “Our new teacher that we hired is fully certified.”
In northern Rhode Island, five school districts have signed on to the Northwest Consortium an agreement which, in part, aims to mitigate the rising costs of sending students out of district. North Smithfield joins Lincoln, Cumberland, Burrillville and Smithfield in the organization which offers member schools a flat rate of $5,000 for tuition, rather than the roughly $15,000 it costs to send the students elsewhere.
“What it does – it does open up a bit of school choice – but it does not break our budgets,” St. Jean said. “The rest of the state has not set themselves up this way.”
Also up in the 2021 school year is the number of parents who are home schooling students, a population that increased across the state after distance learning programs were launched in 2020 in hopes to curb the spread of COVID-19. St. Jean said that in a normal year, between 24-27 North Smithfield students are educated at home, but the number jumped to 51 last year. While some of those students have returned to the public school system, 41 still remain at home in 2021.
“This isn’t just North Smithfield,” he said. “Home schooling numbers have continue to be up there.”
St. Jean said North Smithfield schools have made progress in addressing out of district placements related to special education, bringing back students who require highly specialized services not previously offered in town. During the 2017/2018 school year 27 students were said to have severe needs that could not be handled within the district at a cost of $70,000 to $100,000 annually per pupil – without including transportation.
The number has reduced steadily to just 16 this year.
“It’s not just from a budgetary standpoint. We want the students to stay in North Smithfield,” St. Jean said. “We’re continuously looking to bring more kids back.”
St. Jean said that despite the challenges, he doesn’t see the competition with other school districts as a negative.
“It has you look at what they’re doing well and continuously trying to improve,” he said. “One disadvantage we’re a small district, and we can only offer so much.”
“We’re doing everything we can to offer as much as we can for our students,” St. Jean said.