WOONSOCKET – Officials with RISE Prep Mayoral Academy clarified the role North Smithfield students will play in the charter school’s planned expansion this week following a recommendation from the Rhode Island Department of Education that referenced plans to, “phase out,” students from the town.
Founder and Superintendent Rosalind DaCruz noted that while students from North Smithfield will not qualify for the new elementary school, set to open in the 2028/2029 school year, those currently enrolled at RISE will be able to continue their studies at a new high school if expansion plans are approved by the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education next month. And the original flagship school will continue to serve younger students from North Smithfield who wish to enroll.
The question of the town’s involvement with RISE – which has accepted students from Woonsocket, Burrillville and North Smithfield since it first opened in 2015 – comes as a result of the requirement that all towns sending students to the charter school provide a letter of support, according to DaCruz. The founder notes that while both Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Burrillville Town Manager Michael Wood have provided letters indicating support for the plan, which will allow the school to more than triple in size, no such communication was received from North Smithfield Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski.
DaCruz said two board members from RISE attended a meeting with the North Smithfield leader.
“When we approached the town administrator we had every intention of including North Smithfield in the high school,” DaCruz said. “The response was that he was not supporting the expansion for North Smithfield students.”
But Zwolenski told NRI NOW his intention was not to limit opportunities for North Smithfield students.
“It wasn’t clear they were looking for a letter of support,” Zwolenski said, noting that if he understood he was making a decision that could affect students, he would have called a meeting with both the Town Council and the School Committee before issuing a response.
North Smithfield school Supt. Michael St. Jean told NRI NOW last week that he was unaware of the expansion plans.
“I’m not sure how it was explained,” DaCruz said of the conversation with Zwolenski.
The founder noted that charter school officials went back to RIDE following the meeting in North Smithfield to make sure the school could still serve the town’s students. The indication, she said, was that while no new seats will be dedicated to North Smithfield students, kids already enrolled in the K-8 program can continue on with a seat in the new high school.
And because the flagship school was launched with the written support of former Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton, RISE can continue to enroll North Smithfield students there.
“Keeping our North Smithfield kids was really important,” DaCruz said.
As it currently stands, if approved, the town’s students – unlike their peers in Burrillville and Woonsocket – will not be able to start fresh in RISE’s 9th grade class or attend the new school, she said. All three RISE facilities, she noted, will be based in Woonsocket and the search for new locations is already underway.
DaCruz noted that the issue of support can present a difficult choice for town leaders. Due to a state funding formula that dictates a diversion of resources – with money following the student who enrolls outside the district – charter schools can be perceived as a detriment to public schools. In fact, when then Hamilton supported RISE’s launch and joined the school’s board of directors back in 2015, many were critical of the decision. And her involvement in RISE was among the top reasons listed on a petition calling for her dismissal from office that ultimately failed.
“I think we’ve come a long way since the battles in which we started,” DaCruz said. Still, “Town administrators can face a lot of pushback on these matters.”
The founder addressed scores on the most recent state assessments in which North Smithfield students outperformed their charter school peers, noting that RISE’s intentionally diverse model means they are testing a different demographic – including multi-language learners and kids from the neighboring city who may have struggled during the pandemic.
Still, she noted, like North Smithfield, RISE currently has a three-star rating with RIDE. The charter school had a five-star rating prior to the pandemic.
DaCruz also addressed the decline in enrollment among North Smithfield students, noting that many parents from the town took their kids out when COVID-19 hit the region. In exit interviews, RISE officials learned that some families relocated, while others saw changes in circumstances or priorities that were no longer in synch with the school’s extended day model, with hours from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We definitely saw a fair amount of North Smithfield kids leave during the pandemic,” DaCruz said. “I do think we’re going to see a lot of families back. Maybe not the same families, but new ones.”
Currently, the tuition free charter school enrolls 430 K-8 students, which will grow to 1,450 students in grades K-12 by the 2035/2036 school year if the application is approved. The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to vote on the expansion application at a meeting in January.
Editor’s note: The above article has been updated with RISE’s most recent 3-star rating.