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Target 12 investigated a school choice program in RI. Here are 5 things to know

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Target 12 on Monday aired an investigation into a school-choice program that some blame for creating chaos in Rhode Island education.

The story explained how so-called career and technical education programs, also known as CTE or “pathways programs,” are both helping and hurting districts across the state. It also showed how some are using them for the main purpose of playing sports in other districts.

Here are five key takeaways from Target 12’s findings:

1. Pathway programs are popular in Rhode Island

Students and families are choosing to attend pathways programs in districts across the state.

A quarter of all Rhode Island public school students participated in a pathways program during the 2018-19 school year, and hundreds are attending out-of-district schools. The number of programs offered across the state has increased 59% to more than 200 since the 2014-15 school year.

The programs were originally designed to offer students the opportunity to study specialized skills for 21st century jobs. A new type of Vo-tech education, programs range from biomedical science and engineering to music and performing arts.

The growth has been fueled in part by competition between school districts, as many have started new programs and invested in curriculum in an attempt to dissuade students from leaving home.

2. The programs are both helping and hurting districts

Districts can either make or lose a substantial amount of money depending on how many students come and go for pathways programs.

The funding follows the student, so if a student leaves his or her hometown to attend a pathways program in another district, the receiving town gets thousands of dollars.

That’s good news for places like Ponaganset High School in Glocester, which has been successful in attracting more than 100 out-of-district students. But it’s posing challenges for others, such as Warwick, where dozens of students are leaving to attend school elsewhere, costing the district millions of dollars.

“You’re seeing districts that are winners and that are losers, and mine is certainly in the latter position,” said Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton.

3. Some are using the educational programs for sports

While the programs are designed for educational purposes, that’s not how some are being used.

Target 12 interviewed more than a dozen superintendents, educators, coaches and families, who detailed how many students are using pathways programs for the main purpose of playing sports in other districts.  

In Ponaganset, a quarter of the high school football team lived out-of-district, representing a makeup of players that’s becoming ever-more common in certain parts of the state where pathways programs are flourishing.

While some argue this is not happening by design, others have described a shadow recruitment system that’s targeting out-of-district students to come play sports under the guise of pathways programs.

With more athletes comes more competition for roster spots, leaving a greater number of students watching from the sidelines.

“It hurts the player that is from the hometown,” explained Mark Gilchrist, boy’s soccer head coach in Burrillville.

4. Look up pathways programs enrollment in your district

We created a searchable database for you to look at enrollment in pathways programs and career-tech center in your hometown. The programs range from biomedical science to music and performing arts.

Enrollment numbers are from last school year.

5. Some want change, but it won’t come easily … if at all

Opponents of the pathways programs are pushing for changes in both the legislature and in the court system.

But the efforts have been met with pushback, including from the R.I. Department of Education, which helped champion the expansion of pathways programs under former Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.

A bill that would have prevented students from attending pathways programs in other districts, if the same course is offered at home, failed to garner enough support in the General Assembly last year. It’s likely a similar effort could happen this year.

Likewise, a legal challenge out of Chariho Regional School District is winding its way through the courts system, which could have repercussions if the district is ultimately successful.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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