PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In September, a rising star on the Ponaganset High School football team scored four touchdowns against Scituate High School, leading his team to a 50-14 rout.
What some spectators might not have realized: the student lived in the town he helped beat. And Scituate paid Ponaganset thousands of dollars for him to attend school there and play sports.
He’s not alone. In Ponagansett, a third of the school’s varsity football roster was made up of out-of-district students last season, according to documents provided to Target 12.
The arrangement, which is legal, has become increasingly common in some school districts across Rhode Island thanks to the proliferation of so-called career and technical education, also known as CTE, or pathways programs.
About a quarter of all high school students participated in pathways programs during the 2017-18 school year, according to the R.I. Department of Education, and hundreds of students have chosen to attend the programs at out-of-district schools.
The programs were originally designed to prepare students with the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century workforce. They have grown quickly in popularity during the last five years, with more than 200 programs now available across the state, effectively offering students and their families a form of school choice.
“While it’s school choice, it’s also about saying to a child: ‘What’s your personal passion? What’s your personal interest?’ And creating a venue for that to occur,” said Superintendent Michael Barnes of the Foster-Glocester Regional School District, which includes Ponaganset High School.
The programs have been successful in offering students an opportunity to study topics once only available at state-operated centers, sometimes called Vo-Tech schools, such as the William H. Davies School.
Rhode Island students today can attend any school district where a pathways program is offered, regardless of whether the same program is offered in their hometowns. The dynamic has spurred competition between districts and pushed administrators and elected officials to invest more money in facilities and curriculum to become more attractive to students.
“They’re not going through the motions and just accepting the education in their town,” said Philip Auger, superintendent of North Kingstown, where pathway programs are popular. “They’re shopping around a little bit and trying to get something that is more meaningful to them and those are all good things.”
But the growing segment of Rhode Island public education has also come with a litany of other consequences, according to more than a dozen superintendents, teachers and parents interviewed by Target 12.
The programs have offered students and their families a pathway to attend certain schools for the main purpose of playing sports. And the newfound inter-district competition has pushed administrators and teachers to actively market to out-of-district families in part because each student comes with a funding boost.
“What’s happening is exactly what I thought would happen,” said former Chariho Regional School District superintendent Barry Ricci, who was interviewed by Target 12 in December, shortly before his death after a long battle with brain cancer.
Ricci was an avid proponent of public education, but an outspoken opponent of the current structure of pathways programs.
“We have chaos in our system,” he said.
Follow the money
The money follows the student in Rhode Island, meaning districts can either make or lose a substantial amount of funding depending on how many students come and go for pathways programs.
In Warwick, by example, the district pays about $17,000 per year to send a single student to study in a pathways program in North Kingstown, where dozens of Warwick students are attending pathways programs.
Supporters say the policy makes sense because North Kingstown is now responsible for educating the student and must cover the associated costs.
But Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton argues Warwick doesn’t realize a $17,000 savings when the student leaves, as overhead costs – such as electricity, facilities and teachers – are not eliminated because there’s one less person to educate. The argument echoes the criticism surrounding costs related to charter schools.
Thornton estimates Warwick will spend $2.2 million to send more than 130 students to out-of-district pathways programs this fiscal year, representing a cost that’s quadrupled since the 2014-15 school year, according to financial documents shared with Target 12.
To try and offset those costs, the city actively promotes its Warwick Area Career & Tech Center, which brought in about $1 million from out-of-district students last school year.
“You’re seeing districts that are winners and that are losers, and mine is certainly in the latter position,” Thornton told Target 12 last year.
The prospect of losing so much money has pushed administrators across the state to launch aggressive marketing campaigns to recruit out-of-district students.
The campaigns include advertisements in newspapers and on social media, along with in-person visits to middle schools. In a four-minute video posted on its website, Ponanganset promotes its pathways programs in a presentation that looks similar to marketing videos made by colleges.
The video includes interviews with students enrolled in various pathways programs, including biomedical science, engineering and music and performing arts.
“We have career focused, 21st century academic pathways that allow students to explore their passions and create education focused on the whole child,” a narrator said in the video.
But education isn’t the only focus. While not explicitly promoting sports, the Ponaganset video shows an aerial shot of its football field, along with students playing basketball, wrestling and working out.
“We’re committed to maintaining and upgrading facilities that allow students to dig deeper into their passions,” the narrator said over the sports-related footage.
A pathway to sports
Sen. Adam Satchell, D-West Warwick, who works as a guidance counselor, said he often talks with students who want to attend pathways programs in other districts.
During a special Senate task force meeting in November, Satchell recounted one interaction with a student who wanted to enroll in a program offered by Ponaganset.
Satchell said he asked the student which program she was considering for school, and she answered, “I don’t know. They have a girl’s hockey team.”
“This is something families are exploiting,” he said. “I think this is backdoor school choice.”
Target 12 interviewed several administrators, teachers and parents, who described a shadow recruitment system – beyond the public marketing campaigns – inducing students who use pathways programs to play sports in other districts.
“We have schools that are recruiting for athletics and using [pathways] to do that,” Ricci said. “We have parents who are taking advantage of the regulations to get what they want for their kids. That’s not the intent of the regulation – to allow kids to go play volleyball for their AAU coach.”
Smithfield Superintendent Judy Paolucci echoed the sentiment.
“We believe that some students are leaving SHS due to a more desirable sports team in another district, or because our sports facilities are not as nice as others’,” Paolucci told Target 12 in an email. “We’ve also been accused of attracting students to SHS because of our hockey program.”
She added, “It’s foolish to think that students don’t make [pathways] program decisions based on sports programming.”
In Burrillville, boys soccer head coach Mark Gilchrist expressed concerns with how pathways programs are affecting sports.
“[It’s] great for education, but it opens pandora’s box for student athletes, especially for Division 1 schools,” Gilchrist said in an email. “It hurts the player that is from the hometown. This generation has changed a lot with sports. It’s a business.”
Yet Barnes, the Foster-Glocester superintendent, disputed the notion that any student is at Ponagansett because of sports-related recruiting efforts.
“I disagree with the premise that they’re choosing schools based on athletics,” Barnes said. “As a matter of fact, we have specifically directed our coaches that they are not to recruit.”
A possible change?
Some educators, including Thornton, have championed legislation to stop students from attending pathways programs in other districts if the same program is offered in-district.
“I already have on my desk 20 applications for Ponaganset next year,” Thornton said. “One third of the applications are for art and music-type programs. I’m not sure that art- and music-type programs – while meaningful to students – was initially thought of as a high-demand 21st century programming by the workforce.”
But Thornton’s proposal has 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.
RIDE spokesperson Megan Geoghegan argued students should be allowed to choose a program in another district, even if it’s offered in-district, because the same two classes could look entirely different from one another.
“For example, two schools may have computer science pathways, but one may focus heavily on cybersecurity and another may focus instead on coding. That translates to a different experience for students,” Geoghegan said in an email.
In addition to Thornton’s legislative efforts, Chariho – led by Ricci – has fought the proliferation of pathways programs in the courts. The district filed a lawsuit against the R.I. Department of Education in 2017 alleging the state breached a pre-existing agreement with its career and technical center by allowing other communities in the county to operate pathways programs.
A judge dismissed the suit in 2017, but Chariho filed an appeal to the R.I. Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to R.I. Superior Court for trial earlier this year. The court denied the state’s latest motion to dismiss, giving new life to the challenge.
Nonetheless, the Department of Education is not backing down from its support of the programs, suggesting friction between districts will continue as they grow in popularity.
“Students in Rhode Island can pursue any career pathway available across the state, meaning that ZIP code no longer determines the opportunities that our young people can access,” Geoghegan said. “Our approach has been praised nationally, and we firmly believe that open enrollment should continue.”