School choices

National School Choice Week advocates for letting parents decide where their children learn

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When Sandra Olivo Peterson looked to put her son, Darien, in school at age four, she searched for a place that could accommodate her son’s needs. Being born around the cutoff date that would make him wait another year before entering school, Olivo Peterson found her way to Bishop McVinney School in Providence. She asked if it was possible to enroll her son a little early because she thought he was ready and the school tested him to make sure. From there, he went on to attend Catholic school from grades K through 8.

“It was a wonderful experience. Not because it’s a Catholic school, but because it was a smaller community and provided open doors,” said Olivo Peterson, who now lives in Cranston with her family.

Olivo Peterson is now part of Rhode Island Families for School Choice and is an advocate for raising the awareness that parents have the choice in the schools that their children attend.

School choice refers to a process which allows families to choose the educational option (K through 12) that best suits their children. According to National School Choice Week, every child is unique and may require a different learning environment to be successful.

The Rhode Island Families for School Choice is made of fifteen volunteers, including Ed Bapista of Cranston. He said the organization began eight to nine years ago because parents wanted to be empowered to choose the best education system for their child since they are the prime educators of their kids. Bapista said 28 out of 50 states offer school choice, yet Rhode Island has a limited program. It is only accessible through lottery systems - which means not every child will be able to attend - or individuals must pay a fee to send their child to a different school.

Bapista said that before the recent Covid spike, the organization was to hold an event on school choice with 12 schools and keynote speaker Denisha Merriweather who is an active voice for the American Federation of Children. Merriweather grew up in Florida and her siblings before her did poorly in school. The teachers didn’t expect much when Merriweather came around and she ended up flunking the third grade and having to take it twice. Merriweather’s godmother asked to take her in and applied to a program. Merriweather not only started to excel, but passed the third grade, went onto middle school, high school and graduated college with a master’s degree in social work.

“The situation turned around positively by the simple act of being put in a school where she belonged,” said Bapista.

Rhode Island has a variety of school options for the 160,000+ children living in the state. With choices of public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools and homeschooling, there are many options that parents should be aware of when selecting what is best for their child.

Bapista said that school choice encourages healthy competition among schools.

“They [schools] step up their game and become inviting and enticing. Everybody does better,” Bapista said.

Bapista hopes that outreach about school choice sparks an interest in the minds of parents because people may not realize that they have this choice. He believes that individuals have the right to demand more educational options.

In Rhode Island, there are a total of 66 public education agencies (or districts) in the state. They consist of 32 regular school districts; four regional school districts; four state-operated schools; one regional collaborative LEA and 23 charters.

According to the Private School Review, as of the 2022 school year “there are 172 private schools serving 22,194 students in Rhode Island.”

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