LIFE LINE: Dr. Christopher Furey, pictured above speaking to medical receptionist Ruthie Straight, is utilizing the Primary Care Educational Loan Repayment Program, which is offered by The Rhode Island Foundation.
By the time Dr. Christopher Furey, a Vermont native, finished his residency in family medicine at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket this past June, he had reached $150,000 in total debt for his higher education.
As he started his family practice in August, however, he did so knowing that, as a practicing Rhode Island physician, he would be eligible for loan forgiveness of up to $20,000 a year for four years, not to exceed half the total – or in his case, about $75,000 over the next four years.
The Primary Care Educational Loan Repayment Program offered by The Rhode Island Foundation helps pay off student loans in exchange for providing primary care here. To date, a total of 19 primary care doctors, six nurse practitioners and five physician assistants who practice family care in the state are benefiting from that program, said Neil D. Steinberg, foundation president and CEO.
For Furey, who is now living in East Providence and working in private practice at the Primary Medical Group of Warwick, which is affiliated with Care New England and Kent Hospital in Warwick, the program has been a godsend.
“I’m a huge fan of the student-loan forgiveness program,” Furey said. “It’s a cost-effective way to get people to go into primary care. I think there are a lot of people interested in primary care and willing to take the lower salary if they’re not worried about having to pay off their hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.”
The loan-forgiveness program and a public-educational program through the Learning Community’s Teaching Studio are just two of the success stories emerging from The Rhode Island Foundation’s “signature initiatives” – grant programs triggered by the economic downturn and developed since 2010 to meet critical needs in public education and primary care. These sectors of the economy are the “bedrock” for economic growth, Steinberg said.
“We want to have the best-educated state and the healthiest state,” he said. “Those are the aspirations. With our size, our will and good ideas implemented on the ground, those two things should be achievable and would significantly enhance economic development in Rhode Island.”
Developed as part of the foundation’s strategic plan, the signature initiatives target three distinct goals: to increase the number of primary-care physicians practicing in Rhode Island, reduce the number of Rhode Islanders without a primary care “medical home,” and reduce the statewide drop-out rates for at-risk students.
The foundation decided to focus on public education and primary-care, even though other areas like the arts, the environment and housing are also important, he added.
“We looked at need in the community,” Steinberg said. “We are long-term systems-change agents. So we looked at where we could make an impact and where there was opportunity.”
That dovetails with the foundation’s mission and strategy as both a catalyst for change and a proactive and philanthropic leader intent on meeting the people of Rhode Island’s needs, he said.
It does not necessarily follow that every initiative launched and funded by the foundation has had comparable success, Steinberg said, but without risk there is no reward.
“We like to fund innovation,” Steinberg said. “We’re still early in that ‘innovation curve’ on a lot of this. [But] there’s a bigger risk of not doing anything. The status quo is not satisfactory, and there are a lot of bright, energetic people out there with good ideas, so we want to see some of those good ideas.”
From 2010 through 2013, the foundation has provided a total of $7.6 million for primary-care initiatives and $6.8 million for public education, Steinberg said. In 2013 alone, the foundation will invest approximately $1.9 million in public education and $1.65 million in primary care, he said.
“We have a pool of discretionary funds from the earnings of our endowment that we allocate to different sectors,” he explained. “We then raise additional money for education. And we’ll keep raising additional funds.”
In public education, the foundation helped the Central Falls-based Learning Community transform a lab established to partner with teachers to enhance student learning in a new program called the Teaching Studio, said Christine Alves, the studio’s director.
Founded in 2004, the Learning Community is a nationally recognized public charter school serving 560 students in Kindergarten through eighth grade from Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket. The Teaching Studio is a professional-development consulting practice, Alves said.
The foundation has invested $900,000 in the Teaching Studio program, the “Growing Readers Expansion Project,” which began Jan. 5 with four partner schools in Woonsocket and one in Smithfield, she said.
The Kellogg Foundation also provided another $900,000, she added.
“We see teachers as experts and we want to build on that expertise,” Alves said. “We also listen to teachers [about] what is working well or not and advocate for them at the district level.”
Before the studio began its work, Alves explained, teachers did not have vertically aligned lessons that were tied to the Common Core curriculum for every grade level, nor did they have independent reading for 45 minutes at a time with their students.
Previous professional-development work prior to this project has demonstrated that “our results are pretty significant,” Alves said, “because we are doing a very intense and beneficial way of teaching reading.”
The project that the foundation is supporting involves six classroom teachers and two reading specialists plus Alves, a partnership coordinator and an America Vista representative. About 120 teachers are participating as clients, but after the application process was completed, work began in earnest in August. Results are due in June, Alves said.
Jessica Donato is a reading specialist at the Gov. Aaron J. Pothier Elementary School in Woonsocket. The Teaching Studio is providing professional development in reading workshops she attends. She says the greatest thing the program is giving her students and the teachers she works with is continuity and a more uniform approach to educating young readers.
“We had a lot of pieces of the reading workshop taking place already in our classrooms, but the Learning Community has helped us streamline it,” she said. “And we are seeing results. Every child knows what independent reading is now. Every child is increasing their stamina now, reading for longer amounts of time. It’s the consistency they’re seeing in the classroom, so when they see me as a reading teacher they already know the vocabulary.”
One of the early reading skills Donato teaches is “decoding,” or “getting your mouth ready” to pronounce words, she said. Students learn how to “attack a word, use the first letter of the word, cross-check it with a picture and ask themselves if it makes sense.”
The new program “still gives us a lot of leeway in terms of how to teach,” she said, “but it gives us more direction, so every kid gets a mini-lesson on how to use the first letter of the word and decode.”
Before the Teaching Studio was formally named this year, results from Central Falls showed the percentage of students reading at or above the national benchmark on the Developmental Reading Assessment rose from 37 percent in October 2009 for students in grades K-2 to 65 percent in June 2012, Alves said.
Steinberg said the Teacher Studio’s expansion beyond Central Falls to other school districts shows promise.
“Has education completely turned around in the state [because of these initiatives]?” he asked. “No. It’s a more than a three-year process, but we think we’re on the path.”
Nonprofit grantees provide reports and evaluations, he said, and grant-program officers monitor progress for all initiatives, which can be found at www.rifoundation.org/ tabid/852/default.aspx.
“We look at it over time,” Steinberg said. “That’s why we’re in this for the long haul. These are not quick-hit initiatives. We’re trying to get to root causes and solutions.” •