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Battle Heats Up Between Parents, School Dept. on Providence Pre-K

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Parents in Providence are continuing to take the Providence Public School Department to task on the announcement that the Pre-K program at Vartan Gregorian Elementary in Fox Point will be moved, and now additional City Council candidates.

Following the revelation by the PPSD earlier this month that the program would be moved to Asa Messer on the West Side, leaving the East Side with no public Pre-K, now City Council members as well as Mayoral candidates are voicing their concerns for the situation alongside parents.

The Office of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who this week testified in Washington before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on the Strong Start for American's Chidren Act, did not respond to request for comment.

"My son will have to change schools three times before 1st grade," said parent Hollybeth Runco. "Vartan to Asa messer to Pleasant View then back to Vartan. Is this how the district prioritizes special needs? I'm shocked. There's no other word for it. We're treating our special needs students not with care but as cattle to be shifted around as other agendas are prioritized over them."

The School Deparment, which initially issued a first set of talking points supporting the move, subsequently issued a second set following continued pressure from parents, which has prompted strong reaction from the school community.

"With the recent history of a public school bussing issue in Providence, I find it exceedingly disappointing that this administration continues to make these short-sighted decisions, without the voice of the student or family at it's core -- or even represented," said parent Kira Greene. "Closing the VG Pre-K will cause a large number of our youngest students from surrounding areas, who are now geographically closer to this program, to be shipped across town to a centralized clustering of programs."

The school department did return request for comment.

City Council Members, Mayoral Candidates, Voice Concerns

On April 1st, City Councilman Seth Yurdin issued a letter urging the PPSD to maintain the program. This week, City Councilman Sam Zurier sent a three page letter to Superintendent Susan Lusi, along with maps illustrating the proposed geographic layout -- and concentration -- of Pre-K programs in the city.

"The starting point for this discussion is a consensus that the current program at Greogrian is the most popular one in the district (even for families who live at the other end of the city), and the School Department holds it in high regard," wrote Zurier. "As a result, there is not an educational reason to change the current pre-kindergarten program, an instead the decision to move it is based on the convenience of the students -- and budgetary impacts."

The Providence Mayoral candidates shared their views on the situation.

"I think it is inexcusable the parents were not informed about this in a personal meeting during the ongoing decision process," said GOP candidate Dr. Daniel Harrop. "I understand, because of the collapsing city finances, that the school administration is under tremendous pressure to make cuts (even though independent reviewers feel we have six of the eight worst high schools in the state in Providence), but not to keep the parents in the loop is not justifiable."

"The students that benefit from Vartan Gregorian's Pre-K program, many of whom are developmentally disabled, rely on the program and value stability and predictability as much as the program itself," said Democratic candidate Brett Smiley. "The Providence Public School Department's ill-advised decision to pull the rug out from under them is counterproductive to their development, and in a city that already has chronic busing and registration problems, eliminating the only public Pre-K option on the East Side places an unnecessary burden on the students and parents in these neighborhoods."

A common theme among the candidates was the need to involve parents -- and the community -- in the decision making process.

"As a resident of Fox Point, I'm proud to see the passion my neighborhood has for our city schools," said Lorne Adrain. "Our parents should be an integral part of the process, and major school decisions made with respect to that. I hope in the future parents, teachers, and the district can come together - only together will we reach our full potential."

City Council President and mayoral candidate Michael Solomon said, "Parent and community involvement has to be part of the plan when there are changes, moves, closures or expansions of school programs or buildings. Parental involvement is a major factor in having a successful educational system and we need to empower our communities to be part of the decisions that directly impact their children."

"While I fully support bringing public pre-K to Asa Messer, a school that could greatly benefit from those services, our focus needs to be on working together to bring opportunity to every neighborhood in our City," said Jorge Elorza. "I believe we are One Providence, and to me, that means involving parents, students, and city officials in the decision-making process and ensuring that every child has the right to access high-quality education, regardless of ability or neighborhood."

Parents Continue to Push for Neighborhood Pre-K

Vartan Gregorian Parent Susan Teeden-Cielo addressed a number of the PPSD's talking points -- including the following.

Pre-kindergarten programs have traditionally been placed in buildings where there was available space and are barrier free. Over the last few years, the District has moved to cluster pre-kindergarten classrooms in buildings in order to provide the families, children and staff the support required to provide a high quality program. The Special Education Department have three Special Education Intervention Specialists which provide embedded professional development, training, and coaching to our four sites.

"How is closing three pre-k classrooms on the Greater East Side and leaving an entire area void of a pre-k program, in the best interest of our children?," said Teeden-Cieloe. "Your message is very clear that you are not interested in protecting the best interests of our children, only your THREE "Specialists".

Teeden-Cielo, who had one child successfully go through the program at VG, further expressed her concerns about the program being moved.

"Now, one of our two year old twins also has dyspraxia and we will once again need to rely on the amazing services that we know PPSD can offer- only we now have to send our (developmentally aged) one year olds on a bus across the city to a school where we know not one person, not one child on that bus, or in that community," Teeden-Cielo asked. "Would you feel comfortable sending your two year old on a bus, across the city to a giant elementary school?"

Greene addressed the use of zip code as a determining factor by the PPSD for the change.

"The use of "zip code" data by the Providence School Dept to justify this closure, is completely without merit. The district has never placed students by zip code, as it is a number, not an indication on what school is closest to your child's residence," said Greene. "What matters to families and children is proximity to schools and from a budgetary standpoint this decision will cost tax payers by increasing bussing and travel times, not to mention the stress and hardship it will cause for families of special needs Pre-K children."


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Taveras Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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#10 Fundraising

Can Taveras Keep Up with the Big Boys and Girls in Fundraising?

In America today, one issue that is a factor in nearly every election is fundraising. To date, Taveras has yet to demonstrate any consistent ability to keep up with the leading fundraisers in RI.

Taveras will have to compete with General Treasuer Gina Raimondo, who has $2 plus million on hand and a likely run from Clay Pell (grandson of US Senator Claiborne Pell and whose wife is Olympic skater Michelle Kwan).

Raimondo is on pace to raise $5m and Taveras presently has just $692,000 on hand and would be on pace to raise less than $2 mliion. 

Pell's family has access to nearly limitless dollars - back in the 1990's Pell's grandfather was ranked as one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

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#9 Curse

Can Taveras Break the Providence Mayor's Curse?

For more than 60 years, no Providence Mayor has been successful running for Governor of Rhode Island. You have to go back to the 1950 election when Dennis Roberts was elected Governor.

Since Roberts, a number of Providence Mayors have taken their shot at running for Governor and each has failed mightily.

Most notably, Buddy Cianci's run against J. Joseph Garrahy - Cianci got less than 30% of the statewide vote.

Joe Paolino was expected to win the Democratic primary in 1990, but was beaten badly by Bruce Sundlun and then Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty.

Sundlun went on to win the general election and Flaherty was later named to the state Supreme Court.

Taveras will have to break a very long curse.

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#8 Hire or Fire

Can Teachers Trust Taveras - and Will Voters Trust His Relationship with the Teachers Unions?

In the midst of the city's political meltdown, Taveras just into his first few months in office fired all the teachers in Providence.

Taveras received strong public support, but within months he capitulated to pressure from the teachers' unions.

Three years later, he is emerging as the candidate of the teachers' union leadership. Will teachers trust him in a statewide race and will voters trust him if he is perceived as too close to union bosses?

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#7 Hispanics

Will Hispanics Vote as a Block in the Primary for Taveras? Are They Influential Enough in the General?

Conventional wisdom is that Angel Taveras will get a big boost from the Hispanic voting block in the primary, but more recently Council members Luis Aponte, Danian Sanchez and Sabina Matos have all openly battled with the mayor on his tax increases and efforts to close pools in low income wards around the city.

While Taveras can rebound and the impact may be large in the primary, the percentage of voters who are Hispanic in the general election is just 7% according to Pew Research:

  • Rhode Island’s population is 12% Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic population share nationally.
  • There are 54,000 Hispanic eligible voters in Rhode Island—which ranks 35th in Hispanic eligible voter population nationally. California ranks first with 5.9 million.
  • Some 7% of Rhode Island eligible voters are Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic eligible voter population share nationally. New Mexico ranks first with 39%.
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#6 Temperament

Can Taveras Handle the Campaign Pressure and the Office Pressure of Governor?

Taveras had no experience as a chief executive in business or government before taking office in 2011 in Providence. He has increasingly gotten into some very non-productive scrapes.

In 2012, his law office delivered a document to GoLocalProv as part of a FOIA request and those documents included the social security number of every retiree of the City. Instead of taking responsibility he sent his lawyers to court to try to block GoLocal from writing about the mishandling of social security numbers. The judge ruled against Taveras.

In 2013, Taveras has tried to demolish a commuity swimming pool in South Providence because, according to Councilman Danian Sanchez, Sanchez would not vote for Taveras' tax increase.

Will Taveras be able to prove to voters he has the right stuff?

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#5 Base outside Prov

Can Angel Taveras Build a Political Base Outside of Providence?

While Taveras has a strong political base in Providence, it is unclear if he can build a strong political network in critical Democratic strongholds like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, East Providence, Johnston and North Providence.

It is well known that both Democratic Mayors in North Providence and Johnston have had a strained relationship with Taveras.

This strain has played out over critical matters like mutual emergency aid and in 2012, North Providence, Johnston and East Providence all cancelled emergency aid compacts with Providence.

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#4 Women Voters

Can Taveras Compete for Women Voters?

When Taveras ran for Mayor he won the critical block of East Side Democratic women. Part of his success with this critical block of voters was the support he enjoyed from Democratic power Myrth York. 

The two-time Democratic nominee for Governor went all in for Taveras in 2010, but she no longer is active in the inner circle and reportedly would have supported Governor Lincoln Chafee in the primary.

Taveras will need to compete with Raimondo who has already signed former EMILY's list bigwig Kate Coyne-McCoy.

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#3 Star Power

Can Taveras Keep Up with Clay Pell's Star Power?

In 2010, Taveras ran under the motto of "from Head Start to Harvard."  His claim on the American dream proved a successful juxtaposition to two Democrats who had the same political base - Federal Hill (Steven Costantino and John Lombardi).

Now, Taveras may face the fresh-faced Clay Pell. His bio exceeds Taveras as he can claim the legacy of his grandfather's work and hit the circuit with his superstar wife, Olympian Michelle Kwan.

Prev Next

#2 Issues and Vision

Can Angel Taveras Articulate a Vision for Rhode Island?

Taveras earned good scores for managing the City of Providence's financial crises, but never seemed to develop major policies for economic development, schools, parking, crime, reducing the cost of government or improving the efficiency.
The Superman building's closure happened on his watch, technology company Dassault Systèmes is moving out of Providence, and no major employers were recruited into the city other than the scrap yard on Allens Avenue.
Taveras will need to define a forward looking vision for Rhode Island.
Prev Next

#1 Crime and Education

Can Taveras Explain His Record on Crime and Education?

The biggest problem for Taveras is his record in Providence.
Most people care about the basics - their jobs, education for their children, how safe their neighborhood is.  These vary questions could be Taveras' Achilles' heel.
According to GoLocal's study of the FBI crime data, Providence is ranked #2 for violent crime per capita in Rhode Island.
The condition of Providence's schools may be worse. Of the 24 schools ranked as poor (de facto failing) in Rhode Island by the Department of Education, 6 of them were Providence Schools and in the rankings of the best high schools in the state, most of Providence's schools consistently litter the bottom of the rankings.
Taveras lead the city to win the $5 million Bloomberg award. But in a Governor's race one of Taveras' opponents is sure to ask, "Mr. Mayor, are you going to bring the same policies you used on crime and education in Providence to the rest of the state?"

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