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Dan Lawlor: Ghosts of School Year’s Past

Monday, December 24, 2012


Just a short glance back over the last few years shows a history of tumult and change in Providence Public Schools, especially for middle schoolers.

In the 2007-2008 school year, a snow storm caused many buses with children to be stranded and stuck across the city for hours in the snow. The fallout from that storm led to the departure of the Superintendent, Donnie Evans, the first black superintendent in the district's history, and caused the rise of Superintendent Tom Brady, who has since left.

The 2009-2010 school year marked the end of Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School, a building constructed in the 1920s, in Providence's Hartford Park. The building did not close due to declining enrollment numbers, or the creation of a modern replacement facility. It closed because for years the facility was underfunded, pipes were allowed to burst, paint was allowed to peel, and bricks were allowed to fall. Those years of neglect resulted in the displacement of hundreds of students to different middle schools across the city.

In the Spring of 2010, a massive walk-out was organized among Hope High School students to protest scheduling changes being imposed by Superintendent Brady. His plan called for eliminating block scheduling and advisory time, and forcing Hope to adopt the same schedule as all other high schools in the district, despite academic improvements being made under the state-created block scheduling plan. The Chief Academic Officer involved in the plan, Sharon Contreas, is now superintendent of Syracuse schools.

The 2010-2011 school year began with Roger Williams and Gilbert Stuart Middle Schools each receiving hundreds more youth to accommodate. True, the actual student capacity for the old buildings is a 1000 youth. However, given the time and energy it takes to try to improve test scores with student populations hovering around 700, I can only imagine the difficulties of educating more youth in underfunded facilities. Perry closed because for decades the city did not take care of it - and now other schools in the city are more crowded because of that neglect. At the end of the year, faced with a massive financial crisis, the district moved to further building consolidation, closing Bridgham Middle School and dispersing its students.

As dramatic as the school closings, and garnering national press, all teachers in the Providence district were fired in March 2011 to give "maximum flexibility" to solve the fiscal disaster left by former Mayor, and believe it or not our re-elected Congressman, David Cicilline. However, most teachers were re-hired in the coming months. In fact, district hiring of outsiders was on hold until all the teachers the district laid off were re-hired.

By the 2011-2012 school year, in addition to having more students and some tense teachers, most of the water bubblers in Roger Williams were sealed off because the water released from them was brown or orange. Despite challenges, progress and reform did take place under the new reform school principal at Williams (who is now on leave for possible misconduct). Along some progress made by the Taveras Administration, building issues at Gilbert Stuart Middle School require the continued use of scaffolding over the exit doors to protect students from falling bricks. The state appears uninterested in fixing this problem.

On a positive note, Hope High School students (some veterans of the walk-out) successfully petitioned Sodexo for healthier, tastier options in the school cafeteria.

In 2012-2013, the schools are gearing up for the proposed 2014 use of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test as a graduation requirement. As of 2014, to receive a high school diploma all RI public school students must score at least a 2 (partially proficient) on the grade 11 NECAP test in Reading and Math. RI public school students take the reading and math NECAP tests in grades 3-8, and 11. Using NECAP as a tool to determine graduation is bizarre as the tests are designed to be a district assessment to drive data analysis and help districts see where to put more emphasis, not mark an individual student's merit or failure. Recently, at a December Providence School Board meeting, Keith Oliveira, the board chair, mentioned that "as an individual" he was on record as opposed to using NECAP as a graduation requirement, but that he would not speak for the board on the matter.

In Massachusetts, considered one of the most rigorous states in the nation for testing, students take the Massachusetts Common Assessment System (MCAS) test in elementary school, and in the 10th grade of high school. Students must be proficient in 10th grade English, Math, and Science MCAS tests to graduate. Students are able to take the test multiple times. It is first offered during a student's sophomore year, giving students ample time to study and pass. Why are we trying to outsmart Massachusetts on this one by making our soon to be high stakes test begin Junior year, giving students fewer chances for success?

There are many good people who are teachers in Providence, and there many phenomenal young people in the school system. Finding ways to provide more opportunities for the young people of the capital city, the biggest school district in the state, should be issue number one for every law-maker and neighborhood advocate. Without a well supported, opportunity rich next generation, Providence will not be able to thrive.

My hat is off to the custodians, lunch teams, after school workers, teachers, and families that try so hard to build opportunities for students in the district. With a bit more support, a bit more money, and a bit more help, some real changes might happen. One big factor for success would be to end the revolving door of new leadership in the central office.

My Christmas wish is that Providence Public School students will experience less tumult, have more opportunities to grow, and know they are valued.


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