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Dan Lawlor: Middle School Blues in Providence

Monday, January 21, 2013


Providence Middle and Elementary Schools are being sent for a spin. This past week seven local public schools were informed they will be receiving new principals mid-year. Some of the mid-year changes (like the appointment of Jennifer Vorro as acting Principal of Roger Williams Middle School), are the result of the poor judgment of the previous principal. Other changes are happening for unclear reasons.

Gilbert Stuart, built in the 1920s, has been a looming fixture in the West End for decades. Surrounded by community centers, churches, and a library, Gilbert Stuart should be a well-supported neighborhood hub. This past week, City Year RI and the GSMS PTO organized a joint "Beloved Community" potluck, with well over one hundred families in attendance.

Up until last week's announcement, Gilbert Stuart's principal was Jeffrey Goss, new to the district from Portsmouth. By all accounts a dynamic personality, Principal Goss was involved with bringing 120 students to a PC Friars basketball game, facilitating home visits, increasing recurring parent participation in the PTO by the dozens, and working with teachers and families to raise test scores. While apparently sometimes getting caught in some red tape, Goss appears to have been engaged in doing good work with the students, faculty, and families.

Gilbert Stuart Middle School has been a plucky place for a long time. From the Depression through the 1970s, the school had severe ups and downs, before briefly being an elementary school. Yet GSMS has a rich past. Trips to the UN, trips to the Boston Philharmonic, ballet classes, piano classes, bands, theater (and an accompanying asbestos curtain), have been part of a long history of after school programs stretching from the 1960s through the Community Schools to the current After Zone and College Crusaders. There is a lot of life in Gilbert Stuart.

Several people spoke with me about Goss' presence with students, and his quiet actions as a role model. While inspiring, this make's the district's decision to remove Goss all the more depressing. The district is proposing to take away a role model from a group of students who have often experienced more transitions than they should have to. One more loss. One more moving along. Is this necessary?

Since 2009, the school district has experienced a massive (eye-brow raising) state-funded renovation of a middle school on the city's East Side, the closure of two middle schools (in the Broadway neighborhood and in Hartford Park), the lay-off and re-hiring of nearly the entire faculty, a massive high school student walk-out to protest schedule changes, a new superintendent, a new chief academic officer, resignations from the School Board, and the beginnings of understanding a new graduation system tied to NECAP test results.

GSMS does not have all the bells and whistles that some middle school buildings have. It is not located in the home ward of political powerhouses like Gordon Fox, Theresa Paiva Weed, Lincoln Chafee or David Cicilline. GSMS is a classic structure, unfortunately ill-maintained, but thanks to AfterZone workers, City Year volunteers and the West End Community Center, the building has a beautiful series of murals in and surrounding the cafeteria.

After several years of transitions, teachers spoke of high morale and a positive culture. Now, the faculty at Stuart (and several other schools) are expected to plan for a mid-year rotation of principals. Reportedly, Mr. Goss was not allowed to attend the Thursday potluck by district officials.

Gilbert Stuart faculty and families are holding a nonviolent protest walk today, marching from the middle school to the central office. The walk will begin at 1:00pm. It is rare for an administrator to be so engaged and endeared after a few short months. 


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