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Dan Lawlor: More Collaboration Needed in City Schools

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


San Miguel School is an independent school in the North End of Providence. Off Branch Ave, San Miguel is down the street from the Wanskuck Branch of the Boys and Girls Club, and is housed in the former Parochial St. Ann's Elementary School. San Miguel is one of several independent schools in the city anchored on the idea that "education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty."

For many years, urban youth had the choice of either parochial, church-run schools or district public schools. In the last decade or so, several parochial, urban, K-8 schools in Providence - consider Holy Ghost, Holy Name, and St. Mary's- have closed. Declining enrollment (often due to costs), and declining support from the diocese (often due to limited finances related to the legal fees connected to the abuse and coverup of molestation), and declining support from local churches (fewer church members and fewer nuns), contributed to the decline of Providence's Parochial Schools. I live near the defunct Holy Name School, a large, 100 year old empty building on Camp Street.

The district benefited from having a healthy public-private balance of schools. By providing options for parents, district schools were less overburdened and overcrowded. At one point, 13% of RI youth attended a private or parochial school. These schools often have (or had) extensive alumni networks, allowing middle school students from under-connected areas access to jobs, high school programs, and college prep tracks that might not have been available otherwise. The fewer connections there are between disconnected neighborhoods and the state's leading institutions, the worse off we all are. How many potential doctors, writers, and the next Waterfire inventors are being lost in the shuffle?

In the last 20 years, the city has seen the rise of alternative, independent, private schools. Independently organized, not run by a specific church or government (though founded by people with deep convictions), these schools are private organizations in neighborhoods throughout the city focusing on empowerment.

The San Miguel School (1993), Sophia Academy (2000), and Community Prep (1984) are examples of mission-centered, community oriented schools. All three schools are small, focused on student and family empowerment, and aim to build skills and networks to serve students and their communities in their lives ahead. Consider the mission statement of Sophia Academy - "Sophia Academy is a school of abundant opportunity where middle school girls discover and develop their potential and become confident and compassionate young women prepared to meet the challenges of their world."

All three schools, Community Prep, San Miguel, and Sophia, embody a belief in small class-size, personal attention and support, graduate follow-up, accountability, compassion, college preparedness and community work ethic. Marluis, an 8th grader at San Miguel School, has written, "As San Miguel brothers, we help our fellow students with their problems. We are each others' second family."

This is not written to diminish or underestimate the century old, monumental, challenging job of working in the gargantuan district schools. It is written to encourage more collaboration and pursuit of best practices for young people. This city- and the experience of students and families - can only grow stronger with more collaboration, brainstorming, and imagining how to apply what works. With some enterprising, perhaps we'll have a few more independent schools in the next decades, and a few more partnerships among district officials and independent school leaders.


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Tom Hoffman

Perhaps you have noticed that the PPSD has spent the past several years un-doing a major small-schools initiative started 10 years ago, that the current administration is closing schools as fast as it can, and the new breed of "no excuses" charters promoted by the mayor and state are nothing like the schools you advocate for.

That is to say, I don't necessarily disagree with you, but a little more political context here would help.

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