Donna Perry: The Tragedy of Lost Young Lives

Thursday, December 01, 2011


It is sadly all too easy to categorize the tragic, cold bloodiedshooting death of a 14-year old boy within his own family’s apartment in Providence last Thanksgiving weekend as just another inner city kid’s life cut short.

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The murder of Joel Figuereo at his family’s home on Sumter Street followed an earlier shooting death over the holiday weekend when 21-year old Esscence Christal was gunned down by a shooter in a passing car while she was driving along Broad Street in South Providence. The young woman’s boyfriend, who apparently has a long criminal record, was riding in the passenger seat, with another young man in the back and police now say it’s clear one of the men in the car were the intended target, not the female driver.

But taken together, these two murders, most likely perpetrated by those who come from the victims’ same surroundings who either knew them or their associates, represent a sad mosaic of young urban lives that all too often lack the direction and most pointedly, opportunity to escape their downtrodden neighborhoods and the street culture which permeate them.

Mayor Taveras Leads the Way

The Providence Police Department, displaying a tremendous amount of class and compassion, led by Commissioner Steven Pare, spent time with the shocked and grieving young boy’s family this week in vowing a full court press to find the shooter. But it was the vividly sincere emotional reaction to the boy’s murder by Mayor Angel Taveras, who, as a young boy himself, once lived on the very same street as Joel Figeureo, thatis most notable.

When Taveras speaks of the need to create more positive opportunities for inner city kids and change the street culture of senseless violence that can produce the brutal unexplained and unsolved murders of two young people, he speaks with an authentic voice. As someone who rose from humble beginnings to go on to Harvard and now serves as the city’s first Hispanic Mayor, Taveras knows better than most the destiny altering value that a strong educational structure can provide.

That’s why the Mayor’s present efforts to push for the opening of two charter school Mayoral Academies by operator Achievement First (AF) represent an equally important battle in the war to change the prospects of inner city young people. The Mayor seems to view the charter school expansion as part of a bigger picture strategy to strengthen the overall education, and therefore future opportunities that could be offered to kids from the city’s more downtrodden areas. Joel Figuereo was only in junior high and Ms. Christal, though having graduated from Hope High, had a baby at age 15 who is now to be raised by grandparents.

It’s notable that coming on the heels of the murders was a Providence City Council hearing this past Monday which was less than embracing to the charter school operator. The city’s public school union machine has led a public information campaign against the two academies and public union aligned members of the City Council questioned the strict codes of behavior expected of students and seemed unimpressed with the charter operator’s successes at other schools they manage. AF’s charter school in the long time urban blighted city of Bridgeport, CT reports gains in reading and math scores of 57%. Children attending that school no doubt come from households and neighborhoods that may face similar challenges as those in some of the more downtrodden neighborhoods of Providence.

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Solid Education is Key

The RI Department of Education (RIDE) has identified a cluster of elementary and secondary schools in Providence as in the failing category and is beginning various steps to intervene to improve their dismal performances. Yet it’s telling that one of the highlighted moments of the City Council hearing focused not on the students but on the job security risk that could occur for teachers if charters began to draw enough (lucky) students away from their failing neighborhood schools and into the charters, therefore resulting in possible lay-offs of teachers. Yes, that’s right. It’s not the mission or objective of the city’s school system to provide real alternatives or more precisely a chance for a better education and therefore a future opportunity for kids.

The point of the public school system, at least according to some in the union ranks and their City Council allies, is to provide job security to Providence teachers, who in many cases live in a distant suburb, and just need a few more years to retirement. They don’t want to see the introduction of those pesky charter schools that could screw everything up.

It has been pointed out many times before in this column that the charter school movement sprang up out of the chronically failing and neglected schools of America’s inner city neighborhoods. It is also true that the expansion of charter schools certainly will not be the sole defining answer for the complex maze of problems that leave all too many of the youth of Providence trapped in dead end lives in blighted neighborhoodswith very limited resources, broken dreams and few if any real opportunities.

But as Mayor Taveras can tell you, a solid education is a heck of a start, can still be the key, and should be the right of every young person, regardless of their humble, or troubled, surroundings.

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant to RISC, RI Statewide Coalition (


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