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John Perilli—The Providence School Fiasco: What Can We Learn?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

 

There are many lessons to be learned from the recent fake degree fiasco in the Providence School Department, believes John Perilli.

What a mess Providence Superintendent of Schools Susan Lusi and her entire School Department find themselves in this week!

When it was revealed that special needs student administrator Nancy Stevenin bought her Bachelor’s from a degree mill, it seemed both a disgrace and a tragedy. How could someone who does such a noble thing for such a marginalized group of students commit such a deception? Then, to compound the problem, Superintendent Lusi allowed Stevenin to keep her job and pursue a real degree with nothing but a slap on the wrist.

The outcry was immediate. Providence Mayoral candidate and City Council President Michael Solomon called upon Lusi to reconsider the decision, speaking the opinions of many. In the end, Stevenin chose to resign.

Make no mistake, though: This is not the last time a public administrator will be dragged through the mud. With hundreds of administrators on our state and local payrolls––and often minimal resources for oversight––there will almost certainly be another brouhaha like this in the future. All the same, there are still many lessons we can learn. This was an event far more complex than the simple lack-of-judgment story it’s been painted as, involving a whole tangled thornbush of issues including a vulnerable student population, public employment, and the very mechanics of the labor market itself.

As I said: What a mess! Here are a few things we can learn from this Providence School Department fracas.

Lesson 1: Deciding What to Pay Administrators is Really Difficult

If you’ve ever taken an introductory-level economics class, you’ve probably seen the simple model of the labor market, with its sloping lines representing labor supply and labor demand. The theory runs that when the labor supply and labor demand are equalized, workers are employed at some wage which represents their individual contribution to their employer.

I call this a “simple” model because it only gets more complicated from here. Imagine you’re hiring an administrator, like Nancy Stevenin, rather than a ground-level employee. How are you, a layperson without a Ph.D in Economics, supposed to figure out to a dollar amount just what she would contribute to the bottom line? This becomes even more difficult if you’re the Providence School Department, a public agency which doesn’t compete for profit.

Then there is the fact that, as Superintendent Lusi puts it, Stevenin is “one of the most qualified professionals in her field in Rhode Island.” This fact also muddles the situation, because Stevenin has some distinguishing characteristic that makes her unlike other workers. In the end, Stevenin’s salary of $94,000 becomes an extraordinarily difficult number to arrive at fairly. It is more than thrice Rhode Island’s per capita income of around $28,700, and more than $35,000 higher than the salary of the average Rhode Island teacher. Many commentators have implied that Stevenin’s salary was too high, but I believe the issue is more complicated. How does one even figure out how to compensate administrators who do valuable and necessary work? With so much work to be done in our state, it is not only important that it actually get done, but also that those doing it be compensated fairly.

Lesson 2: Lying Hurts the Labor Market

Salary aside, though, Nancy Stevenin did commit one of the cardinal sins of economics: she lied about her qualifications.

Labor economics is a complicated business, but the entire theory of the labor market is based on a crucial assumption: Complete Information. This means that employers and employees know all relevant information about each other and are making completely informed decisions.

Obviously, this is never completely true in practice, but there is a difference between a simple lack of knowledge and a deliberate deception. I have no doubt that Nancy Stevenin was a qualified individual, but which other qualified individuals did she wrong by purchasing a junk degree? During such tough economic times, we can’t have the labor market break down like this. And having Superintendent Lusi reinforce this breakage only makes things worse. If the practice of buying a fake degree and expecting your supervisors to back you up becomes at all engrained or normalized, what little confidence we have left in our economy and our institutions could be shattered, and our suffering prolonged.

Lesson 3: Think Of the Children

Economists make their money studying markets, not morals. So we must keep in mind that besides the economics, there is also a human element in Stevenin’s case. Nancy Stevenin’s job involved overseeing some of the most vulnerable students in Providence, and by all accounts she did her job well. Her sudden resignation will doubtless be a setback for these students.

How, then, are we to enforce economic justice while ensuring that we don’t make life worse for people who are vulnerable or marginalized? In calls for Superintendent Lusi to “reconsider” her decision, I don’t think she got enough credit for how carefully she handled the situation. If she had immediately fired Stevenin, the students of Birch Vocational School where Stevenin worked could have been dealt a serious blow.

What if the next administrator dragged through the mud works with mental health patients? Or high-risk prisoners? Or addicts? How are we to punish unruly administrators for their misdeeds without also punishing those in their care?

Lesson 4: Understand the Incentives

I could go on for pages about how Nancy Stevenin’s junk degree insulted the thousands of jobseekers with real credentials, but that would be a waste of time. What would be more fruitful is to ask: Why did Stevenin, an otherwise competent individual, feel the need to buy a fake degree?

Could it be the prohibitive costs of college? The lack of opportunity in the job market for smart, ambitious workers without the time or money for a degree? Or could it simply be just a personal desire to cut corners, with no social implications at all?

Maybe Stevenin will go public with her rationale, and maybe she will not; however, it is still important for us to try to understand her motives. Because Stevenin was far from the only patron of “Ashley University,” and if we are to combat the menace of fake degrees, we must know what drives their customers.

Ultimately, I believe Stevenin’s departure was inevitable. But she will not be the last local government administrator to resign in disgrace. Unless our cities and our state learn how to better hire, oversee and fire those public servants in which they vest the most trust, then they will lose that public trust altogether.

John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a rising senior at Brown University. He works for Magaziner for Treasurer. The opinions represented in this piece do not represent the opinions of any organizations John Perilli is affiliated with. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPerilli
 

 

Related Slideshow: The Most and Least Diverse High Schools in Rhode Island

The data below reflects the 2012-13 academic year as provided by the Rhode Island Dept of Education. Values have been rounded to the nearest whole percent.

Prev Next

#49 Ponaganset HS

North Scituate, RI

Total enrollment: 722

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: <1%
Black: <1%
Hispanic: <1%
Two or more races: 0.0%
White: 99%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

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#48 Scituate HS

Scituate, RI

Total enrollment: 491

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 0.0%
Two or more races: 0.0%
White: 97.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

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#47 Tiverton HS

Tiverton, RI

Total enrollment: 570

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 1.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 95%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

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#46 Coventry HS

Coventry, RI

Total enrollment: 1,694

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 2.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 95.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#45 Burrillville HS

Burrillville, RI

Total enrollment: 700

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 2.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 95.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#44 Exeter-West Greenwich

West Greenwich, RI

Total enrollment: 652

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 3.0%
Two or more races: 0.0%
White: 95.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#43 Chariho Regional HS

Wood River Junction, RI

Total enrollment: 1,136

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 2.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 94.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#42 North Kingstown HS

North Kingstown, RI

Total enrollment: 1,454

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 3.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 93.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#41 Mt. Hope HS

Bristol, RI

Total enrollment: 1,031

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 4.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 92.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#40 Narragansett HS

Narragansett, RI

Total enrollment: 462

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 4.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 92.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#39 Barrington HS

Barrington, RI

Total enrollment: 1,037

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 5.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 1.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 92.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#38 Smithfield Senior HS

Smithfield, RI

Total enrollment: 772

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 3.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 92.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#37 Portsmouth HS

Portsmouth, RI

Total enrollment: 974

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 3.0%
Hispanic: 2.0%
Two or more races: 0.0%
White: 92.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#36 Lincoln Senior HS

Lincoln, RI

Total enrollment: 1,067

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 6.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 91.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#35 North Smithfield HS

North Smithfield, RI

Total enrollment: 550

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 5.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 91.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#34 Warwick Vets HS

Warwick Veterans Memorial HS, Warwick RI

Total enrollment: 992

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 5.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 89.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#33 Toll Gate HS

Warwick, RI

Total enrollment: 982

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 3.0%
Hispanic: 6.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 87.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#32 Pilgrim HS

Warwick, RI

Total enrollment: 1,078

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 7.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 86.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#31 South Kingstown HS

South Kingstown, RI

Total enrollment: 1,095

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 3.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 4.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 86.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#30 Cranston HS West

Cranston, RI

Total enrollment: 1,629

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 8.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 85.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#29 East Greenwich HS

East Greenwich, RI

Total enrollment: 766

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 6.0%
Black: 1.0%
Hispanic: 5.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 85.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#28 Westerly HS

Westerly, RI

Total enrollment: 941

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 6.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 4.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 85.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#27 Cumberland HS

Cumberland, RI

Total enrollment: 1,403

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 2.0%
Hispanic: 8.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 84.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#26 West Warwick HS

West Warwick Senior HS, West Warwick, RI

Total enrollment: 982

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 3.0%
Hispanic: 11.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 82.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#25 Johnston Senior HS

Johnston, RI

Total enrollment: 903

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 5.0%
Hispanic: 13.0%
Two or more races: 0.0%
White: 80.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#24 Beacon Charter HS

Beacon Charter High School For The Arts, Woonsocket, RI

Total enrollment: 230

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 6.0%
Hispanic: 10.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 80.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#23 Middletown HS

Middletown, RI

Total enrollment: 737

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 7.0%
Hispanic: 9.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 78.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#22 East Providence HS

East Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 1,564

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 13.0%
Hispanic: 5.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 77.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#21 Acad. for Career Exp.

Academy for Career Exploration, Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 207

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 18.0%
Hispanic: 75.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 4.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#20 Central Falls HS

Central Falls, RI

Total enrollment: 838

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.0%
Black: 15.0%
Hispanic: 74.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 10.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#19 Cooley Health/Science

Cooley Health & Science Technology Academy, Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 717

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 5.0%
Black: 16.0%
Hispanic: 74.0%
Two or more races: 1.0%
White: 3.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#18 North Providence HS

North Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 998

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 8.0%
Hispanic: 16.0%
Two or more races: 0.0%
White: 72.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#17 Times 2 Academy

Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 652

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 32.0%
Hispanic: 55.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 6.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#16 Central HS

Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 1,101

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 8.0%
Black: 16.0%
Hispanic: 70.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 3.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#15 Mt. Pleasant HS

Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 884

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 4.0%
Black: 24.0%
Hispanic: 62.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 6.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#14 Prov. Career & Tech

Providence Career & Technical Academy, Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 568

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 5.0%
Black: 16.0%
Hispanic: 69.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 7.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#13 Dr. Jorge Alvarez HS

Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 563

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 9.0%
Black: 15.0%
Hispanic: 69.0%
Two or more races: 2.0%
White: 4.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#12 E-Cubed Academy

Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 360

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 29.0%
Hispanic: 54.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 10.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#11 Hope Arts School

Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 1,035

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 6.0%
Black: 25.0%
Hispanic: 56.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 9.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#10 Woonsocket HS

Woonsocket, RI

Total enrollment: 1,736

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 6.0%
Black: 11.0%
Hispanic: 27.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 52.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#9 Shea Senior HS

Pawtucket, RI

Total enrollment: 905

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 46.0%
Hispanic: 33.0%
Two or more races: 5.0%
White: 14.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#8 Cranston HS East

Cranston, RI

Total enrollment: 1,587

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 10.0%
Black: 7.0%
Hispanic: 32.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 47.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#7 Blackstone Academy

Blackstone Academy Charter School, Pawtucket, RI

Total enrollment: 165

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 3.0%
Black: 21.0%
Hispanic: 57.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 15.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#6 Jacqueline M. Walsh

Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Pawtucket, RI

Total enrollment: 167

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 0.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 14.0%
Hispanic: 28.0%
Two or more races: 6.0%
White: 50.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#5 Rogers HS

Newport, RI

Total enrollment: 587

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 2.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 25.0%
Hispanic: 20.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 49.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#4 The MET School

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 868

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 2.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.0%
Black: 15.0%
Hispanic: 42.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 35.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#3 Davies Career & Tech

Davies Career & Technical High School, Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 833

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 6.0%
Black: 13.0%
Hispanic: 39.0%
Two or more races: 4.0%
White: 38.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#2 William E. Tolman HS

William E. Tolman Senior High School, Pawtucket, RI

Total enrollment: 1,050

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.0%
Black: 18.0%
Hispanic: 37.0%
Two or more races: 6.0%
White: 37.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

Prev Next

#1 Classical HS

Providence, RI

Total enrollment: 1,113

Percentage of total enrollment

Amer Indian/Alaskan: 1.0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 9.0%
Black: 16.0%
Hispanic: 46.0%
Two or more races: 3.0%
White: 26.0%

Click here for this school's ranking on GoLocalProv's Top High Schools 2013

 
 

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