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Can the Providence schools be saved?
Strides are being made, but budget constraints, internal politics, and other factors pose a threat to progress
Providence schools at a glance

Forty-five schools: 25 elementary schools with seven annexes; nine middle schools; 11 high schools (including three at Hope High).

Two charter schools: Times2 Academy and Textron Chamber of Commerce.

Local budget (2003-04): $288.2 million, of which 38.9 percent goes to general-education instruction; 6 percent to special education; 6.1 percent to Limited English Proficient programs; and 0.4 percent to vocational education. Budget supplemented by $55.2 million in external grants.

Per-pupil spending (2002-03): $11,262.

Enrollment (as of January 2004): 26,904 students (up 9.7 percent from 1997).

Student demographics: 56 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black, 14 percent white, 7.5 percent Asian, 0.7 percent Native American.

English language learners: about 8000 system-wide, including 2600 in English as a Second Language classrooms, 1900 in transitional bilingual programs, and 575 in dual language programs.

Teaching staff: 2169 in 2003-04 (down from 2234 last year); The teachers are 66 percent white, 13 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian, 2 percent Native American; 73 percent are women.

Average teacher salary (2003-04): $57,261 (overall range: $33,026-$62,251)

Class size: 26:1 student-teacher ratio in general education, 10:1 for special education self-contained classrooms (6:1 for some programs).

Dropout rate: 27.74 percent in 2002-03.

Source: Providence School Department fact sheet, revised March 2004.

ON A Friday in late winter, the plaza outside Central High School is clear at 9 a.m., and so are the bright yellow corridors inside. It’s quiet, too, clean and tidy. When the bell rings a few minutes later, an orderly stream of teenagers moves quickly through the building. There’s no swearing, no loud voices. There aren’t even do-rags or hats.

Principal Debra DeCarlo takes me upstairs, where teachers are herding the students into the classrooms. When second period starts, they’re all at their desks. Soon they’re neck-deep into literary analysis, legal discussions, and algebra.

DeCarlo encourages me to walk into rooms at random, look around, ask questions. Don’t worry, she assures me — they’re all used to teachers and administrators taking "learning walks" like we are. In the ninth-grade wing, we catch a group debating linear versus exponential equations. In an English class, a teacher has a section from Romeo and Juliet on her overhead projector; what does it mean that Juliet "hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear"? On the opposite end of the hall, another class is playing out the ballroom scene, wearing masks and fancy hats that teacher Richard Gurspan has brought them. They’re a bit embarrassed, but the language doesn’t intimidate them.

The previous week, I had asked Schools Superintendent Melody Johnson whether the Providence schools could be fixed, and whether someone was fixing them. She sent me to Central.

Not long ago, Central seemed to embody everything that was broken in the system: rampant truancy and disciplinary problems; unruly classrooms where little learning happened; more dropouts than graduates.

I had heard DeCarlo had done wonders at Central since 1999 — really cleaning up the place. This was tempered by complaints that she was a tyrant, inflexible and uncaring toward the kids. And test scores are still abysmal: in last year’s state assessments, only 11 percent of Central students met the basic math skills standard, up from eight percent in 2000. Only 14 percent could read for basic understanding; 16 percent passed the 11th-grade writing test.

But standing inside Central, there was no question it’s a changed place. Sure, it looks shabby, dilapidated, and outright depressing, but it felt like a working school. Students were genuinely learning, and a good number of them seemed to be enjoying it. And if they resent the order, it didn’t show.

"Before I came to Central, everybody said, ‘Go to Central — it’s a chill school. You can do what you want,’ " says Nikki Ngolvorath, a senior and vice president of the district-wide student government.

"Not anymore," notes Victor Tavares, a senior and football player.

"She took on a tough school," says senior class president Angela Sanchez. "She was told, ‘You have to whip this school into shape.’ "

"I still don’t know how she did it," remarks Tavares.

IF YOU’RE NOT inside the Providence schools, it’s hard to imagine what the $1.3 billion that the state has pumped into them over the last 10 years — including $181.2 million this year, not counting construction aid or teacher-retirement contributions — has produced. On paper, student achievement still looks awful; the dropout rates remain high. It’s easy to conclude, as Governor Donald L. Carcieri seems to, that there’s no point in investing millions into a sick and stagnant system.

Yet those familiar with what Johnson is doing — and what Diana Lam started before her — see the Providence schools very differently. They see a city that neglected its schools for years, and made haphazard efforts, at best, to serve an increasingly needy, unstable student population. And they see, in the last few years, a concerted effort to rebuild the district: to bring order, prioritize, set standards, document students’ needs, and document how schools meet them.

At the same time, insiders say, internal and external politics, budget constraints, and a powerful and sometimes out-of-touch bureaucracy conspire to constantly chip away at the progress of the Providence schools.

Community protests, for example, led Central to get rid of its two police resource officers — whose counterparts at Hope High School are considered a huge asset. And the district went farther, leaving Central without any security staff whatsoever. So every 53 minutes, it’s entirely up to the teachers and administrators to guard the plaza between Central’s three buildings, a wide-open area, to prevent problems and keep out any intruders.

Similarly, the William D’Abate Elementary School in Olneyville (which Johnson also encouraged me to visit, for a different reason) had gained national recognition for its Family Student Support Team — a nurse, a guidance counselor, a social worker, and a psychologist who helped children cope with problems at home that could interfere with learning. Several other schools had created similar programs. Budget cuts sliced them all back. And at the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School in Fox Point, which state Education Commissioner Peter McWalters has long recognized as a real success story in the district, a computer lab sits dark and unused this year, because the school’s technology teacher was laid off. Next on the chopping block are music and art, and the remaining social workers and guidance counselors at elementary schools — luxuries that, facing a $17-million budget deficit for next year, Providence can no longer afford.

Nobody blames Johnson for making these choices; given state and federal mandates, she has few alternatives. Johnson herself calls it "horrible," and says the budget crunch will effectively deprive Providence students of an education on par with what other young Rhode Islanders get.

For a school system that white and middle-class families have steadily abandoned (whites’ share of enrollment declined from 24 to 15 percent between 1998 and 2003 alone), losing attractive programs only intensifies the problem. And not only do the Providence schools end up with an increasingly needy population, the city itself is polarized, losing its middle class to the suburbs while the poor and the rich (who can afford private schools) remain.

While former mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. was never shy about pushing for money for city schools — and, unlike some of his urban counterparts, he repeatedly raised taxes to support education — Mayor David N. Cicilline has taken such advocacy to a new level, arguing passionately for a new statewide school funding system as a matter of social justice. The current fight is testing Cicilline’s initially warm relationship with Carcieri.

Johnson herself has started vocally criticizing the governor. "I respect him, but you can’t make arbitrary decisions without a rationale," she says. "We’ve just started this work. You can’t demand that people do a better job and then take away the resources they have."

YET MONEY is not the only issue — not by a long shot.

Across the United States, school districts that are successful, especially in urban areas, have a strong infrastructure, with well-planned budgets, extensive use of data about student performance, and rigorous, uniformly applied academic standards.

What Diana Lam inherited in 1999, by contrast, was a patchwork of educational and support programs, with no clear accountability system and incomplete, shoddy records. Dropout rates, for example, were so grossly underreported that, when the problem was finally fixed, in 2000, Central’s rate went from 44.4 percent to 61.7 percent in a single year. "We had no office of research or testing or evaluation or accountability, which are essential," says Johnson, who Lam recruited from Texas as her deputy superintendent. "I can’t imagine any urban school system in the country without those people in place."

Lam set out to streamline the Providence schools and make them a real system, with a common vision, a common curriculum, and public accountability. Tapping national foundations, businesses, colleges, and federal resources, she brought millions’ worth of new money to fund her reforms. She built a new leadership team and raised the profile of principals, training them to be instructional leaders, rather than just building managers. They became responsible for transforming each school.

Knowing that the biggest stumbling block for Providence children is poor literacy skills, Lam made elementary-school reading and writing instruction a priority. Across the district, teachers were trained in "balanced literacy," which combines phonics with pleasurable reading, but in a very structured set-up that allocates specific time slots for reading aloud, group reading, individual reading, and writing exercises. A bitter labor dispute, however, undermined the program from the start. By 2001, Lam had come to be hated by the Providence Teachers Union’s leaders, who distrusted her and viewed her as authoritarian. Lam, for her part, wanted to scrap large parts of the teachers’ contract that she found — rightfully — too rigid and detrimental to reforms. With negotiations stalled, the union voted to "work to rule," and between that and the rancorous mood, the entire 2001-02 school year was marked by little progress.

Johnson, who took over in 2002, after Lam left for New York City, has worked hard to rebuild trust with the union. She has also continued the academic improvements, with a new math program, "Investigations," adopted this year. Also under Johnson, the district produced grade-by-grade curriculum guides in English, math, science, and social studies. Developed by teachers and evaluated by outside experts, the "Scope & Sequence" booklets list specific books to be read each quarter, specific class activities, and specific work to be done by students. "The purpose of this is to ensure a minimum level of quality, and high expectations of all students," says Johnson. Before "Scope & Sequence," teachers’ expectations varied so widely that the lessons in two sections of a course could be several grades apart.

Once, at Central, "I walked into two 11th-grade English classes, and in one, they were working on a paragraph, [while] in another, they were working on a 15-page research paper," Johnson recalls. "The quality of students’ education should not be left to chance."

The changes are all still too new, Johnson says, to show up in the state test scores, but gains are being made. This year, the district has adopted a set of new tests to gauge students’ skills when they first arrive, at the beginning of a grade, and as they move along, Johnson says, she expects they will show improvement.

"We’re coming from very far behind," she says, "but we are making progress."

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Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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