Great Expectations for Hope High's New Principal

One-on-one with the newest high school principal on the East Side


Founded in 1898, Hope High School is the oldest public school on the East Side. Recent reforms intended to raise graduation rates and other indicators of student achievement – particularly the most recent major state-initiated restructuring in which the school was divided into three small schools – have shown promise but were interrupted before they could show lasting results. Hope is now reconsolidated into one school with 915 students.

This year, 74% of Hope High School’s students are economically challenged, as indicated by their eligibility for free and reduced lunch. Twenty-six percent receive special education services, and 15% are English language learners. In 2012, Hope’s graduation rate was 73% – not the lowest in Providence, but not nearly where it needs to be, says Hope High School’s recently appointed principal Tamara Sterling. I recently chatted with Ms. Sterling to get her take on what’s next for Hope High School.

What brought you to Providence?
I became interested in Providence in 2011, when the teacher layoffs here became national news. I wanted to come to Providence because as a transformational leader, Providence felt like a place where I could make a difference. I am now in my second year here. Before moving to Providence, I had worked in Houston, which is where I am from, and Chicago, moving from teacher to principal.

What did you notice when you first arrived?
I noticed immediately that while the data told a story, that Providence is one of the lowest-performing districts in the state, there was a desire for adults to do more for children and for children to do more for themselves. No one was sitting back. Everyone was asking themselves what can we do to make this work? Of course, I also noticed that our dropout rate was more than 20%. I have not ever worked at a school that lost kids in double digits. That’s nearly a whole grade. Where did they go? Why is the graduation rate so low?

Tell me about the approach you took with Hope, considering its dramatic history of change.
I spent the first half of last year observing and learning. I met with all of the teachers and asked them to tell me about their experience of Hope High School, the good, the bad and the ugly. I learned that they valued the small learning communities that Hope had, so during the second half of the year, we asked ourselves, “How can we make this work with our new redesign?” We now have four learning communities divided by grade level: a freshman academy with two houses of 192 students each, and then sophomore, junior and senior houses. The freshmen are together in one centralized area and have their own lunch, teachers, electives and everything else. Our focus with them is on personalization, time management and honing skills. We thought a lot about how we would support our students to stay on track, knowing that if they are successful in ninth grade, they will be more likely to graduate. Those teachers in each freshman academy house have autonomy, the ownership of running their academy. So far, I think it is going extremely well.

Why is autonomy important?
It’s important that the teachers feel empowered. When they influence what happens in their academies, when they come to school to do more than teach, their experience changes. This is a culture shift for the school. It’s all about student achievement and support, and the students buying into it. They understand that it’s important to be here, that Hope is their school, that they take ownership and pride – that they have hope. They are not coming late to school, and daily attendance is up 10%. We’re seeing some immediate benefits.

What’s your message to the community?
We want people to come inside. Come walk the halls with us and feel what it’s like to be a Blue Waver. It’s also our job to make sure that the Hope spirit goes out. Students have to do individual community service projects and a grade-level service-learning project, and those will be meaningful. We’ll be out there representing Hope with pride and making an impact. Most importantly, as we’re going through this transformation, we want the community to sit at the table. We want people who are planning to send their kids to Hope to join us as we plan for the future. I love these students. I have never worked with such a diverse population of students who want the best for themselves. I believe that high school can be one of the best times of your life as you prepare for adulthood, and I am grateful and proud to be part of their world.