Head of the Class

Searching for a new superintendent of Providence Public Schools after Dr. Lusi's unexpected departure.


Dr. Susan F. Lusi’s recent resignation as superintendent of Providence Public Schools caught most by surprise. Midway through a one-year contract extension, Lusi was navigating the challenges of her work with characteristic skill and grace. Lusi, who did not provide a specific reason for her departure, led the district for four years, serving a year as interim superintendent before Mayor Taveras appointed her in 2012. During her tenure, Lusi proved to be an ally to the Providence Student Union and the Parent Advisory Council.

She joined forces with community leaders to produce a Code of Conduct that promotes equitable and accountable school discipline. The school department and city negotiated a contract with the Providence Teachers Union that supports increased autonomy and flexibility at the school level, and Lusi initiated the “On the Move” strategic plan. The district’s graduation rate increased from [61 to 75 percent] – impressive, though obviously not optimal. Test scores rose, absenteeism declined and innovative new schools are opening in the district. We can thank Dr. Lusi for more than the usual amount of progress during her time at the helm. In other ways, Lusi’s tenure was par for the course in Providence, which has seen three superintendents within ten years, and was on average for most urban districts. The Council of Great City Schools (CGCS), to which Providence belongs, recently released its annual report, “Urban School Superintendents: Characteristics, Tenure and Salary,” which states that the tenure of current CGCS superintendents averages 3.18 years. This relentless upheaval creates poor conditions for school improvement, which requires strategic, long-term implementation of educational programs to yield meaningful results.

While we hope that our politicians have the best interests of our children foremost in mind, short-term political and financial battles drive their decision-making – not great for continuity over the long haul. Yet Mayor Elorza is responsible for appointing school board members, who then choose the superintendent. This indicates that in due course, we may want to think through the pros and cons of Providence’s approach to school governance.
Families, students, teachers, school leaders and others invested in Providence’s schools are best positioned to hold the long-term vision of an enduringly great school system.

Organizations such as the Providence Student Union (PSU) demonstrate that grassroots organizing and coalition-building may successfully impact politics, as evidenced by PSU’s current push to hold Mayor Elorza accountable to his promise to reduce high schoolers’ long walks to school. As we embark on a new superintendent search, we need to reach out widely to our city’s communities and ask ourselves what qualities we seek in a superintendent in order to establish clear criteria against which candidates are assessed to determine their ability to sustain and build on the gains that we’ve seen since 2012. We also need to find ways to talk with each other and our elected and appointed officials to create and sustain a common vision of a school system that effectively serves all of our children. We know that mayors and their appointees come and go. We’re the ones who can hold our leaders accountable to a longterm plan for our schools.

The national data and our city’s experience tell us to view changes at the top of our school system as standard operating procedure. We have looked for a new district leader every three to four years. We know what works best: searches conducted according to clear, publicly developed criteria with ample opportunities for and multiple modes of public input. We must also identify a superintendent who can outlast false crises of political change so that finding a replacement every few years is no longer the norm. This may demand that we change governance, finance and other factors in order to create the right conditions for our next school leader to stick around, forge alliances, work through challenges and create lasting change for our public schools. So let’s proceed with the task of selecting our next superintendent calmly and thoughtfully, with sufficient, meaningful public participation and with attention to long-term, strategic commitments. We can do this, and if we do it right, we may not need to use our well-developed superintendent selection skills for years to come.

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