Reflection on Education

Welcome to my 66th and (foreseeably) final East Side Monthly column on education in Providence and beyond. Reluctantly, I’m stepping away to focus on other professional concerns. In my …


Welcome to my 66th and (foreseeably) final East Side Monthly column on education in Providence and beyond. Reluctantly, I’m stepping away to focus on other professional concerns. In my non-writing life, I serve as the managing director of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), a non-profit that provides networking, support and resources to progressive schools nationwide. Founded at Brown University in 1984 by education professor Theodore R. Sizer, CES has provided energy and inspiration for thousands of personalized, equitable and academically challenging schools, including The Met high schools in Providence and Newport and Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket. This year, CES is hosting the annual Fall Forum conference in Providence. Local educators, school leaders and policymakers: join us on December 2 and 3, 2016. For more, visit Fall Forum and related matters will more or less completely devour my time, and so, with regret, I am parting from this monthly opportunity to reflect on what’s happening in our community’s schools.

During the five and a half years that I’ve been writing this column, three superintendents have helmed the Providence Public Schools. This degree of turnover, typical for urban districts, produces discontinuity that damages urgently needed educational progress. The third of those three leaders, Christopher Maher, was at the time of this writing appointed to the position on a permanent basis after nearly a year’s service as interim superintendent. I’m delighted that Mr. Maher will be staying in Providence. I hope that the fit is so good, and the results so beneficial for our young people, that five and a half years from now, he’s still here, leading a transforming school system that is the pride of our city and state. However, if Mr. Maher’s tenure is to extend beyond the next mayoral change, it will depend on the public’s demand for stability. For the sake of consistent improvement – which necessarily takes time – we must put our commitment to young people above political concerns.

Happily, the Providence Public Schools will be operating in what’s shaping up to be an improved policy environment. Recently, Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Ken Wagner announced a statewide School Empowerment initiative, which will provide autonomy, support and accountability to our state’s schools in ways that will foster the conditions for every school to draw on its assets to create and sustain powerful teaching and learning. RIDE’s direction emphasizes grassroots strength rather than top-down mandates, and places far more trust into the hands of education professionals and community members. It’s an exciting development that recalls the strong course the department had set under former RIDE Commissioner Peter McWalters.

During the time I’ve been writing this column, I’ve argued that public education is everyone’s concern. While I enthusiastically support families as they make the choices that are best for their own children, we must vote and advocate with the understanding that without strong public schools serving all children, Rhode Island will never be able to make good on its promise as a state. Without a fierce commitment to prepare all of our citizens for a future as agile thinkers and lifelong learners prepared to adapt to a changing future, we won’t be able to bolster our economy through emerging businesses and industries. We won’t be able to develop the health care, education, utility, transportation and other infrastructures that are essential for Rhode Island’s survival. Demonstrating meaningful, ongoing support for your neighborhood public schools and municipal school systems – whether or not you or your own personal children are or were involved – is critical to your future success.

Okay, lecture over. Thank you to the staff of East Side Monthly for this opportunity. Thanks also to everyone who read and took the time to engage in conversation about what I wrote in these pages. I will miss those exchanges. And I have particular gratitude for the many educators and students I’ve had the privilege to get to know. Over the years, all of our neighborhood schools have welcomed me warmly, as have many beyond the East Side. I value the many enduring connections made while learning about the opportunities, challenges, joys and frustrations that meet educators, school leaders and young people. I have absorbed so much, and hope that I have been able to share some of that in ways that have expanded your understanding of our local educational scene. Keep learning, and see you around the neighborhood!

Smart News

Outdoor Antigone Production at Nathan Bishop Middle School
The Nathan Bishop Middle School Drama Club’s students invite you to their second annual big stage production, Sophocles’ Antigone, which will be performed in ancient tradition in an outdoor show on the front steps of the school. The production will feature bleacher seating, and audience members are encouraged to bring a picnic and a blanket or a beach chair to enjoy the show. This production of Antigone will feature live music, singing and dancing. Directed by Nathan Bishop drama teacher Glenn Zienowicz and Trinity Repertory Company’s partnering teaching fellow Jackie Davis, the production will showcase costumes created by Candace French, director of Bishop’s new Fashion Lab program, and will also include “Living Statue Tableux” courtesy of the Bishop Drama Club’s community partnership with Ten 31 Productions. A search for “Nathan Bishop Drama Club” on Facebook will connect you to show updates, including news of a fundraiser that will offer VIP cafe tables in front of the steps with a picnic basket.  Performances are May 12, 13 and 14 at 6pm, and May 15 at 2pm. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students and seniors.

18th Annual Mt. Hope Learning Center Plant, Art and Bake Sale
Just in time for Mother’s Day and gardening season, the 18th annual Plant, Art and Bake Sale will be held at the Mt. Hope Learning Center, 140 Cypress Street in Providence on May 7 and May 8 from 9am to 3pm. Join your Mt. Hope neighbors to purchase hanging pots, perennials, seedlings, plants, flowers, treats and paintings. All sales and contributions will benefit the education and enrichment of children and adults in our neighborhood. In addition to the plant sale, Saturday’s programs will include fresh baked goods from ten local bakeries and 20 community members, an art sale created by children in our programs, live music, Mommy and Me Painting Workshops at 9am and 1pm ($20 donation), as well as henna tattoos, face painting and balloon dart prizes. Sunday’s events will include the plant and bake sale, and the sale of children’s artwork.

School Gardens Initiative Launched
The University of Rhode Island’s Extension Outreach Center and the Providence Public Schools are collaborating on the School Garden Initiative, a pilot school garden program aimed at expanding school gardens throughout Providence. The initiative, announced in February at the School Gardens 101 conference, is aimed at “giving kids a chance to get their hands dirty. We want to get them excited about nature, the outdoors, growing food and working in the soil,” says Robin Muksian-Schutt, operations director for the Providence Public Schools. The program will focus on establishing school gardens as learning environments in order to deepen student competency in science, technology, engineering and math. The URI Extension Outreach Center is providing guidance, seeds and seedlings and support. And we will have the opportunity to see the program in action: the East Side’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School and Nathan Bishop Middle School, which already have established school gardens, will join the pilot project.