Thursday, January 08, 2009

State Intervention Officially Destigmatized in Providence

So I went to the Superintendent's forum on the new Nathan Bishop Middle School tonight. Basically, I had to stick a little knife into the only chink in the School Department's otherwise seamless drive for conformity across the district. All schools are expected to fall in line with the upcoming curriculum guidelines, regardless of past precedent or agreements.

The one flaw in this plan is that the previous Superintendent had been convinced by some newly organized East Siders (read white, affluent) to re-open the closed middle school in their neighborhood on special terms.

So I came with some pointed questions. If this is to be some kind of innovative model school will have a formal waiver from the district curriculum and pacing guide? Response: hand-waving.

I also asked about whether the school would be "site-based" under the district contract. This is a well-established, successful, if not widely-used, contract provision in Providence that provides a formal structure for school-specific contract variances. Brady's response was that they thought it was too unwieldy and bureaucratic and, as he had described earlier in the meeting, the plan is to have the state do some kind of "your district is in intervention" mojo and grant some kind of special status to the school that lets them hire whomever they want. I followed up pretty aggressively on this. "Do you expect this status to go on indefinitely?" Frankly it would be pretty absurd for the one (presumably) high performing middle school in the city to be the only one in ongoing state intervention (that's my analysis, not Brady's, which was more hand-waving).

Then this guy sitting near me interjects with some very ill-timed, condescending and unfortunately worded reassurance put to me as if I was a concerned neighborhood parent (which I'm not) rather than a frustrated interloper from a neighborhood which is decidedly not getting a special new school. The sub-text was "Well, you see, they can't actually say they'll give us special treatment in public, but they will, because we are, you know, white, affluent and well organized. Trust them."

This, of course, pushed me over the edge a bit, and I pulled off my disguise and went on a short rant of my own about how I too had once engaged with a new superintendent in designing an exciting new model school, which was now being "dismantled" by the Brady administration, so I had some reason to be suspicious.

Mr. Brady was not entirely pleased with being broadsided this way, but it was pretty much at the end, and immediately afterwords he came over, introduced himself, shook my hand and told me to set up an appointment.

So the first takeaway here is that my charm is irresistible.

Beyond that is the apparent de-stigmification of state intervention status in Providence. This was always a mystery to me. Rhode Island is not that much bigger than Providence, and the state Department of Ed has provided much more sound, stable, and forward-thinking leadership than the city ever has. So "shape up or the state will take you over" always sounded more like a reward than a threat to me. I would have run into the open arms of the state at any point. Everything we did at Feinstein was completely in sync with state initiatives. "Can the state take us over? Please?" It is the city that doesn't understand us. Of course the state has limited capacity to intervene with individual schools, which makes takeover an even more extra-special privilege. Apparently the City of Providence itself has also realized this is more a reward than a punishment, and they're taking advantage of it to create their special new school in an affluent neighborhood. Not sure how that plays out in the long run.


benshead said...

Wow. I wish I had been to see your "charm," if that is what you wish to call it, on full display.

Seriously, it sounds like a resoundingly important discussion and I'm glad that you wrote about it. I have to admit that I've not paid much attention to the changes afoot over there. Go get 'em, Tiger!

Thomas said...

Dear Tom,

I'd like to offer a few points that I hope will clarify a thing or two and, perhaps, I hope, make you somewhat more sympathetic to what we've been trying to achieve at Nathan Bishop.

You refer to "some newly organized east siders". ESPEC was organized practically the day we heard that Bishop was to be closed. We're soon coming up on our third anniversary. Many people have devoted many hundreds (probably thousands) of hours to this effort. Its far from the case that we popped up, asked for stuff, and got it. In fact, there were some major items that we did not get, site-based management being chief among them.

Let me add that before Bishop closed, it was the worst middle school in Providence, in terms of both academics and discipline. After it closed, the east side had no middle school whatsoever. It's hard to say that the east side was somehow favored by PPSD.

You refer to the "white, affluent" east side several times. While it is obviously true that the east side is more white and more wealthy than most of Providence, not all of it is, particularly not the Mt. Hope neighborhood (where the meeting you attended took place). Those kids will go to Bishop, at least we hope and expect that they will chose to. Even more important, look at the two east side elementary schools. King has 69% eligible for free or reduced lunch, Gregorian has 63%. King is 24% White, 46% African American and 26% Hispanic. Gregorian 34%. White, 25% African American and 35% Hispanic. Both east side elementaries are thus highly diverse schools, and Bishop will most likely draw directly from them and look very much like them. We like that fact a lot.

So, it seems clear that the direct benefits of Nathan Bishop will flow to a broad range of children, and it's likely that a minority of them will be non-Hispanic whites.

We think that the indirect effects of Bishop may be more important. Assuming Bishop succeeds, we think it's morally and politically impossible for the City to provide 21st century buildings, technology and advanced academic courses in one school and not others. In fact, that has been the plan from the beginning, though I fear the financial crisis that occurred after the funding for Bishop was approved is going to make that harder and slower. However, if you read our website, you saw that among our goals is "To spark and encourage a Providence-wide citizen's movement for improving all the City's public schools." Now that Bishop seems well on its way, we hope to devote more time directly to that effort. Others have done some good work, including Lee Keizler who organized a session called "029XX" which focused on cross-city networking toward school reform and improvement. I'd be happy to put you in touch with him.

Tom Hoffman said...


I'm only unsympathetic to the ESPEC insofar as you're getting special treatment now at the very time other reforms are being dismantled. That is, the school department is primarily the one driving the wedge. It certainly understand people fighting for good schools in their neighborhood.

At this point it is hard to know what the best next steps are until there is a new contract, and we see what the ongoing status of site-based in the district is, and the nature of whatever weird waivers they gin up via the state.

If site-based survives the contract more or less intact, it should be very possible to acquire that in subsequent years. The system has mostly been used in recent years when new schools are created, but existing schools can convert.