Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Letter to the Commissioner

Ms. Gist,

Welcome to Rhode Island.

I followed your tweet this morning to the ProJo story about the changes at Central Falls High School. I was happy to hear things are looking up in Central Falls, but was also chagrined by the reminder that in Providence's high schools, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction.

As Providence Chief Academic Officer Sharon Contreras told the ProJo in February [1] the days of allowing schools to pursue their unique brand of education are over." The work done in small high schools opened in Providence over the past decade is being quickly and unceremoniusly ended in the name of uniformity and strictly standardized curriculum.

For example:

CF: "Students will be able choose this year from among four themed academies: global studies, science and health, arts, communication and teaching, and business and hospitality... In the Hospitality Academy, students will be able to take classes in Web design and event planning, while those in the Arts Academy will work alongside dancers, artists and other performers."

Prov: Students have chosen in recent years to attend themed schools, such as the Providence Academy of International Studies or Cooley Health & Science Technology, but the capacity of these schools to require, or provide at all, coursework in line with those themes is threatened. I have heard, for example, that Cooley's biochemistry courses, built over the years through hard work and hard-won grants, will be discontinued in the interest of district curriculum alignment.

CF: "Gallo, working closely with the faculty, established a lower “house” to ease the often bumpy transition for ninth and tenth graders."

Prov: Feinstein High School since 2001 has used two "houses" with promotion between the two based on very comprehensive standards-based portfolio assessment. The "gateway" process is the cornerstone of the schools culture. It has been discontinued this year by the district in favor of traditional credits and grade levels.

CF: "The ninth and tenth grades are broken down into three teams of no more than a 100 students each."

Prov: Feinstein High School also divides ninth and tenth graders into three teams, which loop with the same team of teachers while in the lower house to build strong ties among students and teachers. Teaming has been ended at FHS by the district.

CF: "Ninth and tenth graders will be offered a traditional curriculum that includes the core subjects — math, English, social studies and so on. In the upper grades, students will have the opportunity to take courses that explore a subject in depth, like global warming.

This spring, the high school will hold a conference that focuses on a global issue, in this case, malaria. Students will present the results of their research, which will be included in their portfolio and ultimately count toward their graduation requirement. The other academies will develop curricula that take the same sort of interdisciplinary approach to math and the sciences, language and history."

Prov: Again, this closely parallels the system at Feinstein. Interdisciplinary learning, emphasis in research in depth in the upper grades, portfolio assessment. This has all been ended by the district in the coming school year.

CF: "Central Falls is moving away from a centralized schedule. The school administration will schedule lunch, physical education and common planning time but is up to the faculty to build their own schedules. Teachers can decide that today they need to devote two hours for social studies, and tomorrow, they need to spend that time on math."

Prov: The district has imposed a standard six period schedule on all the high schools, including small schools successfully using four period blocks and other customized or flexible schedules to suit their particular programs.

CF: "The academies are the result of hundreds of hours of planning by teachers and administrators."

Prov: Providence's small high schools were also the result of thousands of hours of planning over the past decade. That work is quickly being disregarded, disrespected, and disappeared.

This is, of course, not your fault, and already a done deal. But it is important recent history you should understand as you go forward. Trust in schools is a key resource for improvement, and in many of Providence's high schools, it is a resource which has all but disappeared.

Tom Hoffman
125 Adelaide Ave.
Providence, RI



Anonymous said...

Well said and greatly appreciated!

Chris Lehmann said...

Are all those changes a done deal? Has Feinstein been completely dismantled?

Tom Hoffman said...

Pretty much.

Jill Davidson said...

Well said, and thank you for saying it, Tom.