Thursday, December 22, 2011

At MLK for the best half hour of my day

Why do I ever think that it's possible to make a super quick visit to my kids' elementary school, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary? The idea that I can just run in and drop something off--today, a couple of Stop and Shop gift cards for families in need and a plate of cookies for the office staff--is ridiculous in the best possible way.

I am so grateful for the connections and relationships in that school, for the ongoing conversations, for the friendships. But today, though I really love them, I swear I really was going to run in, make my delivery, and get out of there, ten minutes tops, for real this time. So of course before I knew it, I was wrapping a dozen or so presents from the MLK school community to a handful of children who would otherwise experience a bleak holiday next week. I had no choice, really, and though I had thought I had places to go and people to see in the most urgent way, there was nowhere else I'd rather have been. If I didn't have to come back to work, I'd still be there, wrapping and shooting the breeze. Even if just for a half an hour or so, I was so happy to be reminded that our family is a part of a school community that makes a real effort to think about all kids and all families.

King's staff members discreetly identified a group of kids whose families are struggling significantly and King's principal, Derrick Ciesla, shared his intention on Facebook to match donations from the King community. A few people shared his post, and word started getting out. King's staff members, families, and people who are outside the school community who heard about the Santa Ciesla project and wanted to help came through--are still coming through--with incredible generosity.

If you want to see the MLK elves in action, WPRI sent a reporter out yesterday - you can check out their report, which was on the  6:00 evening news, here. The photo to the right is a still from the video they shot - I love this image as it featured another MLK parent, Lorraine Lalli, who I suspect was similarly sucked it. I am telling you, do not step foot in that building unless you want to feel really great as a small part of a big effort to take care of those who need it most this holiday season.

I suspect other schools are doing the same. For sure, King in past years has quietly reached out to families in need. Perhaps the social media angle made this big and noticeable this year. Either way, I am happy to celebrate principal Ciesla and everyone at King for their generosity and grateful for the best 30 minutes of my day today.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Form vs Function" - January East Side Monthly column online

The January East Side Monthly is online, and with it my column on the impact of the quality of school facilities on learning. Kudos to ESM for the spiffy new online format! 

Here's the original version of the piece (bit longer, with links, but pretty much the same):

When our family chose to move to the East Side of Providence in 2004, we were gratified to see the wide range of K-12 schools in the neighborhood. As a family with two (at the time) and (now) three young kids, we wanted to live in a place where we would have options and possibilities that would fit our kids as they developed. That reasoning applied to choosing Providence generally and the East Side specifically. We had relocated from an urban area and wanted to remain city-dwellers for a number of reasons, including diversity within schools and a diversity of choice among schools. At that time, we toured a number of public, private, and religiously affiliated East Side schools and since that time, I’ve given many tours of one school in particular (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, which all of my kids have attended or are currently enrolled).

Before now, I have not spent a whole lot of time analyzing the schools’ facilities for my own kids, and for the most part, the family members to whom I have given tours of King also have not made the school building their chief concern.  Speaking for myself, the physical structure of the buildings seemed too much of an immutable element for serious consideration. I certainly noticed whether or not the buildings were clean and well cared for, but didn’t think critically beyond that. Instead, I focused on what I could learn about the schools’ culture, climate, values, curriculum, atmosphere, and habits of family involvement in kids’ education. Those were the factors that seemed to matter most at the time and for the most part, continue to have the strongest influence on the quality of my kids’ education.

That said, for those who wish to ponder the question of whether and how school facilities matter to young people’s learning and lasting success in school, the K-12 school facilities in our neighborhood offer the full range of what’s possible. Beautiful renovations and lovely campuses on lush lawns contrast with timeworn buildings and schools situated in buildings not necessarily designed as schools at all. We have new and aged buildings. Our neighborhood has school facilities that demonstrate care and thoughtfulness architecturally, environmentally and educationally and school facilities that demonstrate exactly the opposite qualities. There’s a huge and inequitable range of quality among school facilities nationwide, and the East Side replicates that.

So how much does do the quality of facilities really matter to learning? Part of the reason that I write this column is to share what turns up when I dive into educational research to answer questions that nag me. I figure if I’m thinking about something, you might be, too. So here’s what I found out about the ways that school facilities affect the experience of teaching and learning.

According to the 21st Century School Fund, a Washington DC-based nonprofit dedicated to the idea that communities are responsible for creating healthy, safe, and educationally appropriate learning environments, nearly every recent study shows a correlation between the condition of school facilities and educational achievement once student demographic factors were excluded as factors. Students test results are lower in inadequate facilities, as are attendance rates. Drop out rates are higher.

Poor facilities also directly impact the health of everyone who spends time in them, students and teachers alike. According to the United States General Accounting Office, one in five students nationwide attend poorly ventilated schools--perhaps more in Providence given the age of and wear and tear on many of our city’s schools. Temperature, noise, and access to daylight add to the factors that detract from adequate conditions for teaching and learning.

Inadequate facilities can also affect a school’s ability to retain high quality educators; teachers are more likely to take more sick days in building with poor air quality and severely run-down facilities and are less likely to remain at those schools for the long haul. Certainly, high-quality environments for teaching and learning aren’t the only factor for a school’s success. Every day, in our neighborhood, across the city, and nationwide, we see wonderful teachers creating positive change in the lives of young people in cruddy conditions. We know that strong relationships among and between students and educators, excellent curricula, and other factors matter hugely.

Financial crises have forced Providence Public Schools have had to abandon the facilities master planning recommendations presented to the Providence School Board in 2010, and our current stagnant financial climate makes capital improvements more challenging for all of our neighborhood’s schools. That said, given the right kinds of fundraising and financial management, independent schools may have more control over their facilities development than public schools, which are necessarily included in the overall planning processes of the Providence Public School district, which itself is directly affected by the school building funding and regulations that come from the Rhode Island Department of Education and the General Assembly. At the end of the most recent General Assembly legislative session, school building and capital improvement funds were put on an “indefinite freeze” statewide.

It’s tempting, given the challenges that we face, to bury our heads in the sands of deferral. But we can’t continue to pretend that facilities don’t matter as much as they do. We need to advocate for proper funding to ensure that all of our schools offer at least basic appropriate conditions for teaching and learning, including up-to-speed technological infrastructure. You may want to follow the progress of H.R. 2948, the Fix America's Schools Today (FAST) bill, introduced in September 2011. Co-sponsored by U.S. Representative David Cicilline, the FAST bill is designed to be both a school improvement program and a jobs stimulus bill. Rhode Island’s legislators should consider complementary state level legislation so that we can ensure that the places for learning in our neighborhood, and all neighborhoods, offer fair access to learning and can remain at the center of our communities.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pecha Kucha Providence tomorrow - 20x20 on the relationship between schools and families

With other brave souls, I will be sharing thoughts tomorrow night (Wednesday, 12/21) on the topic of relationships at Pecha Kucha Providence at The Met at Hope Artiste Village, 1005 Main Street in Pawtucket. Doors open @ 7:20.

Per the Pecha Kucha format. I'll be presenting 20 images and talking about each for 20 seconds. My topic is not actually on the relationship in general between families and schools but rather on the specific, particular, evolving relationship between my family and the Providence Public Schools. There may be generalizations to be made. Or there may not be. In any event, it's our story about which as, if you're reading this, you know I obsess, so I'm going for it. I would love to see some of you there!

Rhode Island wins federal Early Learning Race to the Top grant

As WPRI reports, Rhode Island's youngest learners will be the beneficiaries of a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge award from the United States Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.  Rhode Island is one of nine states to win early learning RttT grant funds. Based on the strength of existing programs including Ready to Learn Providence, Rhode Island applied for $50,000 million to support early learning statewide with a focus on underserved communities. These funds have the potential to create universal high quality preK programs, which would address a one of our state's most fundamental equity issues. Fantastic news!

Update - just ran across this analysis on the Quick and the Ed blog that shares criteria and scoring methods for the states that applied for the RttT-ELC funds. Yeah, I know I cheered above, and I am happy for Rhode Island in this instance, but not at the expense of other states' young learners. I remain opposed in terms of equity to the notion that states must compete to win funding that most if not all so urgently need. Winning comes down to following the rules of the scoring, which does not necessarily demand the same skill set among professionals as building strong programs.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I hope that this is a conversation.

Heads up for those who want to attend meetings about Providence's schools until the bitter end of 2011: on Tuesday, December 20, Mayor Angel Taveras and Superintendent Susan Lusi will be co-hosting a Community Conversation on Education in Providence from 6:30-8:00pm at Nathanael Greene Middle School, 721 Chalkstone Avenue in Providence.

A bit more info about the event is here: along with a link to what presumably is the subject of the discussion, the Educate Providence website which features the outcome of the Education Opportunities Working Group. I say that I hope it's a conversation because the report from the group is well worth discussing, exploring, and understanding in terms of their likely impact on Providence's education system.

This event is also scheduled on the first night of Hanukkah, so I can't be there. I understand it's hard to find dates that work well for most people, and one assumes that this date was chosen with the understanding that some of us would have family obligations. Nevertheless, it's really unfortunately scheduled; I hope that another such session will be held in early January for those who can't make it either because of Hanukkah or because this is generally such a wildly busy time of year for many across the religious, or not, spectrum.

Update from Angela Romans, who emailed the following: "Yes, we are planning to have 2 more such meetings in January and are working out the dates. Those will be announced and posted by next week." Excellent to hear and when those dates are posted, I'll share them here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Providence School Board candidates public forum 12/14 6-8pm

Tomorrow evening (Wednesday, 12/14) from 6:00-8:00pm, in the Providence Career and Technical Academy auditorium, 41 Fricker Street, candidates for Providence School Board vacancies, of which there are three, will appear at a public forum so that interested community members can meet and ask questions of the candidates. The forum will occur from 6-8PM.

I wonder if this different from past such forums, during which the audience didn't direct participate but listened to questions posed to the candidates by members of the School Board Nominating Commission. This seems more like a general Q and A. I can't go but would love a report from anyone who can and does attend.

The full announcement from the Mayor's office about the search for Providence School Board candidates and related activities, including this forum, is here.

Kudos to Central High School for NEASC accreditation

The ProJo reports that Providence's Central High School has received initial accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). NEASC's Commission on Public Secondary Schools awards accreditation after a school meets benchmarks and standards as assessed by self-study and visits from evaluators. Central joins four other NEASC-accredited Providence high schools -- Classical, Hope, E-Cubed, and PAIS @ the Juanita Sanchez Education Complex -- and 40 accredited high schools statewide. Here's the full list of RI high schools with full accreditation; William B. Cooley Health Science Technology High School @ the Juanita Sanchez Education Complex is a candidate for accreditation.

Kudos to Central for meeting the NEASC standards - all high schools should, of course, and while we support them all to do so, we can celebrate the achievement of those that do. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Are School Uniforms a Good Fit?

I'm catching up on posting East Side Monthly columns! Here's what I wrote for the November 2011 issue, which isn't online due to ESM's spiffy website makeover, which features content from December 2011 onward (and I didn't write for that issue due to work craziness). I am back at it - January's ESM education column is on equity and school facilities and should be out soon. But for now - here's November's column on school uniforms and whether they're right for Providence's public schools, along with my thanks to the people who gave me their time and thoughts on the subject.


At a recent citywide gathering of parents with children in the Providence Public Schools, I found myself in the minority when the subject of school uniforms arose. First off, in order to establish my minority position, I will share that I’m not in favor of mandatory uniforms, especially in public schools. That’s not to say that I don’t want kids to look their best. Clearly stated and consistently enforced dress codes create an atmosphere for learning with minimal distraction while still allowing for choice and free expression, and the Providence Public Schools’ dress code is a fine example. However, most other parents in whose company I found myself spoke up enthusiastically for school uniforms. Their kids and their peers would benefit tremendously from school uniforms, they said as they urged the Providence Public Schools to make uniforms mandatory in all schools.

The overwhelmingly positive response from parents from across the city made me reconsider my own anti-uniform stance. What was so attractive about the idea of school uniforms in all of our public schools--and why didn’t I share that view?

Those who support mandatory school uniforms believe that uniforms emphasize to young people that they are at school to learn. Christina Murphy Pyman, a past Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point parent, sums up what many in favor of school uniforms believe. “Uniforms are especially good for girls, who seem to be obsessed with how they look and what label they are wearing at a frighteningly young age,” notes Pyman. “They need to learn that it isn't how you look but what you can accomplish and they need to learn to focus! Wearing the right jeans when they grow up will not land them the job they want in the real world.”

Some uniform proponents argue that mandatory school uniforms correlate with a safer school culture and that uniforms can help students feel like they’re part of a team, which can increase a sense of school pride. Others say it’s just easier to get dressed in the morning. Allyson Seaborn, a friend who grew up in the United States (without school uniforms) and moved to Australia in high school, shared that all Australian public and private school students wear uniforms, and she is a major proponent of mandatory uniforms for school. “Honestly, as a parent I send my two kids off to school each day without any whinging, fashion planning, colour coordination of socks, or my daughter looking like a tart,” she explains. “They just go to school to learn. Uniforms are about making school years a little bit easier and more practical.” Seaborn’s thoughts resonated with Hope High School teacher Laura Maxwell, who while not endorsing uniforms, commented that uniforms would reduce the “decision fatigue” that is a significant factor in our lives.

Not such a big surprise, then, that school uniforms are such an appealing idea. However, they aren’t a sartorial panacea that will fix what’s ailing a school. Do dress codes eliminate distractions and put the focus on learning? Probably not. Research indicates that academic outcomes aren’t improved at schools with uniforms as compared to schools with similar populations and programs. Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, chair of Brown University’s Africana Studies department and president of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School’s Parent-Teacher Organization, suggests that insisting on compliance to a uniform policy may well be a distraction to learning. “Administrators and communities should focus their energy on providing adequate resources so that schools can do what they do best--educate our children,” Walker says. “Since we have no reliable data to support all the ‘good’ that school uniforms do, we should focus our energy on ensuring that all schools have the requisite resources to serve all students in the pursuit of achieving the best of their potential.”

Others with experience wearing school uniforms as students feel that the uniforms put them or their kids at a real disadvantage. Providence Public School parent Karen Seiler recalls, “As someone who wore a uniform to school I can tell you they accomplish none of the supposed benefits. Students distinguish their wealth, status, and cliques through hairstyle, jewelry, shoes, and so on.” Another friend whose children attended a charter school with a strictly enforced uniform policy was plagued by the anxiety of getting the uniform up to snuff in the mornings and the inevitable loss of time in schools (and loss of work for her) when her kids were sent home for noncompliance. Uniforms established an anxiety about school in terms of fitting in and meeting expectations that her kids are still sorting through, years later.

School uniforms represent what many families want for their kids and their schools: a calm, orderly, focused learning environment, and therein lies their appeal. But the challenges that face us as we work to create great schools for all children are complex, and the solutions require a parallel level of complexity and nuance. Dr. Corey D. B. Walker takes the point further, noting, “The discourse on school uniforms strikes me as emblematic of the problem of public school education in our nation--the simplistic pursuit of a single remedy to alleviate the systemic problems that have been and continue to be part of the history of public education in America.”

When we talk about schools, we often fail to make the distinction between standards and standardization. A dress code represents standards; a uniform, standardization. The consequences to insisting on standardization in a multicultural society are significant, as Walker suggests. “School uniforms imperially impose a Euro-centric norm and conception of proper conduct and behavior that is antithetical to a society that claims to value cultural diversity.” While public and charter schools, which are not required to educate any and all students, may well benefit from mandatory uniform policies, uniforms don’t have a meaningful place in our public schools. With respect to those who are in favor, I hope to work together with educators and students to create places of learning where high standards and personal freedom can coexist.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

MLK Elementary tours!

As I mentioned in the previous post, along with other family members, students, and staff members, I'll be giving tours of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School at 35 Camp Street in Providence during the coming weeks. Please come and see the school in preparation for kindergarten enrollment, which is happening between 1/3/12 and 2/10/12. Visit for more information about registering your child for kindergarten (and other grades).

We welcome you on a tour if you're curious about the school for a child in any grade or in preparation for school for your little kids in years to come. Click on the image for a larger version of the flier, and please share this info.

The tours of King are happening as follows:

(tomorrow!) Wednesday 12/7, 5:00pm
Friday 12/9, 11:00am
Friday, 12/16, 11:00am
Friday, 1/6, 11:00am
Friday, 1/20, 11:00am
Friday, 1/27, 11:00am
Friday, 2/3, 11:00am

With the exception of tomorrow evening's tour, all tours are led by fifth grade students with support form parents and include a meeting with school principal Derrick Ciesla. Please contact MLK Elementary at 456-9398 to sign up for a tour.

If any readers know of PPSD elementary school tours happening at other schools, I'd love to share that info here - let me know! Thanks.

Family and community engagement: less is more

Would you like to go to a meeting? Because, man, do we have them this week. Tonight, tomorrow night, and Thursday night are full of meetings and hearings related to the Achievement First Mayoral Academies charter school application that's been submitted to RIDE. Tonight, there's a Providence City Council education subcommittee hearing at 5:30 at City Hall (more info here). Tomorrow and Thursday night, the Rhode Island Board of Regents is holding hearings in Providence, tomorrow at 6pm at Kennedy Elementary School, Thursday at 6pm at Alvarez High School (more info, respectively aligned along some sort of spectrum here, here, and here). And that's just what's happening in Providence related to this one particular topic.

In Providence, it's also Open Schools Week for elementary schools, which means that families interested in public elementary schools are likely taking time off work or away from other responsibilities to visit schools. I'm spending evenings and lunch hours getting ready for and giving tours of MLK Elementary, where my kids go to school. This is great! But again, this week? With everything else? Too much.

Read on for schedule-related bitching and moaning, if that's your pleasure...

While I'd be way crankier if there were no hearings or publicly available information, I am sufficiently cranky with all of this happening immediately, right now, one after the other, especially since there is no actual rush as far as I am aware. As Tom Hoffman points out, the deadline for charter applications is four months away. There's ample time for various public entities to schedule hearings in ways that allow families with kids (or any of you out there who may work evenings or just otherwise have plenty going on) to plan to attend. After a strenuous bout of childcare wrangling, I think I'll be able to attend tomorrow night's Regents' hearing at Kennedy but that's it. And I am blessed with a daytime job, fairly easy kids, a car, and a spouse who supports my desire to participate. 

Generally, I regard myself as a fortunate person, especially when it comes to being able to be involved with the schools in my community. Though I work full time, I have enough control over my time to be able to spend time in schools. I have been able to form meaningful relationships with other family members, staff members, students, and administrators. I feel like I am able to contribute to conversations about what's happening in education in Providence and beyond in a variety of ways - in conversations, in public forums, on this blog, in my East Side Monthly column, and in my professional life. And as a member of the dominant culture who speaks English and feels happy and at home in school settings, I am well aware of my privilege and access, and happy to use some of it to ask that we think about ways to schedule hearings and opportunities for family and community involvement that support that involvement. 

When possible, I hope that the various towns involved with this proposal, along with RIDE, communicate with each other about when hearings are happening, and try to make sure they don't happen on weeks when there are other big district-wide events such as Open Schools Week. I have no expectation that all of us can attend everything, but this week's event pile-up is way beyond possible for most regular folks. 

In order to have consistent, inclusive family and community involvement, we really need better planning. Too many events, while better than too few, create their own frustrations that could be avoided by better planning. Moving forward, let's look at the various demands on folks' time and try to schedule them in ways that are possible for the largest possible group of people. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

RIDE Public Forum on ESEA Flexibility, Monday, December 12

This information comes from the RIDE email list - thought it was worth sharing for those who may not be on the list:
You are invited to join Commissioner Deborah A. Gist for a public forum to discuss Rhode Island’s request for flexibility under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)/No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The forum will be held Monday, December 12, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 255 Westminster Street in Providence, in room 260.
As you may know, the U.S. Department of Education is inviting states to request flexibility, on behalf of their districts and schools, in order to better focus on improving student learning. This opportunity would provide educators and state and local leaders with flexibility regarding specific requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), in exchange for rigorous and comprehensive state-developed plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.
Rhode Island is beginning to develop its request for flexibility, and the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education offers this public forum to present information about this opportunity and to request your input.  Please contact Kim Bright ( with any questions about this event.
If you wish to subscribe to the RIDE mailing list, sign up here:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Report on 11/29 Providence City Council Hearing on Achievement First's Mayor Academies Proposal from Richard Purnell

The following report comes from Richard Purnell, a parents of a Providence Public School student who was able to attend the Providence City Council's Education Subcommittee's hearing on Achievement First's proposal to establish two Mayoral Academies in Providence to serve student from Providence and surrounding municipalities. Commentary/clarifications from me are in brackets [like this]. Many thanks to Richard for this report! 
I arrived at the council's meeting room on the third floor of City Hall a little before 5 pm -  in time for me to see them setting up some folding chairs in the "back" of the room by the windows. Pretty soon it would be SRO. Linda Borg [the Providence Journal's education reporter] was front and center, Angela Romans [Mayor Taveras' Senior Adviser on Education] was nearby, and the scene was being taped [by Jessica Jennings] for the perennial documentary on educational progress in Providence. I took one of the chairs by the window, which gave me a pretty good view but - as it turned out - poor acoustics. Around 5:03 pm, I watched Councilor Zurier bring the room to order and convene the meeting with a declared quorum, knowing that I would have to leave around 6:00 pm. 
Councilor Zurier explained that this was going to be conducted as an information-seeking meeting and that people would have several other opportunities soon to express their views about Achievement First (AF). Following a presentation by AF, there would be an opportunity to ask questions. He explained that there were time constraints associated with the meeting and told us what the order and manner of questioning would be, with members of the education subcommittee going first, councilpersons next, and the public last.\ 
The City Councilors I could clearly identify from my vantage point were Councilors Matos, Yurdin  Narducci  Solomon, Correia, Jennings, Principe, Zurier, and (I think) Salvatore. Others may have been there and I did not see or recognize them. I had heard from Councilor Jackson the day before that his presence would be required elsewhere at the time of the meeting, but that he would have wanted to attend. The principal spokesperson for AF at the meeting was Reshma Singh. She was assisted from time to time by a woman, Christine Lopes, and a man, whose name I later found out is Bill Fischer. 
For an "exact" account of what transpired, I have been told by City Clerk Anna Stetson that minutes of the meeting will be available in a couple of weeks, at the earliest.  I would also recommend Linda Borg's article in the November 30th issue of the Providence Journal for a fine synopsis of important exchanges that took place [sorry, can't find it online]. What follows will be some impressions, reactions, and afterthoughts regarding what I was able to witness over the sirens and other street noises that competed with the proceedings from where I sat. 
I was impressed with the manner in which Councilor Zurier conducted the meeting and the efforts councilors made to present salient issues to the AF spokesperson. There were a few instances when things had to be "ushered" along by the chair, but this was carried out in a considerate manner. The presentation by AF was coherent and polished; there were handouts, but I think they were only available for the subcommittee members. Perhaps when I get the minutes I'll be able to obtain the handouts also. 
One reaction I had was to AF's response to a question about their reputation for not encouraging or engaging parents in the "operation" of their schools. Basically, what I heard them say was that there would be a parent on the mayoral board and that would seem to satisfy that demand. 
Another reaction was when Councilor Principe was questioning Ms Singh about the recent news that four AF schools in Connecticut had not made their AYPs. Her response was to point out that these schools had made great progress in test scores, but that they just were not great enough to bring them over the mark set for acceptable performance. AYPs, she said, were incredibly complex to fathom and she had recently spent considerable time familiarizing herself with them. What needed to be focused on, she said, were the great strides made by the students. I'll let the reader reflect a little on where we have heard that response before and how it was received. I also wondered about the impetus for really digging into understanding AYPs being failing to attain them. I suppose you really don't have to understand what it is you are supposed to be attaining until you don't attain it. 
Councilor Principe's concentration on AF's failure to make AYPs seemed to have a very valid query: Why should a community that has schools with passing AYPs in some of its schools need to import an organization with failing AYPs when it can look to its own successful schools for answers?
One thing I was hoping to hear brought up was the low numbers of students projected to be in the classes their two schools will contain. So lower class sizes and fewer of the more challenging students gets presented as raising the bar of education in Providence. On a somewhat related note, I thought wouldn't it be grand if Walmart gave Providence (instead of AF) $250,000 for each of two elementary schools it opened with "176 students the first year."  I got those numbers from an article by Linda Borg, which seemed to be based on responses from AF. I wondered at the time why it said two schools the first year when elsewhere they speak of opening a school in 2013 and the second in 2014. There's a lot that needs sorting out (as in deeper educational thinking) here. 
So, to wrap things up for now, the more I see folks dig into the inner workings and long-term implications of the AF way of looking at what it has to offer Providence's needs for closing its achievement gaps, the more it looks to be a facade.  The path to school reform in Providence needs to be paved with more than good intentions and hyperbole. I sincerely hope more of us will get out to these hearings on the AF proposal and think critically about what is being offered as a solution for one of our most important issues:  the true condition of our public schools and what it is compared to what it should be. --Richard Purnell
Final Achievement First note of the day: per this AP report that ran on Channel 10's website, the Warwick School Committee voted last night to opposed the creation of the Achievement First Mayor Academies that would draw students from Warwick, citing concerns about cost and lack of familiarity with Achievement First.

Community Letter on Achievement First's Providence Mayoral Academies Proposal

As I mentioned in the previous post, on Monday, November 28, a coalition of Providence City Council members (Bryan Principe, Ward 13; Davian Sanchez, Ward 11; Kevin Jackson, Ward 3; Luis Aponte, Ward 10; Michael Correia, Ward 6; Nicholas Narducci, Ward 4; and Carmen Castillo, Ward 9; community groups and citizens delivered a letter to Governor Lincoln Chafee that described their concerns about Achievement First's proposal to open two Mayoral Academy charter schools in Providence in 2013 and 2014 to serve students from Providence and surrounding communities. Click here to view the letter on Google Docs.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meetings and hearings on Achievement First's application to open Mayor Academies in Providence

Regular Providence Schools and Beyond readers will know that for much of 2011, citizens of Providence, Cranston, and other municipalities have been debating the merits and detriments of a proposal from charter management organization Achievement First to open two Mayoral Academies in the coming years to serve K-12 students. Following the Rhode Island Board of Regents’ rejection of a version of the proposal to open the schools in Cranston to serve students in grades K-12 from Cranston and Providence, Achievement First resubmitted the charter application with a view to open the schools in Providence in 2013 and 2014 to serve students not only from Providence and Cranston but also (name other surrounding towns). That proposal is front and center in Providence this week.

Yesterday, a coalition of Providence neighborhood associations, parent organizations, student organizing groups, private-sector unions, community organizing groups, and public officials (including the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization, of which I am a member) announced its opposition to the establishment of a network of Achievement First Mayoral Academies in Providence. The coalition held a rally and press conference at the State House and delivered a letter to the Governor expressing its concern about and lack of interest in the prospect of Achievement First’s establishment of the Mayoral Academies in Providence. Click here to view the letter on Google Docs. The group used Facebook to organize - if you want to join in, go here: The Brown Daily Herald covered yesterday's protest nicely here.

More Achievement First news, this from Councilman Sam Zurier’s Ward 2 email newsletter: tonight (Tuesday, November 29) at 5:00pm, the Providence City Council’s Education Subcommittee will hear a presentation from representatives of Achievement First, which has applied to operate a mayoral academy charter school in Providence.  Members of the City Council will ask questions, including questions submitted from the public. Councilman Zurier did not say this, but I would guess that you cannot be there, as I cannot due to work obligations, he may accept questions via email or phone calls.  The hearing will take place in Providence City Hall, 25 Dorrance Street.

Next week, on Tuesday, December 6, the Providence City Council Education Subcommittee will hear the School Department’s projection of the financial impact of the new charter school if it is approved.  I’ll share the time when it’s announced.

Both of these Providence City Council Education Subcommittee Meetings precede next week’s Rhode Island Board of Regents’ hearings on the proposed Achievement First Mayoral Academies. WRNI’s Education Blog reports that the hearings will take place as follows:
  • Wednesday, December 7, 6:00pm, Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School, 195 Nelson Street in Providence
  • Thursday, December 8, 6:00pm Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, 375 Adelaide Avenue in Providence
Please - whether you're avidly opposed to or in support of Achievement First--and especially if you want to know more--do what you can to learn about the financial, social, educational and other impacts these schools may have on our city. Come to the hearings and sign up for public comment - make your views known. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Info sessions for Kindergarten: tonight and 11/28

This morning, PPSD's Office of Family and Community Engagement shared the flier above that shares dates for information meetings for families with children who will be entering Kindergarten in the fall of 2012, and I am happy to help spread the word. You'll see that there was already a session today, and there's another tonight, with more on Monday, 11/28. Definitely go if you can to get answers to any questions you may have about registration!

Monday, November 21, 2011

PPSD Kindergarten Registration for 2012! January 3-February 10, 2012

Heads up to families looking at kindergarten: Providence Public Schools will be registering children for kindergarten and first grade from January 3 to February 10, 2012. The registration is done alphabetically; click here for a PDF of the schedule. You can vist the Providence Public Schools' website's registration section for details about registration requirements and assignment policies.

Please spend time during December to visit schools, both those in your neighborhood (remember, Providence has a neighborhood school enrollment policy for general education students) and those outside your neighborhood that interest you. Open Schools week is 12
/5-12/8, as described on this PDF flier.

In an upcoming post, I'll revist and refresh thoughts about the value of visiting schools and how you can interpret and understand information about schools in our community. If you're curious now, check out the posts that share the labels I've given to past posts. You'll notice that in previous years, Kindergarten registration was much later in the year. It's fanstastic that registration is earlier now, and I hope that means that the process of assigning students and notifying families of those assignments will happen commensurately earlier as well. Last year (which was complicated due to the school closures), we received verification of my kindergartner's school assignment (MLK Elementary) at nearly the end of the school year. Here's hoping that families will find out much sooner and be that much less anxious during what should be an exciting time of transition.

Worries about what may happen aside, the earlier start to kindergarten registration is a great start toward improved operations. Way to go, PPSD!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bright Night's Got Talent! Excellent opportunity for young people to show their stuff.

I am happy to pass along a very cool opportunity for young performers to perform at Bright Night!  Visit for all of the details - here's a bit of what's happening:
Welcome to Bright Night’s Got Talent, where you could win the chance to perform at Bright Night Providence 2012!

There are four age groups - performers are allowed two minutes in the first round (December 10) and five minutes in the second round. This contest is open to groups and individuals. The dates for the contest are December 10, & 17, 2011. December 10 will be the preliminary round, and December 17 will be the semi-finals. Winners will be awarded a paid performance as part of Bright Night Providence on 12/31/2011.

Visit for all of the info, and share the word so that as many young people as possible have the opportunity to participate.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Education Opportunities Working Group report released

Quick post to share that the Mayor's Office released its Education Opportunities Working Group report on Monday afternoon at Veazie Street Elementary School. The report, Educate Providence, is available at for your perusal. I've downloaded the full 89 page report but have not yet read - will do, and would love thoughts from any of you who have had the time to dive in. What do the recommendations that resulted from the Education Opportunities Working Group's work mean for our city's schools immediately and long-term?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Alfie Kohn on the connections between play and learning

At the Coalition of Essential Schools' Fall Forum last week, Alfie Kohn and Deborah Meier conversed with each other and a room full of educators and students about the value and role of play in education. In "How children's 'play' is being sneakily redefined," Alfie shared his remarks from their session with the Washington Post's Answer Sheet.

The piece is well worth a read for all of us who are concerned about not only recess (a huge concern here in Providence and elsewhere) but also the ways the rigidly defined curriculum and schedules that confront our kids in school aren't necessarily creating the best conditions for teaching, learning, and allowing them to develop into their best selves.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Providence Schools and Beyond: unpaused!

After an extensive pause, today I’m hitting “play” on this blog, which I needed to put on ice for a few weeks in order to focus my energy completely on the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Fall Forum 2011, which took place last week. The shortest possible story about Fall Forum is: big success! I’ll be posting more extensively about Fall Forum and the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) in the near future.

But first, I want to share my own professional news. After working at CES for more than 12 years, which has been a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience, I have moved onto a new opportunity. I’m now the Director of Publications and Communications at Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR). ESR provides support and services to educators and school communities in areas that include secondary school redesign, school culture, social-emotional learning, and conflict resolution. I’m working on maintaining abd expanding ESR’s publications, developing an electronic product distribution strategy, and refining and expanding ESR’s communications capacity. I’m thrilled to be there and hope that what I learn can continue to inform my understanding of the opportunities and challenges that face public schools in Providence and beyond.

Blog, consider yourself unpaused. Away we go!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Teach-in: How Would Achievement First Impact Our Community? 10/19 7pm

Am surfacing from this month's blog break to let people know about an event of interest this week.

On Wednesday, October 19, from 7:00-9:00pm, the Coalition to Defend Public Education is sponsoring a teach-in entitled "How Would Achievement First Impact Our Community?" to offer a forum to discuss issues surrounding the soon-to-be-proposed Achievement First Mayoral Academy in Providence. Hear from parents, educators, community members, and others who will voice their concerns and discuss ideas for the way to truly improve and defend public education in Providence and in Rhode Island. The forum will be held at St. Michael's Church located at 239 Oxford Street in Providence.

Speakers will include Caroline Apgar, New Haven teacher and graduate of Teach for America, Jennifer Davey, Cranston parent, Tom Hoffman, blogger on education issues at and Providence parents and teachers.  For more information, contact the Coalition to Defend Public Education at 401-400-0373 or email

If you're on Facebook, there's an event page for the teach-in here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Blog break due to energies elsewhere + Coalition of Essential Schools' Fall Forum happening here!

As you have likely surmised from the lighter volume of posts lately, circumstances are preventing me from posting to this blog as often as I had or would prefer.

I regret this but do think that the circumstances are good for education in Providence, Rhode Island, and beyond. I am focusing my energy for the next month the Coalition of Essential Schools' Fall Forum 2011: A Conversation Among Friends, which is happening here in Providence at The Met School's Public Street campus on November 10-12. Who will be there? Adults and young people who believe that challenging learning for all students everyone can--and must--be infused not only with high standards but also with creativity, personal expression, learning from mistakes, relevance, exploration, and genuine passion.

This year's Fall Forum is going to be amazing - we'll have Deborah Meier and Alfie Kohn in conversation about the intersections between work, play and learning, Tony Estrella from the Gamm Theater leading theater workshop based on Hamlet's soliloquies, more than 100 workshops created by educators and students for educators and students, day-long visits to schools that are truly walking the walk of creating meaningful, academically challenging teaching and learning experience, and much more. I hope that you can join us. Visit for Fall Forum information, links to registration, and everything else.

Here's a special offer for Providence Schools and Beyond readers. The Coalition of Essential Schools is making the large endeavor of Fall Forum happen with a small staff, and we're seeking volunteers who will be able to attend Fall Forum for $100, a significantly reduced rate, in exchange for 6 hours of work. Most volunteer shifts will happen during the second week of November and, of course, the conference itself. You can download the Fall Forum 2011 volunteer flier here or email to let us know you'd like to volunteer to make Fall Forum happen. Feel free to spread the word about this; we have lots of interest in volunteer spots and a limited number of them. I'd love for some to go to local folks who want to connect with educators and students from around the country who will be in Providence to share what they know works best for our schools for the long haul.

So - I may pop in and post from time to time but don't count on anything regular until the second half of November.  In the meantime. please visit the links to the right, and for Providence education news particularly, read Tom Hoffman's Tuttle SVC, the ProJo's education coverage, WRNI's education blog, ESPEC's blog, whatever WSPEC is saying and doing, and keep your eye on Aaron Regunberg's columns in GoLocalProv - definitely do not miss his piece published today on Achievement First.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This Digital Life - October 2011's East Side Monthly Column

My education column in October's East Side Monthly focuses not on school but on learning as it happens throughout our lives--in this case, learning as a family about ways to live safely and confidently in the digital world. It's not yet online as I write this though it may be as you read this--click on the link back there in the previous sentence to see it in context once it's available, or keep reading.

This Digital Life 

Recently, our family traveled internationally. My kids left the country for the first time, a fantastic experience that allowed them to see the world from an alternative perspective, hear the business of daily life conducted in a different language, and, because we didn’t purchase international data plans for our phones, interact rather more than usual with their father and me. This unanticipated benefit revealed how habitually we tend to peek at email and other information served up on our little handheld devices. This is a real boon, as it untethers us from our desks, but it also chips away at sustained interactions with our kids—not to mention each other and the world around us—in ways of which I had not been particularly thoughtful.

Now that we’re back in Providence with data flowing freely, I’m incorporating aspects of lessons learned from our analog week to our daily lives. After absorbing the insight my inadvertent or intentional uses of interactive technology teach my kids about the role and value of technologically mediated communication, I’m committed to spending far less time and attention monitoring messages while we’re together. This, of course, increases my chances of thinking an uninterrupted thought, and one of those thoughts prompted me to wonder about the ways family members can learn from each other about our increasingly digital lives.

To get my head around this issue, I connected with local experts Trevor O’Driscoll, Wheeler Middle School’s dean and creator of Wheeler Middle School’s parent technology handbook, Anisa Raoof, founder and publisher of, and David Niguidula, educational technology researcher and founder of Ideas Consulting. In addition to their professional perspectives, they live what they learn: O’Driscoll, Raoof, and Niguidula are parents of kids ranging in age from preschool to college. Here are some of the takeaways:

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 93 percent of children in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 are online, and that online connection increasingly comes from any form of technology that has a screen. The days of using a desktop or laptop to get online are long past. For many parents and educators, this ubiquity of social media may make us feel like we’re at the fabulous hub of technological innovation—as Anisa Raoof put it, like “kids in a candy store.”

While this newly digital life feels tempting to many adults, it’s the native habitat of our kids. Many adults formed interpersonal and work habits without the current presence of ever-present connectivity.  Our kids are digital natives who can help us understand our world now, and in turn often need help understanding how to navigate it. Parents and teachers can help by “modeling good behavior,” says Raoof. “As parents we need to set boundaries for ourselves. What messages am I sending to them if I behave as if it’s okay to be online all the time? It’s extremely important to have boundaries that apply to everyone in the family.” The analogy of teaching kids about building lifelong healthy nutritional habits applies.

Henry and R2D2 IRL
At the same time, expressing interest in our kids’ online lives allows us to become more fluent in the online world’s opportunities and challenges and helps parents stay connected to our kids’ interests. All three experts strongly advocated situating online access in a family’s public spaces when possible in order to encourage family interaction as well as visibility. Raoff notes, “Putting the computer in kitchen works well for us. When my kids use it, we can have a discussion. I am right there and they are excited to share what they find with me.”

Online access made visible to parents also allows us to coach our kids to make good decisions about their technologically mediated interactions. The best filter, Trevor O’Driscoll suggests, is between a kid’s own ears rather than site blocking software, and that filter is best installed through family conversations. “First of all,” says O’Driscoll, “You have to know what kids are expected to do and want to do with technology. Adults in kids’ lives have to stay up to date and everyone needs to keep talking. If we never have the conversations with kids, then they have no guidelines. If your decision is to ban online access or install site blocking programs, that will backfire, because when you release them into the wild, which will happen sooner or later, they will have no concept about how to filter any of this independently.”

David Niguidula offers another useful analogy, suggesting that teaching kids about how to conduct healthy online lives is similar to teaching children to be safe drivers. He explains, “You’re in control of a machine that is very cool and gets you to places you want to go. The skills and understanding about how to work that machine doesn’t come automatically; adults need to teach levels of safety and consciousness. We want kids to have the ability and benefits, and that requires training and conversations about behavior and an awareness not only of your own actions bout also about what everyone else could do.”

Your family may already have agreements and ongoing conversations about your online lives. If your family is more like mine and could use some help thinking more coherently about the benefits and possible pitfalls of online interactions, here are a couple of resources: check out Common Sense Media at and the Family Online Safety Institute at In whatever way makes sense, you do take the time to talk with the people in your life about how to be smart digital citizens.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Providence Schools need a clear, equitable staffing plan

With her permission, I am posting a letter that Providence Public Schools parent Lorraine Lalli sent to Nina Pande, Acting President of the Providence School Board, cc-ed to all school board members and Superintendent Susan Lusi. Lorraine and I have kids who attend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, the school that she describes here.

The problem Lorraine outlines - that PPSD needs clear guidelines for school staffing - applies to all schools within the district. Please read Lorraine's letter and consider adding your own thoughts about ways to use resources as equitably as possible throughout our school system. The professionalism of King's principal, Derrick Ciesla, and the school's staff members go farther than one could ever expect to ensure good conditions for teaching and learning, but without appropriate staffing, the situation at King is precarious, and the situation is likely to repeat at other schools if we do not adopt and adhere to clear staffing guidelines.

Dear Ms. Pande,

I am writing to urge the Providence School Board to implement a staffing plan for Providence Public Schools that indicates clear guidelines about when a school needs the support of a second building administrator. This staffing plan is essential to ensure adequate staffing resources in the District's Elementary Schools.

Currently, my children attend the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School ("King"). This school was greatly impacted by the closing of other District schools at the end of last academic year. As a result, enrollment at King increased by about 25% (120 students) to over 620 pupils for the 2011-2012 academic year. When the School Board voted to close Windmill Elementary, it was explained that approximately 100+ students would be reassigned to King School. The determination of King's ability to service additional students from Windmill Elementary was at all times dependent upon an additional building administrator, namely an Assistant Principal, being assigned to the school to support a larger student body. This additional building administrator was never assigned. Resources saved from the closing of Windmill School failed to follow the impacted students as expected. As a result, King does not have adequate administrative staffing.

While I am sensitive to the budget realities of the Providence School District, I am disappointed by the failure to provide the administrative support necessary to ensure the success of the students at King School. While we currently have an unassigned teacher serving in the role of "Special Assistant to the Principal" this in unacceptable and inadequate support for our students. Highly-qualified professionals should be serving as administrative leaders in our buildings.

At this point in time, it appears that the District leadership is unwilling to make an affirmative statement about when a school should have additional administrative support. That is why I urge the Providence School Board to adopt guidelines for administrative staffing of schools. Best practices from the National Association of Elementary School Principals indicate that an assistant principal should be assigned where enrollment is over 400 students. Past District practice was to assign assistant principals where enrollment was over 500 students (i.e., Veazie Street Elementary). If the District is unwilling to assign administrate support where it is so clearly needed, then the School Board must establish a policy that dictates when an assistant principal is necessary.

The students of King School need the support of highly qualified teachers and administrators. While I have complete confidence in our Principal, Derrick Cielsa, additional administrative support is needed to service a school of our size. This week, I learned that one of our strongest building staff members, Reading Specialist Susan Martin, has been hired as an Assistant Principal at Woods-Young Elementary School. Ms. Martin has been at King for 11 years, providing essential support for the under-resourced King school above and beyond her assigned duties. The loss of Ms. Martin makes the need for additional administrative support at King even more urgent.

Some important factors to consider about King School:
  • Our current enrollment is well over 600 students. This includes two self-contained special education classrooms and an inclusion class at each grade level.
  • Since last year, we have an additional 120 students, increasing our student population by approximately 25%. Increases were heavier at the higher grades levels, with a doubling in size of the fourth and fifth grades.
  • We have 7 new faculty members, with at least one new faculty member in each grade from first to fifth. Our overall faculty size increased by over 10%.
  • Although we have met AYP, last year 30% of our students did not meet proficiency in reading and 53% were below proficiency in math. We must continue to make academic improvements and need the full support of the District to continue our progress.
  • The latest InfoWorks data indicates that 71% of our students qualified for free or reduced lunch.
  • Our school is over 80% diverse. We have the one of the highest (if not the highest) percentage of African-American students, at 40%.
As a parent, I urge the School Board to take a leadership position in defining adequate staffing levels for our elementary schools by adopting a staffing plan for the District's elementary schools.

Thank you,

Lorraine Lalli

Monday, September 19, 2011

City Council teachers contract hearings this week - please participate!

I am passing on a message from Karina Wood, executive director of Better Providence, about several important public education-related meetings happening this week. Please attend if you can and help spread the word. Thanks!

FYI, also from Better Providence, you can download and read the full text of the proposed teachers' contract here (PDF download).

From Karina:

It is super-important that lots of parents from all across Providence come to the following Council hearings and meetings this week at City Hall and speak out on the teachers contract.

Issues to raise could include: 
  • teacher hiring policy: is the Criterion-Based Hiring (interview) agreement in this contract null and void because all vacancies will be filled internally with the teachers who currently have no positions?
  • no recess time allocated in school day
  • abolition of site-based management
  • no parent-teacher meetings required in school year
  • school day lengthened by just 5 minutes this year and to just 15 mins in 3 years' time
  • no improvement in restoring art and music to our schools 
MONDAY, 9/19, 5:30pm: The Education Subcommittee Hearing is at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19, City Hall, 3rd floor, on TEACHER HIRING PRACTICES as codified in the new teachers contract. Public comment will be taken. Parents and all PVD residents are encouraged to attend, express your views and ask questions.

TUESDAY, 9/20, 5:00pm: Council Finance Committee meets, 3rd floor conference room, City Hall -- Council's Internal Auditor will present FISCAL AUDIT OF THE NEW TEACHERS CONTRACT.

WEDNESDAY, 9/21, 5:30pm: PUBLIC HEARING ON THE TEACHERS CONTRACT, City Council Chambers, 3rd Floor, City Hall. Parents and all PVD residents encouraged to give public comment.

If you can only come on one night, the most important one is the PUBLIC HEARING on the Teachers Contract on WEDNESDAY, 9/19, 5:30pm.

Please let me know if you are able to come and please forward this information to others.


Friday, September 16, 2011

Help Save Central Falls' Library! Adams Memorial Library Gala, September 30

Please join my friends from Leadership Rhode Island and many others at Central Falls' Adams Memorial Library Gala on September 30 at 6:30pm. It's going to be a fabulous night for a cause that could  not be better. As Central Falls struggles financially, services are being cut and its library is at immediate risk of closing. Here's some of what you will enjoy at the Gala and ways to help:
The Fundraiser will be held on Friday, September 30, 2011 at the Adams Memorial Library, 205 Central Street in Central Falls. The evening will begin at 6:30PM with live entertainment by Steve Palumbo, music by Broad Street Ceilli Band featuring members of Pendragon & Freinds, hors d'oeuvres by Tom's Market, open bar from Bartending by Dennis, special appearances by Big Nazo and Ten 31 Productions, and an opportunity to bid at our Silent Auction with items from local businesses and artists. We are asking our immediate and expanded community to support this event by becoming a donor to our silent auction.

Visit the Adams Memorial Library Gala web page for the full line up of fun, and please do what you can to lend your support. Please join us to preserve a safe spot for learning and literacy!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Never stop learning: grad school job fair in Providence, 9/20

I'm passing and fully endorsing a suggestion from my friend Kath Connolly, who suggests that you consider visiting's graduate school fair, happening September 20 in Providence.
And here's some words from Kath on why you should go if you have any inkling that graduate education might be in your future, and why you should help spread the word:, an organization which is near and dear to my heart, is having one of its AMAZING free Grad Fairs in Providence next week. Representatives from 70 different grad school programs that some how are connected to doing good will convene in Providence on Sept. 20 to talk with anyone who is interested about their programs. I've been to these events a few times and it is a really interesting mix of education, policy, advocacy, research, etc. and a wide range of content areas. It is a great way for folks who are not even sure about grad school, but are doing some soul searching about career paths and next steps. It is really interesting to walk around a room with so many different options and think about what feels resonant. 
Here are the particulars: Grad Fair
Sept 20
5-8 pm
Brown University, Andrews Dining Hall
Brown Street and Cushing Streets, Providence

Thanks for the heads-up, Kath!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Volunteer Opportunity: Inspiring Minds' early elementary literacy initiative

In the September 2011 issue of East Side Monthly, I wrote about the powerful work that Inspiring Minds (formerly Volunteers in Providence Schools) is doing to improve early elementary students' literacy skills in a very big way across Providence. The link to the article online is here, and a version of it is below. Read one, read both - and then appreciate the teachers and adults in your life who made it possible to do so and consider seriously whether you can contribute an hour a week to make a real difference in a young person's life and learning.


Hey, you. Yes, you, reading this column right now. I’m about to ask you to channel your general good will toward children and your belief that education has the power to transform us individually and collectively into action. Misanthropes should flip the page. There’s nothing here for you.   

Have the cynics moved on? Excellent. For the rest of you, I have a specific proposal: go back to school. The best thing you can do to support meaningful teaching and learning is to spend time inside a school on a regular basis. It’s the only real way to comprehend the opportunities and challenges that confront schools and the people who work and learn in them. A perennially red-hot topic of public discourse, education actually quite difficult to talk about because so many of us already feel saturated with information about schools. We constantly see portrayals of schools in our media. Most of us have put in plenty of time as students. Many of us are currently or have recently been parents of schoolchildren. A healthy number of us have worked in or with schools at some point in our careers. 

The evidence that a thoughtful person can glean from these exposures is meaningful, but it’s not enough to understand the specific challenges of teaching and learning in today’s schools. Schools of all sorts have changed enormously since many of us spent time in them as students. Most parents have some sort of contact with their kids’ schools that generally happens during the trailing edges of the day or one-off events designed specifically to welcome visitors. The only real way to understand the opportunities and challenges that today’s students and educators face is to be with them as often as you reasonably can. 

By dint of reading this column, you have definitively established your bona fides as a non-cynical person who cares about young people, but you may nonetheless be thinking that I am asking quite a lot of you. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that you drop everything and start hanging out at your neighborhood school. Please, don’t do that. I am suggesting that you consider volunteering with Inspiring Minds (formerly and sometimes still known as Volunteers in Providence Schools, or VIPS) for an hour or two a week helping Providence’s early elementary schoolchildren to become proficient readers by third grade. Without any prior training or skills--with simply the desire to show up on a consistent basis--you can help ensure that children that you work with have the skills they need to become lifelong learners.   

I talked with Executive Director of Inspiring Minds Terri Adelman about “The Time is Now: Proficiency in Reading and Math by Third Grade,” Inspiring Minds’ flagship program that is committed to focusing the powerful resource of adults who are willing to spend time with kids in kindergarten through third grade working on literacy and math skills. Describing the purpose of the program, Adelman said, “Study after study shows that for lifelong academic success, it really matters that kids know how to read by third grade. Until then, their work is to learn, but after third grade, that kids need to use their literacy skills to gain critical knowledge and information. So learning to read by third grade is essential so that our kids are able to do well in school and graduate as well-educated citizens.”   

Driven by the conviction that the best use of its resources--primarily the human resources of volunteers--is to ensure that all early learners are getting the help and support that they need, Inspiring Minds focuses on younger elementary school children Inspiring Minds aims to accelerate the learning of those young students who need extra support. Working in collaboration with the Providence Public Schools in ten elementary schools, the program pairs volunteers with students who have been identified as likely to benefit from added support. During this school year, Inspiring Minds aims to match 800 students with volunteers, who receive training and ongoing support. In future years, Adelman hopes to expand the “The Time Is Now” program to reach students in every elementary school citywide. 

Inspiring Minds volunteers work with students two to three times a week, though individual volunteers can be one member of a team and therefore spend time with the child with whom they are matched once a week. More hours are great, but not necessary. The impact of volunteers’ work is powerful: data collected during prior implementations of the program demonstrate that children who participate in “The Time is Now” program learn 30 percent faster than their peers who don’t get extra help.

An hour a week. Maybe two. I know how hard it is to find that kind of time, I really do, and I acknowledge that not all of us have it. But just consider the clear impact that an hour or two per week working on reading and math with eager young learners can have not only on them but also on you. If the commitment really is too much, and I can understand why for some it may well be, I still urge you to contact Inspiring Minds to offer your help. There are ways that you can participate in the life of a school less intensively, and the organization itself needs support so it can continue to thrive. 

For many of us, the good karma alone is likely enough. In case you need more, you’ll have the opportunity to spend time in a school gaining insight into the lives of teachers and students today that you can get in no other way. We need more citizens with that insight.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Welcome to Mamapedia readers!

Hi to all, new readers from Mamapedia, which today features "Heading to Kindergarten," a version of the starting kindergarten post I shared here recently. And to returning readers, too, of course. Thanks, nice people at Mamapedia!

"Heading to Kindergarten" refers to a photo of my son Elias that didn't make it onto the page, so here he is! Rather, here he was - this little kindergarten kid is now a tall, confident sixth grader starting middle school.

If you're wondering what's up with no recent posts here: getting three boys ready for and launched into the school year plus, you know, life/work/everything has been what's up. It's been one of those weeks when the business of actually having kids in school has expanded into any available time to write about school.

New posts are coming on subjects that will include the recent education goings-on here in Providence and beyond, helping kids stay organized and motivated in the face of homework, transportation policies and kids' safety, making family decisions about thoughtful interactive technology use, and more.

Friday, August 26, 2011

First Day of School - Wednesday, August 31 (hurricane delay!)

So, turns out my kids might have been a little bit right when they predicted that the first day of school wouldn't happen due to Hurricane Irene. Just got a call from PPSD saying that the first day of school is not Tuesday, August 30. It's now Wednesday, August 31, with a make up day scheduled for Friday, January 20, 2012, a day already set aside for make up.

Stay safe, everyone.

Messer Elementary School at Bridgham: Help Needed Monday, 8/29

Judi Jeroslow, West Side Public Education Coalition volunteer, passed on this request for help on Monday, August 29 to get Messer Elementary School at the Bridgham school building ready for the first day of school. Happy to share it! From Judi:
As we enter into the weekend, I want to put out a call for anyone who can lend a hand on Monday, August 29th, at the Bridgham school building (1655 Westminster Street). We'll be planting plants and flowers, painting classroom numbers on the pavement outside, and hanging maps and mascots around the building. If you have a free hour or two and want to help out, please let me know. School starts Tuesday and we're hoping to make it easier for those little kids to navigate around that big huge building on their first day of school. Thanks! 
p.s. If anyone has a pickup truck and is willing to help haul soil, please let me know!
If you can help or have resources to contribute, please contact Judi via email or post a comment here and I'll pass it on.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Providence Public Schools first day: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 (but will be we UNDERWATER and BLOWN AWAY???)

Leo making the academic magic happen on the first day of school.
Sometimes I peek at the stats to find out what brought people to this blog. #1 on the search terms for the past few days: variations on "first day of school Providence."

The first day of school for the Providence Public Schools is Tuesday, August 30. You can go to the Providence Public Schools website at and download a 2011-2012 school year calendar, a PDF in English and Spanish versions.

We're shifting into back to school mode this weekend: shopping for new sneakers, getting haircuts, washing backpacks, getting those last pages of summer reading done, procuring school supplies. I'm in an "all systems go" mindset, though my kids are starting to suggest that Hurricane Irene's impending arrival will cancel the first day of school. This is, apparently, a topic of wild speculation among the elementary and middle school set as they face down the first day of school from the feral camaraderie of the last week of summer camp. "But mom, EVERYONE says that there will be no school on Tuesday because we will be UNDERWATER and the schools are all going to BLOW AWAY!!!" Okay, kids.

As previously noted, PPSD has brought in extra logistical and planning support to ensure the easiest possible first day for all, an idea that seems especially fortuitous now that the first day of school may indeed coincide with the aftermath of Irene which is getting many in addition to my kids and their goofy friends all wound up--or, rather, keeping us all wound up after this week's seismic shakeup. The earthquake that rattled many schools in and around Virginia and Colorado on their first day of the new academic year triggered thousands of communities in the mid-Atlantic states up through New England to inspect buildings and review disaster planning, so perhaps this can been seem as lucky timing.

Here's hoping that despite the shakes and storms that nature is throwing at us, Providence and other communities are prepared and ready, with a focus on safety for everyone.