Monday, February 28, 2011

Moving out of reaction and into action

I haven't been among those spilling much digital ink about the extraordinary circumstances that have unfolded since the evening of Tuesday, February 22, when Mayor Taveras announced that all of Providence's 1,926 teachers would all be receiving dismissal notices effective at the end of the school year. There's been newsy and bloggy coverage, of course. For the latter, I suggest you check out Tuttle SVC and Both local blogs have been usefully and thoughtfully sharing news and analysis.

Last week was February break for all three of my kids and for the first couple of days, we were on a vacation and they were front and center in my world. We returned from a few days away directly into the news that the city plans to terminate all teachers. When I wasn't working and/or being with my kids, I was connecting with PPSD parent and teacher friends (including PPSD parents who are PPSD teachers) to try to make some sense out of what's happening. As part of the district's Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), I participated in a briefing with Superintendent Brady on Thursday morning; the notes we took to share with PTOs district-wide are here. The MLK Elementary School PTO has put the notes on its blog here (same notes, different location). The PAC is also working on organizing a city-wide conversation among parents in response to this situation and in order to be proactive about standing up for our kids' education in the face of what is yet to come. With other neighborhood parents, I've been planning a community meeting to discuss the terminations and next steps of school closing and program cuts with the four East Side PTOs (MLK Elementary, Vartan Gregorian Elementary, Nathan Bishop Middle School, and Hope High School) which will happen at King on Wednesday evening, and which was written up today the ProJo's news blog (not sure why; here it is). And I chose to shelve the column I was going to do for April's East Side Monthly in order to write about parent and teacher reactions to the terminations, which I will share with you as soon as I finish it.

So, it's been busy with all of that and the usual business of living life, which included our clothes dryer catching on fire just a little bit over the weekend. Super-exciting. We're fine and already enjoying a lovely new dryer* which is really great as I am a devoted practitioner of laundry as stress reliever.

And now it's Monday--what remains of Monday--and this blog is back in nearly daily business. I'll share as much as I can from my perspective as a public school parent who wants the very best for all kids in all schools in our city; who supports teachers and celebrates their commitment, expertise, and dedication to our children; who wants stability and forward progress for teaching and learning in our schools; who is working to understand the magnitude of the financial challenges that Providence is facing; and who seeks responses that are possible, fair, and the least damaging to the most vulnerable among us.

The first action: be present for my kids. I suggest this to all parents who have the capacity to make it happen. I heard from a number of teachers today on the elementary level that some kids were really shaken by this news, dissolving into tears in class, full of anxiety that their teachers and/or their schools would not be here anymore. Those teachers are pros, and helped their kids get settled and centered, and the day went on. And that's exactly the point: for a lot of kids, their teachers and their school are among the few points of stability they might have. Family and neighborhood circumstances might be unpredictable or chaotic. For many kids and the neighborhoods that they live in, the consistency of a school community is a tremendous benefit, and the thought that it could disappear is frightening.

I think our home life is fairly stable. I also think that my kids are likely to pick up on the angst and stress that's in the air. Look at how I spent my time in the past week--how could they not? So I am reminded to be calm, be reassuring, and keep things as fun and cool as possible at home so that they can go to school as their strongest, most confident selves and be there to be strong for their friends who might be having a really hard time with this. So for now, while everything else is happening, that's the action that I feel really good about.


* Totally uncompensated and unpromoted shop local note: this lovely new dryer came to us just 48 hours after the last one burned out from Atomic Appliance on Wickenden Street. If you're anywhere nearby and have need of a major appliance, shop there for better prices and service all around.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Notes from Providence Parent Advisory Council Meeting with Superintendent Brady, 2/24/11

On February 24, 2011, Providence Public Schools Superintendent Tom Brady and Chief Communications Officer Kim Rose and Director of Family and Community Engagement Janet Pichardo met with Parents Advisory Council (PAC) representatives Robin Adams, Dawn Clifton, Michelle McKenzie, Carmel McGill, and Jill Davidson to discuss the district’s proposal, which has since been confirmed by School Board vote on the evening of February 24, to dismiss all Providence Public School teachers. These notes were compiled by PAC members in attendance and are being circulated to parents to help share information about the developing situation.

These points paraphrase Superintendent Brady’s remarks; they are not interpretations or opinions of PAC members in attendance.
  • The results emerging from the Mayor’s blue ribbon task force on Providence finances indicate a dire financial situation; $40 million budget deficit for PPSD. Personnel costs are 85% of the school district budget so there must be cuts to reduce expenses. This is an unprecedented situation.
  •  Teachers need notice by 3/1 but there’s no final budget at this time. Noticing all teachers seems fairer than guessing at what the needs and resources might be. Within 60 days, the district will rescind the dismissal letter for most of the 1,935 teachers (this is the number that Superintendent Brady specified during the meeting; media reports have placed the number of Providence teachers at 1,926).
  • All staff positions will be affected by this, not just teachers. Notice to teachers came first because of March 1 deadline. Other budget considerations come next: staff entitlements such as co-pays, stipends, furlough days, etc.; financial district’s long term debt; school closings; class size, efficiencies, e.g. transportation. PPSD is already doing much of this. 
  • Clarity that this is a dismissal letter, not a layoff letter. Layoff letters issued to hundreds of teachers in the past came with a built- in legal requirement that those teachers would be brought back at some point. That is not the case with dismissal letters. However, dismissed teachers can compete for open positions through criterion based hiring. School closures and program changes in schools remaining open will affect how many teachers will come back.
  • Re school closings: under normal circumstances, there is a requirement to have community meetings, 6-8 month process. In this case, a shorter timeline is required since the changes are targeted for September. PPSD has a desire to have meetings and open hearings within this shorter timeframe. Persistently low achieving schools will be addressed first; these positions will be posted.   
  • In response to questions about how families will make decisions about which kindergarten to choose given the uncertainty about which schools will be open, Brady acknowledged challenging circumstances for parent choice of schools in terms of elementary registration as well as middle and high school assignments. PPSD will work with families who have chosen schools that will be closed on a case-by-case basis to reassign to other schools.
  • In response to questions about how teachers are being informed, we were informed there was a meeting with principals yesterday (Wednesday, 2/23/11), and will be a meeting with teachers this afternoon (Thursday, 2/24/11).
  • Refer to Mayor Taveras’ statement: ( and PPSD statement that they’re working on—Kim Rose will send out (as of Sunday, February 27, PAC members have not yet received this statement from PPSD).

Monday, February 21, 2011

There IS school in Providence on Monday, March 7

Quick post from vacationland. No school this week for the kids, went with the kids to NYC today to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, was fabulous and on top of much of interest--including the local angle that the Intrepid was decommisioned in Rhode Island at Quonset Point--it was Star Wars day and Henry was multo excited.

That's where my head is at. Hate for too many days to pass without posting here, and have been meaning to post since Thursday night that PPSD has decided that Monday, March 7 will be a school day for kids. It had originally been slated as a teachers-only professional development day but that's no more. Smart move to try to make up a bit of ground lost to all of those snow days. So un-mark your calendars accordingly.

More soon!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Speak up for AmeriCorps

In the March edition of East Side Monthly, I wrote about the teaching and learning that's happening at Mt. Hope Learning Center as a result of thoughtful deployment of 15 dedicated AmeriCorps team members. The issue is out and about in the neighborhood now, and I'll republishing it here with a link to the online edition soon.

As I researched the story, I was able to learn about the powerful contributions that AmeriCorps team members make to children and their families in the Mt. Hope neighborhood, and the multiplied impact of AmeriCorps nationwide. The AmeriCorps educators work with students and their teachers at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School's Mt. Hope Learning Center-affiliated afterschool program, providing extended learning, academic support, mentoring, and fun. They work with other young people and their families in the neighborhood, developing innovative, sustainable youth development programs for adolescents and young adults. They're a powerful asset to our community.

That's why I was so disturbed to learn the following, from
Starting on Monday, February 14, the U.S. House of Representatives will begin consideration of a Continuing Resolution that will fund the last 7 months of Fiscal Year 2011. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers has announced that the bill will immediately cut $100 billion from the federal budget. Major news outlets including TIME, AP and others have reported that the bill will eliminate funding for programs of the Corporation for National and Community Service, including AmeriCorps. We know the Republican Study Committee wants to cut deeper, and has proposed to shutdown the whole agency and all service programs.
There's more here and here including talking points and the suggestion that you call your U.S. Representative's office to request that s/he vote no on any proposal to eliminate funding for AmeriCorps or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Eliminating AmeriCorps creates damage and destruction to communities. It's a false savings that will exacerbate unemployment and distress in under-resourced communities. So, please do this. If you're my neighbor, call David Cicilline's office at 202-225-4911. If you're elsewhere, visit to look up your U.S. Representative's office number. The whole process, from looking up the number to talking with the pleasant staffer in Cicilline's office, took less than five minutes. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Providence City Council teachers contract hearings, 2/17 and 2/22

Karina Wood, Interim Executive Director of the nonpartisan citizens' initiative BetterProvidence, has passed on information about the hearings that the Providence City Council is holding this week to gather information about the contract between the Providence Teachers Union and the Providence Public Schools. Here's Karina's announcement:
The contract with the Providence Teachers Union has a major effect on the cost of education in Providence and on the policies and practices by which our children learn in the classroom. The contract need to be renewed by August, 2011.

This Thursday, February 17 at 4:30 p.m., at City Hall, the City Council’s Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee is inviting the lead contract negotiators to present the goals they have for the upcoming negotiations. Superintendent Tom Brady, Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith, and Providence School Board President Kathy Crain have been invited to make presentations and take questions from the committee.
The public is invited and welcomed to attend. Please come if you can.
Ed Fitzpatrick wrote about the upcoming teachers contract hearings in today's ProJo, with a focus on City Council member Sam Zurier, who initiated the hearings. The ProJo's Alisha Pina also reported this story last week.

This is a unique opportunity to learn more about the union and district's aims and expectations, which will have a tremendous impact both on the ways Providence spends money not only on salaries but much more, and on the ways teachers can spend their time as professionals working toward the best possible learning outcomes for our kids. It's also a chance, as time permits, for you to offer your perspective as a citizen about the ways resources can and should be used to create the best conditions for teaching and learning in our city's public schools.
There will be a second teachers contract hearing on Tuesday, February 22 at 7:00 p.m.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rhode Island Public Charter School Consortium, March 2: Kozol speaking + more

The Rhode Island League of Charter Schools is hosting the 2011 Rhode Island Public Charter School Consortium, which will take place from 3:30-7:30pm on March 2 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. Writer/education activist Jonathan Kozol will speak. Dinner, a cash bar, a Rhode Island charter school expo will follow, and Mr. Kozol will sign his books.

The consortium is sponsored by the Rhode Island Foundation, which is using the occasion to give an award named for past Rhode Island education commissioner Peter McWalters to Steve Nardelli, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools.

I'm eager to hear Mr. Kozol speak and am using the event as a push to re-read of The Shame of the Nation and to read Letters to a Young Teacher for the first time. Here's a link to a thoughtful interview in Salon with Kozol on Letters to a Young Teacher. Go to your local independent bookstore to pick up copies of those books and other Kozol works.  

An outspoken critic of No Child Left Behind as an example of policies and practices that exacerbate de facto segregation and inequity, Kozol is no fan of current federal education policy. He attracted significant notice in 2007 by embarking on a hunger strike in protest of NCLB; here's his statement about the hunger strike and his motivations. He's strongly opposed to the use of high-stakes standardized tests as a main factor of what school systems use to determine the fates of individual children, their teachers, and their schools, a cornerstone of NCLB and a subject of much recent debate in our state. So of course, I am intrigued about what his keynoting this event may signify about our state's charter school association's stance in relation to the Fed's current strong charter push as a central component of public school improvement. Will Kozol address the charter debate that's happening now in Rhode Island, in which Governor Chafee called for a thoughtful pause before continuing to add charter schools as stipulated in Rhode Island's federal Race to the Top funds? Will he acknowledge the range of ways charter schools can contribute to real change as exemplified by the partnership that The Learning Community has with the Central Falls School District aimed at improving elementary reading achievement? Will he address the limits to the idea that charter school expansion is the most magical bullet to large-scale school improvement? Lots of questions.

I also hope that this event will inspire the Rhode Island Department of Education and other statewide agencies and organizations to showcase strong examples of practice across Rhode Island's district public schools. This sort of event, sponsored by local funders, seems like an ideal way to share practices across districts, demonstrate to the public some of the real strengths of public schools across the state, and get stakeholders together to focus on persistent challenges. Count me in to lend a hand.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Providence Children's Film Festival - coming soon!

Image from Providence Children's Film Festival entry "Summer Wars"
Featuring children's films and related workshops, the Providence Children's Film Festival will take place February 17-22.

The variety of films for different age groups and interests is extensive; check out the offering and take advantage of this event happening here in Providence. And tell me all about it, please. We are out of town* for nearly the whole festival, which is bumming me out as I'd love to take the kids and be a part of this energy and focus on film making, imagination, art, and storytelling.

* For any one who is reading this for tips on empty houses to rob: first of all, good for you for reading a blog on education! I commend you. Secondly, not all of us will be out of town; sorry to disappoint. Thirdly, we may have one or more of the following deterrents in force: guard dog, attack cat, a frighteningly loud alarm system, an ice moat, cauldrons of boiling oil ready to stop invaders in their tracks, and interior trip wires that will release poison arrows. Do not say you where not warned.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

PPSD middle school curriculum correction

I recently posted a version of my most recent East Side Monthly education column on Nathan Bishop Middle School. The blog post that reproduces the article is here. Since then, I heard from Theresa Fox, a seventh grade English teacher at Bishop, who wanted to share her thoughts and clarify a point that I made about middle school curriculum in the Providence Public Schools. I had stated
Clearly, it’s too soon to use long-term indicators such as high school graduation rates to determine whether the district’s newly implemented curriculum—which is the same at all of Providence public middle schools except for Nathanael Greene Middle School’s Advanced Academics program—will produce the results needed to close existing achievement gaps and propel all students to success in high school and beyond.
Ms. Fox corrected my statement that Nathanael Greene does not have a different curriculum than the other Providence public middle schools, and I am grateful for her clarification. Her entire response, which I believe will be printed in East Side Monthly's March edition, appears below. A few more thoughts from me follow her letter.
To the Editor:

I enjoyed reading Jill Davidson's recent piece about Nathan Bishop Middle School ("An Enviable Choice: A Look Inside Nathan Bishop," February, 2011) and her decision to possibly have her son attend next year.

I am thrilled to be teaching at Bishop and to be a part of such a vibrant and positive educational community.  Wonderfully supportive administrators, creative and energetic faculty and staff, supportive and engaged parents, and a diverse student body make for a truly exciting environment in which to teach and learn and it seems to get better each week.  At Bishop, I can help a student craft a piece of fiction that makes me wish I'd written it myself, watch excitedly as another masters his first "perfect paragraph," enjoy cafeteria table conversation in a mix of French, Haitian Creole, Arabic, and English with newcomers from Haiti, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Iraq, have a conversation a with student who reads The Economist for fun, and guide students through research about events they'd recently discovered in the history of their home country, the Dominican Republic.  In short, I agree with Ms. Davidson that it is an exciting addition to the list of school choices.

Before coming to Bishop, I taught at Nathanael Greene Middle School for 18 terrific years, half of those years in the Advanced Academic Program, and I served on the district's curriculum writing committee for a year, so I feel somewhat qualified to question one bit of her piece, however.

She mentions that the district's "newly implemented the same at all Providence public middle schools, except for Nathanael Greene's Advanced Academics program."  I did not know that this misperception was out there in the community, as, in fact, there is no special curriculum for the AA program--nor has there ever been one.  The curriculum is actually the same for all middle schools in all subjects--except for advanced math courses, into which students are scheduled according to placement test scores.  It is, and has always been, up to individual teachers or teams of teachers in the AA program (as in any classroom) to differentiate curriculum according to student needs, interests, and abilities.

Ms. Davidson's implication that a "policy-driven district program" exists with an AA curriculum at Greene is simply false and creates a false set of criteria for choice between schools.  I think parents should know this as they make decisions about their children's education.

Theresa Fox
Grade 7 English teacher

Nathan Bishop Middle School
Again, I am really grateful to Ms. Fox for her perspective and for correcting my misunderstanding. As I told her in email, I do think that that it's fair to say that Greene's Advanced Academics offering is a "policy-driven district program." It is offered to students as such. I need to understand more about the actual PPSD policy/policies that create the opportunity for academically advanced programs; I guess it's possible that such offerings exist in practice with no policy underpinnings. But Greene's program does exist and is promoted to students as a distinct experience, which I now know is the result of educator initiative within the standard curriculum framework.

Thank you, Ms. Fox! And thanks to everyone for the feedback I've received on the East Side Monthly columns. It's so valuable and much appreciated.

Monday, February 7, 2011

"Why Aren't Parents Rioting in the Streets?"

NYC public school parent Rebecca Levey asks, "Why aren't parents rioting in the streets?" Her post, and a slightly different version of the same that appeared in Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet in the Washington Post online edition, provides specific examples of why New York City students, educators and families have been, in her view, ill-used, abused, and lied to.

Is it a call to arms? I'm not sure. I'm not there and while the specific instance that pushed her over the edge is indeed egregious, so are so many other instances of inequitable treatment in NYC and elsewhere. Ms. Levey's voice joins those on other forums, such as the NYC Public School Parents blog, Leonie Haimson's Class Size Matters, and Gotham Schools, that passionately detail what's not working in the NYC public school system and what parents and the public can do to demand and create change.

Toward the end of her piece, Ms. Levey asks what many of us have often asked herself:
I used to joke about a city where private school was not an option. How quickly would the schools change if those with the most power to change them had to be part of the system? 
No joke, Ms. Levey. I want all of us to have options to send our kids where we think is best - and among those options must be a range of strong, supportive, thriving public schools.

And related: a parent/family group worth keeping an eye on, and joining, is Parents Across America, which has gathered a strong group of activists from across the United States to assert the primacy of parents in education policy and practice. Their kickoff event featuring Diane Ravitch is happening right now in NYC. Right on. Wish I could be there. Maybe someday, Providence Schools and Beyond might be a part of such a national conversation and movement.

Race to Nowhere Screening at Brown, March 6

Race to Nowhere, a documentary about the high-stress achievement culture that characterizes many schools in the United States, will be playing at Brown University on March 6. You can buy tickets online here. I haven't seen the film but have wanted to for some time. I'm grateful for the opportunity to see it in Providence.

My interest in seeing this film rests in my hope that it explores the distinction between deep, meaningful, life-improving, skill-building, habit-of-mind developing learning and surface, rote, standardized-test-satisfying learning that many worry is increasingly occupying students' and teachers' time and energy. I'll report back, and if anyone has seen Race to Nowhere already and wants to comment, please do.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Providence Public Schools Elementary Schools Open Schools Week

Time for one more quick post before my kids' school bus arrives:

Providence Public Schools Elementary Open Schools Week is next week, February 7-11. Click on the image of the flier to the left for the address, phone and website of each PPSD elementary school.

I recommend that you call the schools prior to stopping by. I can only speak for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School for sure, but I know that we'd love to be able to greet you and help you see the school in a way that will make good use of your time. We'll have parents and school staff able to greet people in the morning at 9:30, and we also encourage you to sign up for an upcoming open house/tour. MLK's upcoming tour dates are 2/15 at 6:30pm, 3/4 at 9:30am and 3/18 at 9:30am.  Interested families should call the school office at 456-9398 to register or you can email me at jill(dot)davidson(at)gmail(dot)com.

I'll be sharing more information soon about elementary school registration. For an general overview of registration dates and basic info, click here.

The Learning Community Open House 2/15, 5:30-7pm (rescheduled)

"So much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it." Willy Wonka aptly decribes the last couple of days and re this blog, so much time so little to post, wait, reverse.

And post I will but at this moment, I just have a moment to share an update from The Learning Community charter school about its rescheduled open house that I mentioned in my quick rundown of upcoming charter school open houses. The Learning Community's open house will be on February 15, 5:30-7:00pm. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Providence-area charter school open houses: a not-comprehensive post

I am gathering info about the various charter school open houses that are happening in/around Providence this week, and thought I'd share, in case anyone else is seeking same. This isn't comprehensive, as you will soon see; I'm looking just at the five charter schools that accept kindergarten students from Providence, and am in middle of gathering info*. There are other charters, of course - see the current list at the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools for the full rundown.

A few of these open houses have had to be rescheduled already due to the horrible weather. I would check directly with the schools about all of the following info to make sure that these dates/times are actually a go.
  • The Learning Community: tomorrow! Thursday, February 3, 8:30-10:00am. Nope - will be rescheduled due to 2-hour delay due to bad road conditions. If I can make it whenever it's going to be rescheduled,  Reschedule! Tuesday, February 15, 5:30-7:00pm.  plan to be there.
  • Paul Cuffee School: Tuesday, February 8, 6:00-7:00pm. I hope to be there.
  • Highlander Charter School: Saturday, February 5, 10:00am-12:00pm
  • International Charter School: no open house listed on website, which says to contact the school to set something up. I will call tomorrow and will share whatever info I get. Open houses are Friday, February 11 at 6:00pm and Saturday, 2/12 at 10:00am.
  • Times2 Academy: Open house/info session already happened. Perhaps there will be another? I will call.
Important dates at all of them vary - applications aren't due at the same time nor are lotteries on the same day. Check with each school for specifics.

I would love, love, really love to hear any thoughts or impressions that visiting families have had about these schools - and others, of course. Please share - it's so useful, especially for those families that might be interested but can't get to the open houses or to the school for a tour.

*For those who might know my family's situation: our two oldest kids have been doing very well at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, a public school in Providence, and I expect that our third kid, due to enter kindergarten in the fall, will go to King as well. That said, I sure do owe it to him to be aware of options, and to think carefully about the best opportunity for him. Given the competition for charters, a seat at any one of these five may not actually be an opportunity, but I am looking and thinking about it nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

snow day--->snow week

I didn't post earlier because there was a snow day today, and I just learned there's a snow day tomorrow. I am not second guessing PPSD's decision to close schools either day. I don't have the info the decision makers there have nor do I know all the factors. Nevertheless, as I've described previously, I worry.

I worry about the learning loss that's happening. When I was fretting on Facebook earlier today about this, my friend Robyn, who teaches kindergarten, commented that January is usually a great month for learning and momentum for her kids, but not this January due to all of the interruptions.

I worry about kids being safe, warm, and fed. I don't know how many kids rely on breakfast and lunch at school, but I know there are such kids at every public school in Providence and many other towns. I don't know how many kids live in homes struggling to keep the heat on, but I know they're out there. I hope those families are getting what they need and that all of us are finding ways to help. One way is to make a donation to Keep the Heat On, a heating assistance fund that's a project of Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.

And I worry about families that must be scrambling for childcare as parents and other caregivers figure out how to get to work.

This is not to say that we should be asking teachers to hit the roads when conditions are awful, or put kids on buses, or ask them to walk what are often long distances, or to ask families to risk bad road conditions to drive kids to school. A parking ban, to allow plows to go through, is necessary, and that's enough to prevent teachers from parking at many schools. It is what it is, and what it is is a necessary evil and a frustrating situation for many.

Okay, enough winter whining. Onward.