Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown CT school shooting

Sporadic posting here is a consequence of my workload, which has been intense. However, I am now totally distracted and upset by the school shooting that happened today in Newtown, CT. My immediate and wild worries were on behalf of my sister, who teaches at Newtown High School. That this horrible event happened at an elementary school and not the high school made me worry less about my sister (though I cannot even imagine what her students and fellow teachers are going through) but it's still terrible--not even sure how terrible. I am listening to live feed from Hartford's NBC station and the situation is still unclear, other than us knowing that someone came into Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire at 9:30 this morning.

My thoughts are mostly still with families and teachers in Newtown. Perhaps I feel this more acutely than reports of other school shootings through the years because of my sister, and because I am from Brookfield, one of the towns that borders Newtown. But I am also feeling it because at 9:30 this morning, I was at my own kids' elementary school to give a tour to prospective parents. I sat in the lobby and watched people come in and out, most of them buzzed in by the watchful office staff, but not all. I was thinking then that it's so easy to come in and out of the building; just follow someone else who is entering. At that time of day, adults are coming in to schools at a rapid clip, and not all are known to school staff, however watchful they may be. I had no idea how relevant my idle school safety thoughts would be when I got back into my car at 10:45 and heard a report about this horrible tragedy on the radio.

And the aftermath...I would guess that all districts have some sort of emergency management plan to deal with this. But as a parent, I am not sure what ours is. I cannot even really get my head around something like this happening at my kids' school. I can't go there. But when I think about what would happen afterward, the idea that you cannot immediately get to your kids and make sure they're okay is terrifying. I hope that one good thing that comes out of this is an increased awareness of what we, as parents, should do if God forbid something happened.

My heart goes out to everyone affected by this. And even as I write, I just heard the news that 27 people died. 18 kids. I can't even go on.

Please, if this upsets you, if you want the violence that guns cause to end, donate to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Spaziano in-district charter application moves forward; King's moves...sideways?

News about the district charter school initiative, from the 11/21 edition of the ProJo (story here):
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The teachers at Frank D. Spaziano Elementary School have overwhelming approved going forward with an application to become a district charter school.
The faculty voted 35 to 1 Thursday to pursue its application with the Rhode Island Department of Education. The teachers at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School voted against applying for charter status last week. 
This is a new effort by Supt. Susan Lusi. A district charter would have more freedom over schedules and the length of the school day, but its teachers would remain in the union and the district would control its curriculum. 
Nine schools originally expressed interest in becoming charters but the tight deadlines made it difficult for schools to complete the application process. They may apply next year.
Though teachers at King (where my kids attend, but from which I have little news to report directly) did not vote in sufficient numbers to carry its in-district charter application forward, last night's school board agenda (accessible here: reveals that there was an action related to a charter application that King's current principal, Derrick Ciesla, is proposing. I was not at the school board so can't report on what it is and what transpired. If any readers have more info, I'd be glad to share it, and when I learn more, I'll do the same.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Providence Public Schools weather make-up days: 1/11 and 3/15

Message from PPSD that I am repeating here as I know people often end up on this site when searching for Providence Public Schools calendar info: the two instructional days missed on October 29 and 30 because of Superstorm Sandy will be made up on Friday, January 11 and Friday, March 15. These dates were originally designated as professional development/weather make up days.

Here's the updated PPSD calendar for 2012-2013, with these dates now marked as regular school days.

December Dilemma - December 2012 East Side Monthly Column

On your local web browser and in your local coffeeshop, please enjoy December's East Side Monthly, which includes "The December Dilemma," thoughts from me on holidays, schools, and cultural identity. Here it is, in the link in the previous sentence and below.

Illustration by Jessica Pollak
In first grade, our oldest son came home with Olive, the Other Reindeer, borrowed from the school library. As we read it together, me giggling at the title, he said, “What’s so funny? I don’t get it.” “It’s a joke, honey, a pun,” I explained. “You know, ‘all of the other reindeer’ from ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’.”

Nope, he didn't know. He didn't know about the renowned nasal exceptionalism which initially prompted Rudolph’s cruel treatment at the hooves of the other reindeer and then produced eventual top deer status. Nor did my kid have any notion that the other reindeer were not a nameless herd but storied individuals critical to the success of Saint Nicholas’ annual nocturnal rooftop journey. We went down the chimney a bit further. Do you know who Saint Nicholas is? Nope. Santa Claus? Um, some old guy, maybe?

This made sense. We are happy flag-wavers on the Fourth. We love Thanksgiving. Give us a big non-religious holiday and we are all in (with awareness that the relative inclusivity of such celebrations needs to account for the experiences of African Americans and Native Americans). We also are Jews raising our kids with an emphasis on our religious tradition and associated holidays. We don’t have Christmas carols on our iPods (the main source of our kids’ exposure to music), though now that the kids are older, Adam Sandler’s Chanukah songs and The Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” have pride of place on our holiday playlists. The annual showing of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that was a broadcast staple of my generation’s childhood Decembers is no longer regularly viewed, its ubiquity thrown over in favor of whatever the DVR is serving up. So my first-grader wasn't going to get a grip on the Rudolph situation at home.

Nor, as it turned out, would he find such exposure in school, where many of my generation who were religiously and culturally inclined away from the mainstream picked up a whole lot of Christian-themed cultural literacy. My children and their peers in the Providence Public Schools learn together in schools that are far more diverse than those in the ‘burbs that I attended in the 1970s. In recognition of that diversity, kids aren't singing many of the old standards that clearly refer to religious holidays.

Depending on the teacher, my children have learned about Chanukah and Kwanzaa in their early elementary years. Ideally, when the teachers were of different faiths, they invited parents to share their December celebrations. I have fond memories of accompanying one of my children to his second grade class with dreidels and gelt for all. My son — often the only Jewish kid in his class — was delighted. He felt recognized in a way that made me want to make sure that all kids have the opportunity to feel similarly. This approach also conforms to the guidelines that the ACLU recommends. Handled carefully, religion in public schools is fair game as part of curriculum. Prayer is not. Singing a religiously-themed song as part of a larger presentation of holiday music and celebration is okay. Creating associations between such a song and the school itself is not.

So it’s tricky. We don’t want a particular religion to dominate public settings. Neither would we wish religion and its strong ties to identity to be sanitized completely from our kids’ educational experiences. Teachers note similar conflict. Many discuss the desire to teach about the religious and cultural celebrations that connect their students to their identities and that help widen the students’ awareness of diversity beyond their communities. Those same teachers also express profound discomfort with the threat of misrepresenting another person’s history or experience.

This is a particular challenge in Providence, where most of the teachers do not share their students’ ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Some teachers, such as my friend Daryl Lynn, a preschool teacher, suggest steering clear of religious holidays entirely. She asks, “Is it possible to not even acknowledge holidays? Is there a reason to not do that?” Other educators believe passionately that cultural identity is linked with successful engagement in a school community, because all kids want to be known and acknowledged in ways that my second grader experienced on dreidel day. What I know is this: wrestling with the December Dilemma is a price we pay for the gift of school diversity, and we are going to need to set the DVR to catch Rudolph the next time he flies into town.

Welcome back

Hey friends. Welcome back after an unplanned month hiatus. My month away from the blog doesn't mean that there were no doings in Providence-area education but rather that there were too many doings in my work and personal life! All's well, still busy, but with a better chance of keeping reasonably up to date here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Full Version of November 2012 East Side Monthly piece on MLK Elementary's Possible Move to Become an In-District Charter School

November's East Side Monthly is out, with an abruptly abridged version of a piece I wrote on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School's process of applying for status as an in-district charter school. Please read the full version below, which provides a fuller picture of this development. There's more to say, and more that's happened since I wrote this, which we can get into in subsequent posts.

Illustration by Jessica Pollak
A Reinvention? MLK Elementary Considers Charter Status

Broadly described, charter schools are publicly funded elementary, middle, and high schools that have freedom from some of the rules, regulations, and policies that apply to other public school. With this autonomy—which allows greater control over budget, instruction, assessment, governance, leadership, student population, teacher hiring and firing, professional development, and other factors—charter schools are accountable for producing certain student achievement results. In Rhode Island, schools' charters are granted by the state. Charter schools are not part of school districts; they regulated by their own governing boards and each functions as an independent districts.

Some outspoken advocates say that charter schools will save our public schools. Others assert that charter schools will destroy our public schools. The discussion of these possibilities is endlessly fascinating, but not germane to the immediate proceedings, so let’s move on.

As this school year began, the Providence Public Schools invited all of its schools to apply to the state to become “in-district” charter schools, a process that would ordinarily have begun a year ago. Two factors created the conditions for this development. The first was the Providence Public Schools’ urgent need for more flexibility in order to create better conditions for student achievement. The second was the availability of federal charter school funding administered by the Rhode Island Department of Education. The district envisioned that such schools would work with local education and social service partners to create and implement an educational program that would serve students within Providence. This process unfolded with extraordinary haste, which was somewhat understandable in order to capture an opportunity, but also unfortunate, because schools have been asked to take a tremendous leap of faith while basic questions remain unanswered.

Nevertheless, several schools asked for support from the district to submit charter applications in December 2012, which would allow them to be considered for charter status for 2013-2014 academic year. One is the East Side’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, which serves approximately 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade (and where two of my three kids are enrolled; our third is a King alum). King’s leadership team formed a partnership with The Learning Community charter school, a Central Falls school that serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. On October 1, King submitted a prospectus that described its vision for its reinvention as a charter school, which was approved on October 10. King will submit a full charter application to the state on December 1; by that date, the school’s faculty members—who would remain members of the Providence Teachers Union—and parents—whose children would remain students at King if they wish—will vote about whether to proceed with the charter application, which will go forward with majority approval by both groups.

Derrick Ciesla, King’s principal since 2009, believes that the potential upside for the school validates the risks of moving quickly. If King were an in-district charter school, the school community would have the opportunity to make decisions that would improve students’ academic achievement while bolstering family involvement. Cielsa says that increased independence from the district, combined with additional funding, would make possible “opportunities that we will otherwise never benefit from or have access to, namely, funding for special programs, more teachers, support staff, new books, computers, and equipment.”

Ciesla also views the charter possibility as a way to have more control over student population. Like most public elementary schools in Providence, King is designated as a neighborhood school, which means that it may enroll up to 80 percent of its students from a neighborhood zone defined by the district as a mile around the school. However, due to school closures at the end of the 2010-2011 school year, district enrollment decisions, and other factors, well more than half of King’s students are from more than a mile away. King plans to ask for a variance to state charter law in order to remain a neighborhood school and to use the charter process to accelerate school improvement so that King indeed remains (as it has been for many years) a school of choice for the diverse families that it has served for, in some cases, generations who come in part though not entirely from the East Side. “My goal is to close the achievement gap,” says Ciesla. “I want to do that with the students we are serving now as well as whatever students of whatever ethnicity we may serve in the future.”

King will convene several community conversations at which staff members, current families, and interested neighbors can gather to give input, ask questions, and understand the potential benefits and risks, including the benefits and risks of remaining a school that serves its neighborhood, however that may be defined. The school will also include parents on the team that will write the charter application.

“Everyone at MLK agrees that the most important thing here is to educate all of our children to the best of our abilities,” Ciesla notes. “It doesn't matter what background our students come from. I want to give each of them a solid learning foundation that will provide them with the chance to succeed in their education and in the rest of their lives.”

Monday, October 22, 2012

Providence School Board seeking to fill three seats - info and deadlines

Here's some info on the process that's happening now to fill three seats on the Providence School Board. The terms of current school board members Nicholas Hemond, Maila Touray, and Robert Wise are expiring (though of course they may be reappointed; most of this is adapted from a city press release and I am sharing in case this helps reach anyone who is interested. 

The Providence School Board Nominating Commission is accepting applications for three positions on the School Board.Candidates with strong finance and/or policy experience are particularly encouraged to apply. School Board members are appointed to three-year terms.

The School Board Nominating Commission will conduct an information session on Monday, October 29 for interested parties to learn about the roles and responsibilities of School Board members and the School Board nomination process.The meeting will be held 6:00-7:15 pm at the Providence Public School Department at 797 Westminster Street, in School Board Room B on the third floor.

The School Board application deadline is 4:00 pm on Friday, November 2, 2012. Applications can be completed online, and the School Board job description and other information is available at the city's website:

Applicants whose applications meet the general qualifications for School Board candidacy will be invited to appear at a public forum on Tuesday, November 13 for interested community members to meet and ask questions of candidates. The forum will be held 6:00-800 pm in the auditorium of the Providence Career and Technical Academy at 41 Fricker Street in Providence.

At the conclusion of the application process, Mayor Taveras will select nominees from a pool of finalists recommended by the Nominating Commission. The new School Board nominees will be subject to City Council approval.

Friday, September 21, 2012

In-District Charter Questions, Take 3

During the past week, I have been in conversation with other parents, students, community members, and PPSD staff members. These conversations have refined the questions that feel important about the district's ongoing move toward implementing in-district charters.

I post these in the spirit of collaborations and have shared them with district staff members who are working on communicating about this work to the public. Please add your own questions and thoughts in the comments. Thanks!


What are PPSD's specific motivations for introducing in-district charters?

What specific opportunities will in-district charter schools have that they do not have now that are likely to improve teaching, learning, and student achievement?

Why is the implementation of the in-district charter school application process happening so rapidly? What has the timeline been and what will be the implementation timeline moving forward?

What is the decision-making process within the district? Who decides which schools submit charter applications to RIDE? How is that decided and what are the criteria? When is that decided?

What kind of support services is the district offering schools that it selects to submit applications to RIDE?

What about other schools that the district is not supporting? Are they still able to submit applications ahead of the March 2013 deadline?

Parent and Family Involvement
What is the specific plan and timeline for parent/family involvement in terms of finding out more about their school’s involvement with the in-district charter school application process?

In those schools that are moving forward with in-district charter applications, what is the plan and process for family members to join and meaningfully contribute to school-based planning teams?

In those schools that are moving forward with in-district charter applications, what is the plan and process for high school students to join and meaningfully contribute to school-based planning teams?

What are the specific requirements for parent votes? What is the mechanism of the vote - is it 50 percent of parents/family members who show up for a meeting or 50 percent of all parents/family members? How will their votes be collected and recording confidentially and reliably?

When in the process does the parent/family vote occur?  Does it happen before, simultaneous with, or after the faculty vote?

Student Assignment
How will student assignment work at these schools? Do they become schools that have no neighborhood zone and to which any student in the district can apply? Or will the in-district charter schools remain neighborhood schools per current PPSD student assignment policies?

Will students who are currently assigned to schools that become in-district charter schools remain in their schools? 

Governance and Autonomy
What will be the governance structure for these in-district charters? Will they have their own boards or be part of PPSD and the Providence School Board?

Will the in-district charters continue to participate in district contracts with vendors or will they be responsible for their own food, maintenance, etc.?

Will the in-district charters be responsible for identifying and maintaining their own facilities at some point in the future?

Teachers and Other Staff Members
How will the teachers of these in-district charters be represented by the Providence Teachers Union? Will they negotiate individual school-based contracts with the district?

Will teacher assistants and other school staff members continue to be represented by their unions? Will those contracts be renegotiated if their schools convert to in-district charters?

Will teachers who currently work at schools that convert to in-district charter schools remain teachers at those schools?

Which organizations responded to the RFP? Were they all invited to the partner fair that happened on September 13? 

What are the criteria and standards for partners? What guidelines to they have to follow?

Will there be more opportunity for more partners to join? If so, when and how?

What are PPSD's plans for sharing information on an ongoing basis that clearly briefs the public on this process?

Is it possible to use any of the funds available for charter school implementation to support an aggressive media campaign to inform and engage parents in this process?  
Legislation and Funding
Will the district be seeking variances to existing charter school legislation? To which aspects of the legislation and on what timeline?

What happens when current federal funding runs out? If and when that happens, will additional schools have the opportunity to become in-district charter schools?
 What amount of the available federal charter school funds will be allocated to the approved schools?  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bradley Hospital Research Fair for Families of Children with Special Needs, September 27

Next Thursday, September 27, from 6:00-8:00pm, Bradley Hospital in East Providence will host a resource fair for families with children who have special needs. This will take place in the Ruggles Gymnasium at Bradley Hospital, 1011 Veterans Memorial Parkway in East Providence. More information is available here.

Representatives from more than 50 statewide mental health advocacy, support and information organizations will be on hand to offer details about services and resources available for parents, families, teachers, and children and adolescents with special mental health needs.

Registration is required. Please call Chris Brown at 401-432-120 to register.

Friday, September 14, 2012

PPSD in-district charter process - the questions

This post is a recap and expansion of the questions I asked yesterday about the in-district charter school process that is now unfolding within PPSD. In subsequent posts, I'll share answers and information as it becomes available.
  • What are PPSD's specific motivations for introducing in-district charters?
  • Why is this happening so hastily? Teachers found out about this in some (all?) schools with almost no time to consider before voting to move forward. Potential partner organizations had a week to respond to indicate interest in the partnership possibility, which may have limited the capacity for strong potential partners to respond.
  • Are schools submitting applications to become in-district charters in the 2013-2014 school year, or 2014-2015?
  • Why is this happening with a lack of clear information from the district? What are PPSD's plans for putting out a FAQ or other document that clearly briefs the public on this process?
  • What's the specific plan and timeline for parent/family involvement in terms of finding out more, collaborating with school-based planning teams on the charter applications, and, of course, voting. 
  • What are the specific requirements for parent votes? RIDE regulations say that more than 50% majority parent vote is required for a school to convert to charter. What is the mechanism of the vote - is it 50% of parents/family members who show up for a meeting or 50% of all parents/family members? When in the process does the vote occur - before, simultaneous with, or after the faculty vote?
  • What happens to the neighborhood status of these schools? Do they become schools that have no neighborhood zone and to which any student in the district can apply?
  • What will be the governance structure for these in-district charters? Will they have their own boards or be part of PPSD and the Providence School Board?
  • How will the teachers of these in-district charters be represented by the PTU? Will they negotiate individual school-based contracts with the district?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

PPSD in-district charters - some info and questions (updated)

Without any time for a meaningful post, here's today's ProJo article on in-district charters in Providence, which is the first meaningful description I've heard about this initiative. Bits and pieces of this keep floating by my parental and professional radar and I (and many others) have a long list of questions.

Okay, story first, reproduced in full below (online here):
Schools given the chance to become chartersSo far, nine have accepted invitation by superintendent who intends to shake up system
   PROVIDENCE –– The Providence schools superintendent and the president of the teachers’ union are about to embark on a groundbreaking experiment that will change the way students learn in some of the city’s 42 public schools.
   Every school is being asked to become a district-operated charter school. In a system where more than half of the schools are identified as chronically low-performing, charter school status would enable schools to tap into federal money and have greater flexibility over everything from the length of the school day to the way the school day is divided.
   Susan Lusi, together with Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith and School Board President Keith Oliveira, are promoting the idea of district-operated charters, which would give principals greater say over what happens in the classroom without sacrificing union protection for teachers.
   Charter schools were originally designed to serve as incubators of reform, but that collaboration never took hold in Rhode Island. Lusi wants to change that and combat the often negative perception that charters operate outside the traditional public school system.
   “I think Providence is leading the way,” said Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States, a national clearinghouse on education policy and research. “You can either moan about charters or you can take the bull by the horns. It’s laudable.”

   Charter schools were originally designed to serve as incubators of reform, but that collaboration never took hold in Rhode Island. Lusi wants to change that and combat the often negative perception that charters operate outside the traditional public school system.
   “I think Providence is leading the way,” said Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States, a national clearinghouse on education policy and research. “You can either moan about charters or you can take the bull by the horns. It’s laudable.”
   Christie says there aren’t many districts, outside of post-Katrina New Orleans, that have embraced charter schools as a way to jump-start reform. New Orleans turned over a large number of its public schools to national charter school operators after its buildings were devastated by Katrina. 
  Lusi says she wouldn’t impose charter status on any school that wasn’t willing. State law prohibits it. To become a charter, 65 percent of the school’s teachers must vote yes and a majority of parents have to do the same.
   Nonprofit organizations such as Inspiring Minds were always asking Lusi what they could do to help. One day, she woke up and said, “What if I just say yes?”
   After years of watching the latest school reforms come and go, Lusi recognizes that the district can’t do it alone, especially given the enormous cost of turning schools around.
   Each Providence public school that becomes a charter has to find a partner –– another charter like Times2 or the Learning Community or a nonprofit like Inspiring Minds or the Providence After-School Alliance. The partner doesn’t have to be in Providence.
   While the district alone doesn’t have the capacity to make systemic changes, Lusi says, an outside partner brings additional resources to the table along with a fresh perspective.
   “Central Falls,” she said, “showed all of us that there were positive ways for charters and districts to work together.”
   Given the us-versus-them attitude toward charter schools, Lusi was pleasantly surprised when nine Providence schools said they were willing to pursue charter school status. This was especially encouraging given how roiled the district last year when Mayor Angel Taveras fired all of the district’s 1,900 teachers. (They were all rehired.)
   While Central Falls is an exception, many school districts in Rhode Island have traditionally been hostile to charter schools because they are seen as competition, siphoning students and resources away from the traditional public schools.
   Witness the deep-seated opposition last winter to Achievement First, a charter-management operator that successfully applied to open two elementary schools in Providence.
   While Central Falls is an exception, many school districts in Rhode Island have traditionally been hostile to charter schools because they are seen as competition, siphoning students and resources away from the traditional public schools.
   Witness the deep-seated opposition last winter to Achievement First, a charter-management operator that successfully applied to open two elementary schools in Providence.
   With so many schools under the gun to improve student achievement, Lusi knew she had to do something to shake up a system that has remained largely unchanged, despite wave after wave of reform.
   “People don’t think they have permission to think outside the box,” Lusi said Tuesday. “Symbolically, this is a signal to think outside the box.”
   Providence and many other districts, she says, have been trapped by the notion that school has to look the same in every building: 50-minute periods, a 6.5-hour day, 26 students per class. It doesn’t, Lusi says. There is no research that says that the old agrarian model of learning works. In fact, there is a growing body of research that says schools should fine-tune their instruction to meet the diverse ways students learn.
   Providence has already begun to tinker with tradition. This year, most of the city’s high schools have a longer day. They have also adopted a class schedule with longer blocks of time. Some schools are toying with the idea of offering a Saturday academy or afterschool enrichment programs.
   Providence has already begun to tinker with tradition. This year, most of the city’s high schools have a longer day. They have also adopted a class schedule with longer blocks of time. Some schools are toying with the idea of offering a Saturday academy or afterschool enrichment programs.
   Lusi says charter schools do three important things that the district needs: create a school culture that is warm and welcoming, bring in partners with innovative ways of looking at teaching and learning, and attract additional resources. About $5 million in federal money is available for new charters.
   Providence is facing a tough deadline, however. The nine schools that have applied to be charters — seven elementary schools, Nathan Bishop Middle School and EHigh School — have to submit preliminary information to the state Department of Education by Oct. 1. The final applications are due Dec. 1.
   Smith, the teachers’ union president, could not be reached for comment this week.
My top-of-mind questions:
  • Why is this happening so hastily? There may be a good reason but without explanation, it's worrisome. Teachers found out about this in some (all?) schools with almost no time to consider before voting to move forward (see this from Tom Hoffman for more on that). Potential partner organizations had a week (or less, depending on when this RFP came to their attention) to respond to indicate interest in the partnership possibility. I understand the concept of carpe diem, of course, but am concerned that this incredibly brief window won't allow strong partners time needed to respond.
  • Why is this happening with a lack of clear information from the district? Please, PPSD, put out an FAQ for the public! 
  • What's the plan for parent/family involvement???
  • How will the teachers of these in-district charters be represented by the union - will they negotiate school-based contracts (like the Boston Pilot Schools)?
Update - more questions that arose during the day:
  • What is the specific motivation for introducing in-district charters? Why is this happening now in this way?
  • What happens to the neighborhood status of these schools? Do they become schools that have no neighborhood zone and to which any student in the district can apply?
  • What will be the governance structure for these in-district charters? Will they have their own boards or be part of PPSD and the Providence School Board?
  • Per the statement in the article that 65% of the parents in the school have to vote for charter status. How and when will that happen? Is that accurate? Is it binding as the article seems to imply?
  • What's the RIDE policy that spells all of this out? I haven't had time to trawl through RIDE's website - if anyone has a pointer, I'd be grateful.
Second update: my next post summarizes these questions and adds a couple more. Click here for that. 

My top-of-mind response:

I think that this could be a way toward greater autonomy in ways that still allow for teachers' union representation. This could be an exciting development. It's a way to get to the belief that no two schools are alike and away from the cookie-cutter policies we have now. However, it's critical we have more information and clarity. Hoping for that ASAP.

Update - additional response:

Without specific information about neighborhood status, governance, and other questions above (and questions that we haven't yet added), my reaction is more reserved than it was this morning when I wrote the above paragraph. Bottom line: NEED TO KNOW MUCH MORE. Please, PPSD, do more than post media article about this to your Facebook page. Share some coherent and comprehensive information about this process, please.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting to School: The Challenging Connections between Absenteeism and Transportation - October 2012 East Side Monthly column

This is a slightly expanded version of the column that I wrote for October 2012's East Side Monthly, which will be out later this month. Because I cannot ramble on forever on my ESM page about absenteeism, achievement, transportation, and related issues, the thoughts below don't nearly tell a whole story--lots more to say, and I hope we (you as commenters and me as blogger) can do that in the coming weeks and months.


Ever since the fall of 2005, our family has had a child in kindergarten, first grade, or second grade at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. By the time we’re done with our three kids’ passages through the early elementary school years, we will have experienced nine consecutive years of little kids going to King, from which we live 0.9 miles. According to the Providence Public Schools’ transportation policy, my kids are not eligible for transportation by school bus. We’d need to live a mile or more from school in order to qualify for bus transportation to and from school, and that tenth of a mile has made a gigantic difference in our lives.

Because (nearly) a mile is a fair stretch for little kids to walk, and especially because Hope Street runs between our house and King, my kids don’t walk to school on their own. It is just too dangerous, especially in the winter. So, with help from babysitters, flexible work schedules, friends, and support from PPSD for our request for bus passes to the JCC, where our kids participate in afterschool programming (see this post from earlier this week for more on that), we make it work.

In so doing, we have much in common with thousands families citywide who live inside their kids’ schools’ neighborhood zones. For the full picture, it’s useful to know that middle school neighborhood zones are a mile and a half radius from school. High school zones are three miles. If kids live within those zones, no matter the barriers—and some neighborhoods feature obstacles considerably more intimidating than Hope Street—they don’t get a bus ride to school.

Many families lack the resources needed to get their kids to school. Such resources may include a car, money for a RIPTA pass, or time. Work demands or the poor health of a parent or other family member may pose problems. As a result, Providence’s schools show evidence of damaging chronic absenteeism. “The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools,” a Johns Hopkins University report released in May 2012, describes “chronic absenteeism” as what happens when a student misses at least 10 percent of school days for any reason; it reports Providence’s chronic absenteeism rate as 34 percent of all K-12 students in 2010-2011. Data released by the Providence Public Schools, as reported in July 2012 in, demonstrate a slight improvement in 2011-2012, with 20.7 percent of students chronically absent, and 11.7 percent of students categorized as “excessively absent,” with over 36 days missed per student (that’s 20 percent of school days missed). Because chronically and excessively absent students aren’t attending school regularly, their academic performance suffers significantly at all grade levels. Student academic success depends on many factors, but perhaps none so critical as their actual presence on a regular basis.

Transportation challenges are at the top of the list of reasons why students don’t attend school regularly. Fixing this one problem would have a powerful positive impact on student performance. It’s the classic example of low-hanging fruit. The Providence Public Schools have identified it as such and are putting into place a range of supports that will help more kids to get to school.

The signal example of this effort is a pilot program that provides free RIPTA bus passes to ninth grade students who live more than two miles from their school. Providence’s Youth 4 Change Alliance (Y4C), a group of young people that has gathered data and stories about the financial and physical challenges students face on their way to school, provided the motivation for the ninth grade RIPTA pilot. Y4C’s evidence galvanized the Providence School Board to change the walk zone for ninth graders from three miles to two, and brought stakeholders from the school district and RIPTA together to hammer out the details of the program, which will distribute bus passes to a projected 847 students, a huge increase from the projected 253 ninth graders who would have otherwise been the only recipients of free passes by dint of living more than three miles from their schools.

The program is currently in place only for this year and is being closely monitored to determine if it has a positive impact on attendance. I surely hope that it does--it’s hard to imagine that it would not--and that funding is identified to expand the program to all students citywide as soon as reasonably possible. It’s a limited but definite step in the right direction. What we need next is increased commitment from the state level to fund RIPTA passes for all high school student on an ongoing basis.

At the elementary level, the Family Service of Rhode Island’s Providence Children’s Initiative worked with Fogarty Elementary School families last year to determine the causes of chronic absenteeism. They discovered that many of the students who were missing school most frequently lived within a mile of the South Providence school. In response and in collaboration with the school district, the Providence Children’s Initiative has debuted the “walking school bus,” which uses trained volunteers to meet kids at a designated place and time to escort them safely to school. While the walking school bus idea is less expensive than busing, it does have associated costs for logistical coordination, communication, training volunteers, and more. In order to spread the walking school bus concept to more neighborhoods, we need to identify consistent sources of funding and infrastructure.

Still, it's is a splendid idea, a powerful example of how we can pull together to ensure kids are in school, reduce isolation, provide meaningful support to families, get some exercise and fresh air, reduce dependence on energy resources, increase pedestrian safety, and demonstrate that we are willing to be creative and committed as we improve our city’s schools.

For more, here are data stories on the effects of absenteeism in Providence from the Mayor's Children and Youth Cabinet:

Elementary school:

Middle school:

High school and beyond:

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Good news re PPSD Transportation - by Kim Rohm

I am endlessly lucky to have Kim Rohm as a friend and fellow Providence Public Schools parent. Kim is an opportunity finder and problem solver. To know her, and especially to have your kids go to school with her kids, is to have a better, happier life. She sees the good in people and situations and thoughtfully, efficiently, and diplomatically solves problems and busts through barriers. I LOVE HER.

You may recall that in my scattered impressions of last week, I groused a bit about bus passes. I am happy to say: problem solved! In fact, my kids are taking the bus to the JCC today, and that is completely thanks to the teamwork of Kim and the truly responsive PPSD central office staff. 

I asked Kim to tell the story, as it's really her story to tell. Here it is, in her words:

There are reasons to be encouraged that the Providence Public School District is working to fix the bus transportation challenges that many families face throughout the City of Providence. Eligibility for a bus pass is a student transportation issue that has caused a great deal of stress for both parents and students. In the 2011-2012 school year, to be eligible for student transportation, a student in elementary school must live 1 mile or more from school, in middle school, 1 ½ miles or more and in high school, 3 miles or more.

As you (Jill) wrote in this blog on December 31, 2010, Youth4Change Alliance chose as its most important issue accessibility to transportation. This year, in a pilot program, PPSD provided 600 RIPTA bus passes free of charge for freshman students who live two miles or more from the school. This is a reduction in the mileage of the previous policy and the result of negotiations between PPSD and RIPTA. According to a letter from Superintendent Lusi to Freshman Parents posted on the PPSD website, “The program is offered on a trial basis to see if there is an improvement in school attendance among ninth graders and is not guaranteed in future school years.” I hope that attendance does in fact improve markedly enough to ensure that passes are given to ninth grade students again next year, and that the program can be expanded to include upper grades.

For the past seven years, at the beginning of each school year, I personally become anxious about getting a bus pass for my children who are enrolled at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary to attend the after school program at the Jewish Community Center. In the past, while the bus would drive right by the JCC, numerous phone calls to the transportation office, Superintendent’s office, my Councilman’s office, even the Mayor’s office were necessary to secure a pass for my transportation eligible children to receive a pass to get off the bus at the JCC instead of their assigned bus stop. This year, after making only one request, my son came home with a bus pass the first week of school.

I am very grateful to the PPSD Administration and the Transportation Office for working hard to accommodate my request and that of others at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. I am encouraged by the pilot program for the City’s ninth grade students and encourage others to continue to advocate for the transportation that they need for their students.


Note from Jill: 

As Kim says, you need to advocate for the transportation that your kids need. Please speak up! If you're not sure who to talk with, post a comment below or email me at I'll do everything I can to connect you to help. And even if the challenges aren't simple, we still need to speak up for and with Providence's young people so that they can get to and from school safely. Let's work together to get this done.

Why I support Gayle Goldin to be the next RI District 3 State Senator

I am taking a few minutes to shift gears away from education per se and share a few thoughts about the upcoming Primary Day election, which is a week from today, on September 11. Democrat voters from my neighborhood, in State Senate District 3, will be electing a new state senator following the retirement of Rhoda Perry. (If you're not sure if you're a District 3 voter, click here for a PDF map of the district's boundaries.)

I will vote for Gayle Goldin because I believe she has the experience, commitment, and capacity for thoughtful, fair decisionmaking that we need in the Rhode Island General Assembly. I say this carefully, because also know and respect her primary opponent, Maryellen Butke. I am gratified to see a contest between two strong, smart, capable women.

Gayle is among the parents with whom I am privileged to spend lots of time with during the Little League baseball season. When we’re not cheering on our kids, we have time to talk about a whole range of education issues. Gayle asks smart questions, researches issues, understands the intricacies of policy, and considers a range of viewpoints in ways that make it clear to me that she will be an effective legislator. I know that Gayle will work on behalf of Providence's public schools in ways that build on current strengths to create better places for teaching and learning for all students. 

Gayle also understands the ways that strong public school systems--rather than a preponderance of charter schools--best serve our state's students. She knows that while charter schools have a critical place in school improvement efforts, they're not the only answer to the real challenges Rhode Island's young people face. She is committed to equitable funding and focusing the power of the state legislature to create improvements in areas such as accessible technology that can support all schools in all communities. And she knows well that good schools depend on statewide efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty, family instability, neighborhood safety, health challenges, and more.

I also respect Gayle's expertise in these other areas. She has years of experience in health care policy, women’s issues, and issues impacting families. She has a compelling personal story and a record of work and public service that have prepared her well for service in the General Assembly.

If you are a District 3 voter and haven't yet made your decision, it's up to you to learn more. Please consider attending the College Hill Neighborhood Association's candidate forum tomorrow, Wednesday, September 5 at 6:30pm at List Arts Building, 64 College Street on the Brown campus. 

And if you'd like more time with Gayle, I am co-hosting a coffee and dessert hour with her on Thursday, September 6 at 7:30pm. I’d love to see people who would like to get to know Gayle there Email me at and I'll send you an invitation.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

First week of school kaleidoscope (2 days down, 2 days to go)

Forms filled out. Forms forms forms. More forms.


Three trips to Staples (and one last week, too).

Label maker! Resulting, probably temporary, sense of calm and organization.

Campaign to pry information from children about what happened at school relaunched. Children proving wilier than ever. Learned little.

School drop off in a four-dimensional craze of children. Fourth grader disappears immediately. First grader clings to my hand. Mayor Taveras visiting. Trying to talk education with him and say hi to first grade teacher at the same time. Hugs and kisses and handshakes with parent and teacher and kid friends. So good to see everyone.

Homework. Realization that middle kid has apparently forgotten how to form legible letters over the summer. Realization that oldest kid has somehow figured out that writing clearly is a useful skill. Realization that there is hope.

No bus passes. No idea if/when they may be bestowed. Resulting drama brewing?

PAC meetings. Meetings meetings meetings. PTO meetings next week. All the meetings.

Kids tired, voluntarily going to bed early. I am right there with them.

Photographic evidence of second day of school:

Henry and Leo, shady characters.

Afterschool with the fabulous Adelle.