Friday, November 8, 2013

Hope High School's New Principal, Tamara Sterling - November 2013 East Side Monthly

This month's East Side Monthly features a chat that I had with Tamara Sterling, the new(ish) principal of Hope High School. The piece is online here, and I've reproduced it below.

I really enjoyed our conversation, which I had to shorten up quite a bit. I appreciated Ms. Sterling's perspective as a newcomer to Providence and think that Hope and PPSD will benefit from her fresh take.

Great Expectations for Hope High's New Principal: Tamara Sterling brings a fresh perspective to a unique set of challenges

Ms. Sterling at Hope High School - photo by Amy Amerantes
Founded in 1898, Hope High School is the oldest public school on the East Side. Recent reforms intended to raise graduation rates and other indicators of student achievement – particularly the most recent major state-initiated restructuring in which the school was divided into three small schools – have shown promise but were interrupted before they could show lasting results. Hope is now reconsolidated into one school with 915 students.

This year, 74% of Hope High School’s students are economically challenged, as indicated by their eligibility for free and reduced lunch. Twenty-six percent receive special education services, and 15% are English language learners. In 2012, Hope’s graduation rate was 73% – not the lowest in Providence, but not nearly where it needs to be, says Hope High School’s recently appointed principal Tamara Sterling. I recently chatted with Ms. Sterling to get her take on what’s next for Hope High School.

What brought you to Providence?
I became interested in Providence in 2011, when the teacher layoffs here became national news. I wanted to come to Providence because as a transformational leader, Providence felt like a place where I could make a difference. I am now in my second year here. Before moving to Providence, I had worked in Houston, which is where I am from, and Chicago, moving from teacher to principal.

What did you notice when you first arrived?
I noticed immediately that while the data told a story, that Providence is one of the lowest-performing districts in the state, there was a desire for adults to do more for children and for children to do more for themselves. No one was sitting back. Everyone was asking themselves what can we do to make this work? Of course, I also noticed that our dropout rate was more than 20%. I have not ever worked at a school that lost kids in double digits. That’s nearly a whole grade. Where did they go? Why is the graduation rate so low?

Tell me about the approach you took with Hope, considering its dramatic history of change.
I spent the first half of last year observing and learning. I met with all of the teachers and asked them to tell me about their experience of Hope High School, the good, the bad and the ugly. I learned that they valued the small learning communities that Hope had, so during the second half of the year, we asked ourselves, “How can we make this work with our new redesign?” We now have four learning communities divided by grade level: a freshman academy with two houses of 192 students each, and then sophomore, junior and senior houses. The freshmen are together in one centralized area and have their own lunch, teachers, electives and everything else. Our focus with them is on personalization, time management and honing skills. We thought a lot about how we would support our students to stay on track, knowing that if they are successful in ninth grade, they will be more likely to graduate. Those teachers in each freshman academy house have autonomy, the ownership of running their academy. So far, I think it is going extremely well.

Why is autonomy important?
It’s important that the teachers feel empowered. When they influence what happens in their academies, when they come to school to do more than teach, their experience changes. This is a culture shift for the school. It’s all about student achievement and support, and the students buying into it. They understand that it’s important to be here, that Hope is their school, that they take ownership and pride – that they have hope. They are not coming late to school, and daily attendance is up 10%. We’re seeing some immediate benefits.

What’s your message to the community?
We want people to come inside. Come walk the halls with us and feel what it’s like to be a Blue Waver. It’s also our job to make sure that the Hope spirit goes out. Students have to do individual community service projects and a grade-level service-learning project, and those will be meaningful. We’ll be out there representing Hope with pride and making an impact. Most importantly, as we’re going through this transformation, we want the community to sit at the table. We want people who are planning to send their kids to Hope to join us as we plan for the future. I love these students. I have never worked with such a diverse population of students who want the best for themselves. I believe that high school can be one of the best times of your life as you prepare for adulthood, and I am grateful and proud to be part of their world.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Good News is No News

I just read Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error (and reviewed it for East Side Monthly's December issue, out soon). Hot on its heels, I am glad to read "Nobody Likes Good News About Education," teacher/educator Paul Bruno's back-up for Ravitch's assertions that the education crisis that many believe in is not indeed a widespread, long-term crisis after all.

I have found that aside from news about our own kids' schools, we really don't want good news about education writ large, because if we accept that there are bright spots and promising trends, then we have to accept the complexity of doing something about and with them. But we don't want complexity. We want to call it a disaster, rip it up, and start over - which of course we both should not and cannot do.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Providence school bus issues - what to do if you're having problems

This school year, kids who ride the school bus in Providence are experiencing an unprecedented level of problems: late to school, late getting home, missing school bus monitors, clueless drivers, and more. There's been a fair amount of press about this, so I won't go into the gory details here. At the most basic level, kids aren't reliably getting to or from school because the district has underfunded transportation, and the district's contract is with First Student, a company with a reputation of poor service both within and beyond Providence. There is a vast amount of detail and nuance contained with those basic facts, and if you're interested in delving into it, read on to connect with others who are doing just that.

If your children have been experiencing these problems, or if you are are generally concerned about Providence school transportation practices and polices, please join a Facebook group that an awesomely can-do parent, Michele Meek, has started to gather those concerned to share information and address the issue with the district and the district's bus provided, First Students. Go to and join the Providence Parents Concerned about School Busses group. Read through the posts and comments; some of the issues and challenges that families are facing as a result of unreliable school bus transportation are frightening and sad.

You can also visit to subscribe to an email list that Michele has created to keep people informed about the issues and the city's response (via that link, you can also access the three email updates that she has sent out thus far).

So far, Michele and other parents have organized a meeting of concerned parents earlier this month, and followed up by bringing the issue to the most recent PPSD school board meeting, which took place on Monday, 9/23. You can read detailed coverage of the meeting here:

Please join and please spread the word.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Parent meeting with Superintendent Lusi, 8/7/13

I remain reluctant to serve as unpaid communications employee for the Providence Public Schools, I do want to share info about a meeting with Superintendent Lusi that's happening on Wednesday, August 7, 6-7:30pm at Central High School.
In case you cannot read that, it invites parents to meet with Dr. Luis to discuss the district's direction for the coming school year, in particular questions about schools' start and stop times. I imagine that people will be bringing concerns about the districtwide early release on Fridays as well.

So, there you go. I may be there - depends on how the work week shakes out. Am planning on it at this point.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Carol Dweck and "yet"

Thank you, internet (specifically This Week in Education), for serving this up today. Right now, please spend exactly one minute with Carol Dweck and the word "yet."

Dweck identifies so much that is powerful in "yet." Her vision of allowing time to breathe and keep trying in the pursuit of learning needs be the foundation of educational systems. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Say no to RI field testing the PARCC in Spring 2014

According to this news release (which I found thanks to the United Opt Out Facebook group), Rhode Island is (of course) among the 14 states slated to "field test" the Common Core-aligned PARCC test in the spring of this coming academic year. As Jennifer Croslin Smith, who pointed out on Facebook about this happening in Tennessee, wrote, "Field testing basically makes our children unpaid employees of the testing company--Pearson--and provides no useful information for teachers or parents."

Here's a first pass at what I plan to ask Commissioner Gist and/or others at RIDE in order to learn more in order to know what's necessary to consent to our children's participation in an informed way, or to opt out:

  • How many schools and students will be involved? What are the criteria by which they will be chosen (and by whom/what will they be chosen)?
  • How does RIDE plan to share information with potential participants?
  • Will parents have the opportunity to say no to their kids' participation? How do you opt out?
  • What are the consequences of yet another test being dumped on some our students and their teachers? 
  • How will students be able to make up for instructional time that they missed while participating in this field test?

I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

There is school in PPSD on March 15!

If you're like me and diligently added dates when kids don't have school into your calendar way back in the fall, you may also be like me and wondering whether they do indeed have school next Friday, March 15, which was scheduled as a professional development day (or as one of my kids said this afternoon, a professidelement day). Anyway, due to the need to make up snow days, it's not such a day.

In other words, there is school on March 15. Here's the updated Providence Public Schools calendar: in case you need more info.

As to my blogging sporadicalness (sporadicness? sporadicicity? infrequency? slacking?)  well, consider it a choice. Maybe not the best choice I could be making but it represents the best I can do right now! More soon, I hope.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

More than a Test Score

Below is a slightly longer version of "More than a Test Score," which appears in March's East Side Monthly. The online version is here, paper versions at coffeeshops near you (if you're near me).

I wrote this a few weeks ago, and then read Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's New York Times Magazine "worriers and warriors" piece, "Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?" which looks at genetic and neurological reasons for our varied reactions to stressful situations, with a particular emphasis on the stress trigger that is a high-stakes standardized test. Had it been in print when I wrote "More than a Test Score," I would have cited it; as it is, I post-datedly cite it in conjunction.


Illustration by Jessica Pollak
More than a Test Score

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” There’s some truth there, but I recommend that we not apply that adage to most aspects of formal education. Generally speaking, schools have changed a great deal. Following my own advice, I try to ignore my own experiences as a student when I think about the learning experiences of young people today (there is no way to write that sentence without feeling old). Of course, I am comparatively old, more than a generation removed from today’s high school students. During the intervening decades, the structures, practices, and environments in schools themselves have changed significantly.

However, even with the plus ├ža change caveat, when I think about the experiences of today’s high school students, I’m glad that I remember how it feels to get wound up about high-stakes standardized tests--not exams and other assessments associated with coursework. I’m talking about fill-in-the-bubble tests that compare you with nameless multitudes similarly confronted with a number two pencil and a test booklet. Back in the day, for many of us such tests often meant college entrance tests such as the SATs. I distinctly remember my internal monologue just before I took the SATs. “It’s one test, a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. Colleges are going to care more about how I am doing in school, day in and day out, year after year. This doesn’t matter in the long run.” Even though I was anxious, I knew that that the test in and of itself would not keep me from my life’s goals and thus was able to get through the SAT mostly unencumbered by panic.

I’m glad I remember how that felt, and suggest that if you graduated from high school more than ten years ago, you should do the same. During the past decade, federal and state policies have dramatically expanded the significance of high-stakes standardized tests, not just for students preparing for four-year colleges but for all students as they head toward high school graduation. Here in Rhode Island, high school graduation will soon depend on in part on partially proficiency (or better) on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) mathematics and reading tests. Current Rhode Island Department of Education plans stipulate that this will concern the class of 2014 and beyond, meaning that this year’s 11th graders will be the first class affected by the implementation of the graduation requirements that include NECAP proficiency.

According to the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the new graduation requirements, this will have a deleterious effect on the number of graduates statewide, putting over 40 percent at risk of not receiving a high school diploma. In Providence, over two-thirds of students in Providence may not graduate. Students of color, English Language Learners, and special education students face even worse odds. Many of these students struggle with the NECAPs while demonstrating proficiency in their coursework. These are successful students who will be barred from high school graduation. What good does this serve?

The latest data indicate that 66 percent of Providence’s public high school students graduate within four years. What will happen when we add an arbitrary restriction such as the NECAPs other than complicating an already difficult situation? The effect on our economy as a whole, as well of the welfare of thousands of individual students, will be disastrous.

Students should graduate from high school when they have demonstrated that they have met high standards. The argument for incorporating the NECAP into the Rhode Island high school graduation requirements--which include successful completion of class requirements, comprehensive course assessments, and a Senior Exhibition project--is that NECAP proficiency indicates minimum levels of literacy and numeracy. Indeed, high school graduation should be meaningful. But it should get that meaning from what matters: classes, course, assessments, and rigorous projects. There’s no evidence that the addition of the NECAP requirement adds meaning to a high school education.

The current dominance of high-stakes standardized tests is having a chilling effect on students’ ability to pursue knowledge in any real depth. Approaches such as interdisciplinary project-based learning, which we know effectively prepares students for success as lifelong learners, are limited or nonexistent. Excessive focus on the tests has caused the curriculum to narrow, inquiry to be stilted, and opportunities for struggling students to gain proficiency in the skills they will need throughout their lives to be squandered. While systemic, lasting school improvement demands much more than reducing the emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, we’re unlikely to get to where we need to go unless we commit to stop limiting the future of our young people, who are so much more than a test score.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Education, No Life - Zombie March against the NECAP('s use in high school graduation), 2/13 @ 4pm

I am delighted to be associated, however tangentially, with the Providence Student Union (am on their advisory board) and to share info about their Zombie March tomorrow, as follows:
Rhode Island's NECAP graduation requirement is taking away students' futures and chances at a good life. And our obsession with standardized testing is turning us into brainless zombies! 
So grab your fake blood and ripped pants and join the Providence Student Union on Wednesday, Feb. 13th to show the Department of Education what this policy will do to us. Meet at 4pm at Burnside Park (by Kennedy Plaza), and we will zombie-walk to RIDE by 4:30. It's ZOMBIE TIME!
To clarify, in case it's necessary, PSU is organizing to protest the use of the high-stakes standardized NECAP test as a factor for graduation for Rhode Island high school students - this is slated to start for the class of 2014. Bad idea - misuse of the NECAP and unfair way to measure meaningful learning and achievement. Hit me up here tomorrow for more about why the using NECAPs as a way to determine readiness for high school graduation is a deeply flawed prospect for our young people.

Full details and discussion on the Zombie March are here on Facebook. Spread the word and join if you can. You'll be in good company (Diane Ravitch!) and if you are able to attend tomorrow, that is great. Join the zombie ranks so students in the future don't have to.

So what's happening today? Nemo, NECAP, Arne, Randi

So what's happening out there?

  • There is a metric sludgeload of snow and ice, melting and still intact, out there. PPSD schools are back in session after days off on Friday and yesterday due to the storm known as Nemo. I know that people all over the city are still digging out, and that the streets are now hazardous not only for cars but also for the many people, kids included, who have to walk in them to get places due to unshoveled sidewalks. I am glad school is back in business today and hope that everyone on the roads is extra careful as the city continues to clean up.
  • NECAP scores came out on Friday, 2/8. I don't want to dwell on them because I don't want to give them undue attention, but it's worth noting. Overall, the state as a whole went up, and Providence as a district did not. If this were being used purely as a diagnostic measure to tune up teaching and learning, I'd be more inclined to spend time and attention analyzing. As it is, feel free to do so yourself:
  • United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn't come to Providence last night to discuss school safety.
  • He didn't come here today either to participate in the kick-off event for United Providence (which I believe is supposed to be United Providence! with a ! I note that, but decline to reproduce it).  American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten did, though. UP (and please, can we just call it that? Without its decorative exclamation point?) is collaboration between the Providence Teachers Union and the district that is managing some of Providence's persistently low-performing schools.
Other happenings I'll get to in near-future posts (until work and life overtake me again, at least).

Yeah, yeah, it's been a while

Been a while since I posted here, not for lack of happenings in and around the Providence education scene but for lack of my time for and attention to writing about them here. Onward.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

There is school in Providence on Friday 1/11

In order to help get the word out, I'm posting here that school is in session on Friday, 1/11 in Providence. The PPSD calendar originally listed Friday as a day off, but that was scrapped so the school could make up time missed during Hurricane Sandy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

PPSD Registration and Enrollment, 2013-2014

I want to point you directly to Kidoinfo for an excellent rundown of registration and enrollment at PPSD this year:

This post was written by Kira Greene and Kristen Murphy, two PPSD parents who are donating considerable time and expertise to work with the district to improve school registration. They know the system incredibly well and I am grateful that they've shared their expertise.

Please read their post, and here are the basics for follow up.

  • Kindergarten and first grade enrollment starts this week (visit to find out when you should enroll your child. The link also shares what documentation you need for registration.
  • For the first time, PPSD is offering registration workshops for prospective families - info online at The workshops take place as follows:
    • Monday, January 7, 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Carnevale Elementary, 50 Springfield Street
    • Tuesday, January 8, 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Young-Woods Elementary, 674 Prairie Avenue
    • Wednesday, January 9, 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Kennedy Elementary, 195 Nelson Street
    • Thursday, January 10, 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Bailey Elementary, 65 Gordon Street
    • Tuesday, January 22, 6 to 7:30 p.m. at King Elementary School, 35 Camp Street
    • Wednesday, January 23, 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Messer Elementary, 1655 Westminster Street
    • Saturday, January 26, 10 to 11:30 a.m. at West End Community Center, 109 Bucklin Street
  • Take a few minutes to check out the PowerPoint presentation that the district put together for the registration workshops. It's here: The presentation includes a load of data about seats that are likely to be available at various schools, which schools filled up last year, the actual registration form, and strategies for making first, second, third, and fourth choices. I appreciate that the district has chosen to share this info widely. Very, very useful.
  • Finally, again, visit Kidoinfo for additional advice and strategies about how navigate "reg," increase the likelihood that your child will be assigned the school of your choice, and minimize bureaucratic frustration. Go here: