Repairing and Revamping Public Schools Citywide

The City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island commit to building 21st-century learning communities

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There are many reasons to love Providence. It would be naïve, however, to think that it couldn’t use a lot of work. Planning for the future often comes with a price tag, but when it concerns the daily safety and education of our children, the City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island believe that it’s about time to make that investment.

Late last April, Mayor Jorge Elorza pledged that Providence would commit $400 million over a ten-year period to not only repair but also modernize the city’s public school buildings, in ways suitable to 21st-century learning communities. To clarify the ambition of this project, that’s 23 elementary schools, 7 middle schools, 11 high schools, and 2 charter schools slated to be modernized. While some of these schools share the same campus, each building has its own culture and specific physical needs that run the gamut from safety and basic necessities to beautification.

In conjunction with the Providence Public School District, the City of Providence accepted a bid from Delaware design and engineering firm Studio JAED to undertake the project. Studio JAED has done work in Providence before, including, most recognizably, transforming the Hanley Vocational School into the Providence Career and Technical Academy. Together, they developed All In, a series of vison/planning sessions that engaged community members, including student groups ARISE RI, Youth in Action, and the Providence Student Union, to determine the overarching facility concerns that are most important to stakeholders. This was followed in January and early February by community feedback surveys of the students and adults who utilize individual buildings, as well as grade-level forums targeting specific age groups and their families. Once that information is compiled, school-specific master planning sessions will begin in March.

The state is also beginning to prioritize improving the condition of school buildings. In a December 14 press release, Rhode Island’s general treasurer Seth Magaziner announced the development of an additional ten-year plan, this one from the Rhode Island Building Task Force to issue $500 million of state general obligation bonds for public school construction and repair. Rhode Island hasn’t issued bonds of this type for school repair in over two decades, and voters will still have to approve the first of the bonds through a 2018 referendum. Governor Gina Raimondo convened the Task Force after the results of an independent study showed $2.2 billion of deficiencies in RI schools.

Ken Wagner, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, co-chairs the Task Force with Magaziner. “This isn’t just about making bold investments,” he says. “It’s about making smart investments, and this report is an important step forward in a long-term process that will help our students succeed… The report is reflective of the collective vision we share in which all students have access to 21st-century learning environments.”

It’s tempting to read “21st-century learning environments” as buildings outfitted with the latest computers and expansive networks than can keep up with developing technology. But while both the state and local plans certainly address the need for technology-rich settings, their priority definitively comes down to three key words in the Task Force’s number-one goal: “Safe, warm, and dry.”