Op-Ed: Public/Private Partnerships are a Beacon of Light in City Schools

Rotary Club efforts help the children of Providence with literacy and more

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If you are reading this, you most likely already understand the importance of literacy in our schools. The scathing Johns Hopkins report on the Providence schools was a massive “wake up call.” “The future of Providence,” as every elected official has branded school children, has been underserved for generations. Either their surprise was because they’ve been hiding their heads in the sand, or, more likely, it’s an unwillingness to do anything that the teachers union didn’t want. 

The subsequent takeover by the state has been inept, at best, and now a watered-down plan to possibly return the still seriously broken system to the city may be forthcoming. It’s like the state borrowed the city’s school car, which was sitting on cinder blocks, tinkered with it for two years and returned it with broken windows.

The most recent numbers, which were so poor they went into hiding before being leaked out, were made worse, of course, by the disruption caused by COVID and how it was managed or mismanaged. Governor Raimondo regularly assured citizens that remote learning was a success, while in reality, it was a disaster, setting our students even further back. (In fairness, it was no worse than remote learning efforts in other cities.) And in case you live in a vacuum, this point has been one of the keystones of one of the gubernatorial candidates who branded our city’s current education system not only the worst in the state or the worst in New England, but quite possibly given its strident tone, the worst in the world.

There are some bright spots, and some teachers and principals are making things happen, but it’s in pockets, leaving the majority of the children underserved and a system still teetering.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This is being shown in Providence Schools from some outside groups’ initiatives that need more exposure.

First is a three-year-old nonprofit initiative started by the Rotary Club of Providence aimed at improving the literacy rate in the critically important early grades. With teacher and school support, Rotary adopted two elementary schools, both with low rates of reading proficiency, and invested over $150,000 (so far) to purchase and evaluate new teaching tools aimed at improving literacy outcomes. The test program has proven so successful that the city has begun adopting some parts of the new programs throughout the city’s other elementary schools. And the response from almost everyone has been enthusiastic optimism. 

At Rotary’s Legends for Literacy gala, the excitement and passion in the room was pervasive. A short video program showing an enthusiastic teacher working with young students on a phonics program awed the capacity audience of business and arts leaders; retired New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, and PC Friars; teachers, state, and local education leaders; and the next Mayor. The 10-minute video was a short demonstration of what can happen in Providence schools. As exciting as the video was, it was even more impressive to look around the highly educated room and see adults mouth the words along with the kids.

Another example of a public/private project is the ongoing success of the Classical High School Alumni Association, which raises money each year to help current students and faculty at the school. Teachers are encouraged to submit proposals for projects the group can fund that will be useful both in or out of the classroom. There is no reason that similar programs can’t be developed at the other high schools in the city to help give them a head start toward a better future. 

There are many, many reasons why the Providence Schools are broken, but there are 22,240 reasons why it must be fixed. Rather than pointing fingers or struggling over turf, the Providence School Department would be well-served by embracing, or at least exploring, further public/private initiatives. 

There is no denying the complexity or the length of the journey ahead if Providence is ever to get even within shouting distance of our successful neighboring state to our north, but every step forward has value. 

The importance of finally reforming our educational system is too important for us to let it fail again.

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