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Community involvement vital for success in city schools

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras' Education Opportunity Working Group, established in June to formulate recommendations to improve the city's education system, presented its findings Monday afternoon. In its report, the group stressed the importance of community involvement while emphasizing disparities in quality among the city's public schools.

Angela Romans, chair of the working group and senior adviser on education to the mayor,  presented the group's findings to an audience of about 30. A panel discussion with school administrators, leaders of partner foundations, parents and former students followed the presentation. Members of the panel stressed the community's accountability for ensuring progressive change.

The report outlines specific benchmarks for schools to meet within the next year. Under the recommendations, at least 50 percent of students in a minimum of 75 percent of elementary schools should score at or above the proficient level on state reading tests next October. In 2010, only half of Providence's elementary schools had at least 50 percent of their third graders score proficient or higher.

To reach this specific goal, the committee suggests pairing each third-grade classroom with an "external community partner focused on improving reading proficiency."

The ideal system "provides a range of learning opportunities and settings for students and encourages multiple pathways to success," it states. "Excellence has emerged in some schools as a result of individuals leading the way towards high-quality educational outcomes, rather than the system as a whole providing the necessary structures and supports."

The report also identifies five overarching goals, including ensuring that kindergarten students arrive prepared to succeed and that high school students graduate with the necessary skills for higher education or a career.

The working group comprised parents, education professionals, a business leader, a representative from the mayor's office, the director of the Rhode Island College Education Leadership Program and two University faculty members — Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and Kenneth Wong, chair of the Education Department.

"We all have begun to understand that while it's important to have visionary, ambitious leaders tasked with changing the school system, it's a task that we all share," said Simmons, who moderated the panel discussion that followed the group's presentation. This report differs from other reports, he said, because it took a community-centered approach, rather than one centered around a few key leaders.

Susan Lusi, interim superintendent of the Providence Public School District, said implementing the working group's recommendations will be a challenge. She said she is working with others to develop an "actionable plan" for the school system by January or February, when the school board will meet to discuss the budget for the upcoming year.

Felix Batista, a student at Brandeis University, and Yanaiza Gallant, a Providence elementary school teacher and reading specialist, both emphasized the important role outside organizations play in contributing to students' education. Batista and Gallantt attended middle and high school in Providence.

Batista said his participation in the College Visions advising program, an example of an outside organization the group recognizes as fundamental to the success of Providence students, gave him the necessary guidance to complete the daunting college application process.

Gallant said classroom teachers alone cannot meet all the needs of their 26 or so students. She added that programs like Inspiring Minds, which pairs college mentors with elementary school students, promote students' emotional and social well-being.

"An urban teacher is a social worker, psychologist and nurse before she can begin to teach," Gallant said.

Responding to a question about the role of higher education in Providence, Taveras said the city's colleges and universities provide after-school opportunities. He said expanding opportunities for Providence students to explore "the other side of the world" by visiting college campuses would have a valuable impact.

Steve Buka, chair of the epidemiology department, attended the panel and told The Herald that while he agrees with Taveras regarding universities' ability to improve Providence schools, the mayor overlooked the role professors and researchers can play. "Professors, researchers and scientists have the capacity to ask real-world questions," he said.  

Faculty members and graduate students can bring schools a wealth of new resources and serve as "knowledge-generators" who partner with active community members, he said.


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