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In Providence school struggles, staff support students

City district school looking for solutions after critical Johns Hopkins report

The phone rings in the main office of Gilbert Stuart Middle School.

The office is empty except for two secretaries; it’s 4 pm, and students have already gone home for the day. One of the women takes the call.

“Good afternoon, Gilbert Stuart,” she says.


“Hi, may I help you?”


“Hi, may I help you?” she repeats.


“There’s no one here who speaks Spanish,” the secretary says, and hangs up.

While this interaction may have been an isolated incident, it took place in a school district where six out of 10 families speak a language other than English at home, according to a 2018 investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition, Gilbert Stuart’s student body is comprised almost entirely of students of color — 95 percent total —  with 68 percent of the school’s students identifying as Hispanic. Eighty-eight percent of the West End’s residents are nonwhite, and 55 percent are Hispanic. Close to one third of the Providence Public School District students are English Language Learners.

But language barriers are just one of the challenges facing Gilbert Stuart and the PPSD.

This fall, The Herald visited Gilbert Stuart Middle School twice,  with each visit limited to around an hour. During these visits, The Herald spoke with teachers, students and the principal, and observed a class.

The interviews demonstrated one clear constant: despite working in a struggling school within a struggling school district, some committed teachers, as well as the principal, go out of their way to support students and ensure the school culture makes students feel welcome.

Many of these conversations took place in the presence of Laura Hart, PPSD director of communications.

A failing school within a failing district

Last year, in its implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, Rhode Island launched the School Star Ratings system, a standard that measures school performance based on student achievement and growth in standardized state-wide testing across disciplines, rating each school on a scale from one to five stars.

During the 2018-19 academic year, Gilbert Stuart Middle School received one star.

Only six percent of its students were proficient in English Language Arts, and only four percent of its students were proficient in math. Less than one in five of the school’s English Language Learners met their target growth for English proficiency.

Gilbert Stuart Middle School was identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement under ESSA for the 2019-20 academic year, alongside ten other PPSD schools, according to Rhode Island Department of Education. With 41 schools in the district, these identified schools make up about a quarter of PPSD.

While Providence schools singled out for the Comprehensive Support and Improvement program face particular hardships, they fit within a district that is struggling as a whole: PPSD’s widespread, systematic underperformance made national news last year.

In June, the release of a highly critical report from Johns Hopkins University, chronicling dangerous facilities, ineffective bureaucratic structures, broken school culture and low expectations for student performance, set in motion an unprecedented Nov. 1 takeover of the district by the state’s education department, RIDE.

But the report also outlined one positive constant: the devotion of some principals and teachers who, despite working within a failing system, went “above and beyond” to help students. “Teachers reported in several schools that the very hardships they faced in their teaching work had prompted them to work more intensely with their colleagues — including after hours — for the sake of children,” the review team wrote.

At Gilbert Stuart Middle School, some teachers and administrators embody this mindset.

How to teach a five-paragraph essay to sixth graders

On Thursday afternoons at 12:45 pm, the period right after lunch break, Gilbert Stuart Middle School’s Elisabeth Snead teaches history to a sixth grade class.

When students enter Miss Snead’s basement classroom, they rush to grab the comfortable chairs. They sit in groups of four or five and listen as the teacher paces the classroom and explains the assignment.

The room’s walls are heavily laden with fairy lights, posters, maps, inspirational messages and memes. Though it is December, one table is still covered with Halloween-themed wrapping paper. “Mermaids have more fun,” reads one poster on the wall. “Squirrel underpants,” reads another. Near the words “We are global citizens,” a Dr. Seuss sign tells students to “think left and think right and think low and think high.”

Today, students are working on constructing one paragraph for a five-paragraph essay that will explain how rivers were important in the development of ancient civilizations.

Snead’s approach to teaching the five-paragraph essay focuses on building one paragraph at a time. Each paragraph is broken into its constituent sentences, according to the RACE strategy: Restate the question, Answer the question, Cite text evidence, Explain what it means. Students write the sentence corresponding to each letter into its appropriate box on a RACE worksheet. They must later rewrite the information on their worksheets in the format of a five-paragraph essay.

After the RIDE data for Gilbert Stuart’s dismal performance in English Language Arts was published at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, teachers began implementing the RACE strategy across subjects, including history and English.

Snead asks the class to look for the “C” in RACE. “Does anybody see on page 30 the words ‘river’ or ‘civilization’?”

Students scan their pages, looking for quotes. One student raises his hand. His quote talks about the river, but Snead points out that it doesn’t tell you why the river is important: “But that was a good try. Who found something that told what the river provides?”

In a table cluster at the front of the room, the one nearest the teacher’s desk, four girls put their heads together.

“Rachael, dude,” one of the girls urges her friend to jump in.

Rachael raises her hand, and reads a quote about how the rivers in China brought fresh fertile topsoil to the land.

“And we know that fresh fertile topsoil equals…?” Snead asks the class.

“Farming!” several voices answer.

After a few minutes gathering and jotting down relevant quotes from the textbook, students start speaking in hushed voices, and the classroom volume slowly increases.

“I need more space. I’m not gonna be able to write that here,” says one of the girls in the cluster at the front of the room.

She’s not the only one struggling with this. “Listen, you’re trying to write five sentences in a section where you only need one sentence,” Snead tells another student with the same problem. “And that’s why you’re getting frustrated. That one sentence is enough, and then you move on. You understand what I’m saying?”

By the end of the period, the student from the front cluster exclaims, “Yes, I have enough space!”

Pick up a copy of tomorrow’s paper to read the second part of “A look inside Providence Public Schools.”


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