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360 High School to close, merge under JSEC

Community members rally to “save 360,” decry process behind making closure decision

<p>According to Jay Wegimont, a spokesperson for the PPSD, the decision to merge 360 with JSEC is final.</p>

According to Jay Wegimont, a spokesperson for the PPSD, the decision to merge 360 with JSEC is final.

On Feb. 6, teachers and staff at 360 High School in South Providence were informed at an emergency meeting that their school would be closed and merged under the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex. The next day, Providence Public School District leaders shared the decision with students. That afternoon, nearly the entire student body left school and walked two miles to the school department headquarters to protest the closure.

360 High School, opened in 2015 using funds from a grant for innovative schools, currently enrolls 335 students. 

Community members expressed anger and confusion around the announcement at the walkout on Feb. 7, a rally on Feb. 14 and then again at a school board meeting on Feb. 15. But according to Jay Wegimont, a spokesperson for the PPSD, the decision to close 360 is final.

Exactly what the newly merged school will look like remains to be determined, district leadership said.


Why close 360?

At the Feb. 15 PPSD school board meeting, a panel hosted by the Rhode Island Department of Education and the PPSD administration presented the merger decision and answered questions posed by board members. 

“The district made a recommendation … to merge the two schools into a single school in order to maximize the opportunities for students in both schools,” Dr. Kelvin Roldán, deputy commissioner for system transformation at RIDE, said at the meeting. 

According to the panel, factors in the decision included a lack of Advanced Placement opportunities, the school’s 16.2% dropout and 75% graduation rate, 1.5% math and 8.2% English proficiency scores. Currently, 360 and JSEC have similar proficiency, dropout and graduation rates — both below the district average and well below the district’s goals. 

Budget concerns also factored into the decision to merge the two schools, which could save the district $1.9 million, according to the panel. “Running small schools, while there are certainly wonderful aspects … also (comes) with significant costs,” PPSD Deputy Superintendent of Operations Zachary Scott said at the meeting. 

“With the expiration of federal funds and flat funding from the City of Providence, the District is facing considerable financial challenges that will result in difficult decisions,” Wegimont wrote in an email to The Herald. 

360 High School has a lower teacher-to-student ratio than other schools in the district, which makes it more expensive to operate, the panel added. “Financially, every one student is a considerable financial weight” said the superintendent’s Chief of Staff Scott Sutherland. 

The two schools being merged, which currently share a campus, are the district’s smallest high schools. The high school at JSEC has been under a mandatory redesign effort aiming to turn it into a specialty life sciences academy. According to letters from RIDE Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, “schools that have been identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement for four years must undergo a school redesign process.” 

360 was not selected for redesign because it was not identified for CSI until 2019, according to Ellen Foley, a STEM Learning Facilitator at 360 and former Associate Director of the Annenberg Institute. 

Foley added that the district does not anticipate 360 to improve in the proficiency test happening this April, which determines whether a school is identified for CSI, another factor in its closure.


How the decision was made

Professional development work throughout the fall focused on ways to improve 360, according to the Feb. 15 panel members. New accountability metrics reviewed by the district in January and information about the looming budget deficit immediately preceded the recommendation to close the school.

PPSD leadership closely reviewed 360’s performance data and made a recommendation for the merger to the Commissioner of Education,” Wegimont wrote in an email to The Herald. Infante-Green “had the authority to effectuate the merger under the Crowley Act, which governs state interventions like the one in Providence,” Wegimont added. 

At the Feb. 15 meeting, the panel assured community members that 360’s school principal was included in discussions about the need to improve the school’s performance. But members of the 360 community responded that they were never directly told closure was a possibility. 

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“There was no communication from PPSD that our school was even at risk of being closed,” said Christian Martinez, a PPSD alum and math learning facilitator at 360, at the Feb. 15 meeting. Several other community members made similar claims. 

The school board made it clear that they were not consulted before the decision to close 360 High School was made. “I found out about 360 by reading about it in the Boston Globe,” said George Matouk, a school board member, at the Feb. 15 board meeting. “I think that says a lot about some of the dysfunction that’s going on in the process of making important strategic decisions.”

Wegimont wrote that “this decision considers the needs and wellbeing of the entire District and aims to expand access to educational offerings for students,” and is more financially feasible than expanding educational options at both schools.

Community backlash

On Feb. 14, organizers from the R.I. chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation led a rally to “Take Back Our Schools” and stop the closure of 360.

“The 360 struggle felt like (a) sign that people weren’t going to take this sitting down,” said Maya Leher MAT ’23, a PPSD teacher and organizer with PSL. “It was time to use it to galvanize a larger movement around the schools.”

In a speech at the rally, Providence Student Union Co-Director of the Leadership Team Dexter Vincent noted that 360’s closure follows a broader pattern in the district of pushing for larger schools. 

“They are sacrificing the education of tens of thousands of students just to balance the budget,” he said. “Larger schools may be cheaper to operate, but they are directly contrary to improving this city’s education standard.” 

To Leher, the merger comes at a time of growing displeasure with district administration. “No one in the district has taken accountability for the reasons that … students are fleeing the district, nor the reason that teachers have been leaving the district in droves,” Leher said, noting that the number of teachers in the district has decreased by “a couple of percentage points.”

Some teachers at 360 disputed the accuracy of the proficiency and graduation rate data that district leaders said prompted the closure decision.

The calculation of math and English proficiency rates is based on SAT scores, said Foley and Rebecca Dalum ’22, Math Learning Facilitator at 360. The SAT is not translated into other languages, which they say negatively affects 360 — a school where 48.1% of students are multilingual learners, compared to 12.5% statewide.

Foley also noted that students with Individualized Educational Plans who go into transitional services until they are 21 are not counted as graduates. “We encourage them to go to transition services because it’s support that they might need on the path to being a productive citizen,” said Foley. But “even a few of those students can make a big impact on the graduation rate.”

Foley, whose background is in education reform research, stated that 360 has many factors that indicate future academic excellence — student engagement, staff stability and trust. “What underlies all of it really is trust in (the) school,” said Foley. 

School board response

Over 200 community members attended the PPSD school board meeting on Feb. 15. At least 100 individuals were told by PPSD officials to remain in a basement overflow room and watched the meeting via a YouTube livestream projected on big screens. After about two hours, a community member urged those in the basement to move upstairs, at which point the police were called due to capacity issues.

“It seems like community participation isn’t necessarily welcome in the space. And the fact that they called the police … (was) so very undemocratic,” said Breana Alcantara ’27, a co-lead of SEE’s redistribution team.

Teachers, students, alumni, parents, activists and local politicians testified to 360’s importance.

“I didn’t think that I would make it past my 18th birthday, but now I feel like I can succeed in any career path that I choose,” said Nicole McClelland, a 360 senior, in a comment to the board. “If you choose to close 360, not only will you be closing a school, you’ll be closing a safe space, a home, a family.”

“Our students are celebrated members of our community because of the culture built by our administrators, Principal Kerry Tuttlebee and Assistant Principal Richlieu Norris,” said Andrew Cormier, a special education teacher at 360, in a comment to the board. “The unexpected closure of 360 High School feels like another callous example … of those with disabilities being an afterthought.”

The school board also expressed displeasure and confusion over the decision. 

“What I’m hearing is that, just like us school board members, the community at 360 doesn’t feel like they knew about this until it was happening to them,” said new board member Melissa Hughes at the Feb. 15 meeting. Hughes noted that community engagement is a central pillar of the district’s Turnaround Action Plan

“I agree and understand that we are facing some catastrophic budget issues,” she added. “But we have to do better about engaging folks along the way,” Hughes added.

The board also expressed frustration with the district’s rhetoric around the decision. “When something like this happens and a decision is made to close a school and the people who make the decision insist on using the word ‘merge,’ it makes it all worse,” said Matouk in a comment at the Feb. 15 meeting. “There is nothing … that has convinced any of us that this is a merger. 360 is being closed.”

Moving forward

Wegimont stressed that the decision is intended to increase opportunities for students. 

“The merger will enable 360 students to have greater access to electives, (Career and Technical Education) pathways, sports, student activities and a whole new set of theme-specific experiences that faculty and staff are currently designing with a focus on in-demand, high-wage industries,” he wrote. 

The PPSD is “still at the early stages of the redesign process, so we thought it was an easier way to fold 360 in,” Sutherland said. Current 360 students will have guaranteed spots in the newly merged life sciences program and the option to fill out a preference form expressing their interest in other high schools. They will not have guaranteed priority admission to other schools, according to the RIDE panel.

For teachers and staff at 360, openings at JSEC are still to be determined. 360 staff will not be given priority for employment at JSEC over other in-district displaced teachers, according to the RIDE panel. Positions at schools throughout the district will be open to internally displaced applicants before they are posted to non-PPSD teachers, per the Providence Teachers Union contract

“The number of total staff members that will be at the Juanita Sanchez Life (Sciences) Institute will depend on overall programming which is being refined currently,” wrote Wegimont. “Students themselves will be surveyed to help shape program offerings and that will guide overall staff capacity needed.” He added that teams from the PPSD Office of Human Resources will support staff through the hiring process. 

While Suchite is not planning on giving up in the fight to keep 360 open, she said she hopes that the staff is retained if the decision goes through. “I feel like they could definitely keep the teachers, as they would leave a part of 360 there,” said Suchite.

The district has decided that the current JSEC principal, Ariana Testa, will remain principal after the schools merge. 

Representative David Morales shared plans to re-introduce legislation requiring “a public process in place before a decision (to close a school) is ever finalized” in a comment at the Feb. 15 meeting. “The decision to close a school is a sensitive one that requires community dialogue,” he noted, adding that no such dialogue has occurred.

In an interview with The Herald, Vincent noted that he does not think the closure decision has to be final. In 2007, when the district attempted to demolish Nathan Bishop Middle School, “community backlash was strong enough there that they decided to renovate the school,” he said. 

“The 360 students are so heavily organizing because they are such a tight-knit community,” said Leher. Foley noted that the community plans to keep organizing and rallying around the Feb. 27 state school board meeting.

“360 is like a family and people are wanting to fight for it,” Lindstrom Peralta said. “If we somehow end up winning this battle and stay open, I feel like, God, it would make us stronger than ever.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that 360 High School was the third school closing at the end of the 2023-24 academic year, alongside two other elementary schools. The two other elementary schools closed during the 2022-2023 academic year. The Herald regrets the error. 

Ciara Meyer

Ciara Meyer is a Senior Staff Writer covering the Beyond Brown beat. She is from Saratoga Springs, New York and plans on concentrating in Statistics and English nonfiction. In her free time, she loves scrapbooking and building lego flowers.

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