It’s easy to love the idea of collaboration, the notion that everyone—even labor and management– can get along and work through the tough spots. So we’re received plenty of praise for pointing to the possibilities of the union-district restart effort in Providence.
But it’s just as easy to hate the fuzzy concept, what one commenter called “nothing more than an adult exercise that will do nothing but distract from real change for kids.” Having “collaborated” in reforms myself, some successful and some not, I get the point. Collaboration can mean more meetings to decide on a meeting time that works for everyone and, in turn, can be really quite meaningless for school change and the kids that are wasting away their hours and days in bad schools. And I also understand the points of a couple of others who’ve said that Providence’s union-district collaboration won’t really work, that it’s not that different, and that there’s a lot more to it. Of course it may not work—given how difficult it is to change a low-performing school, most turnarounds probably won’t succeed, at least not quickly. On the same note, it’s also true that most of what’s happening in Providence isn’t very different from what’s happening in struggling districts and schools everywhere. The turnaround plans indeed have many of the same elements of other turnarounds—more site-based decision-making, especially around hiring, increased student academic supports, more teacher planning time, extended schedules, etc. That’s an important point—that the Providence example is actually very similar to other turnaround efforts, with the people and timelines and schedules and politics that make or break it. But it has also taken shape and is taking place with the union on board, as a co-designer of the plan from the very beginning. That is quite unique, particularly in a place like Providence, and worth talking about as we try to figure out, unfortunately on separate but parallel tracks, how best to improve failing schools and whether unions are a friend or a foe to reform.
Is there more to the story than we told? Without a doubt. In my time researching and visiting Providence last year I heard at least a dozen backstories about school reform and city politics, “this happened because…” or “that’s like that since…,” each replete with a different cast of characters, conflict, motive, and aftermath. Power plays by the school board, quiet strategic moves by the state, school and district politics (why he or she really got this job or that transfer), and the list goes on. We actually struggled quite a bit to determine which pieces had merit and needed to be told as part of this story. In fairness, we might have missed some. For example, one piece we wrote about, but didn’t include in the final paper, is about Hope High School, or more importantly about the fact that Providence has tried to turn around schools before in very similar ways. Here’s a piece of it:
Hope High School is not one of the four “restart” schools in Providence. But it is perhaps the best-known turnaround school in the city. Once called “Hopeless High” by its students, the school was a place where teachers seemed to move as often as the students, where truancy was rampant, and where only half of its mostly poor and minority students made it to graduation. In 2005, after attempts to fix the school had failed, the state took control of Hope, and ordered sweeping changes aimed at boosting instructional support, raising standards, and improving achievement. What happened after that is important not just for Hope and for the four restart schools that might learn from it, but for the thousands of failing schools across the country that will “turn around” in the next several years.
Change wasn’t easy at Hope– half of the roughly 100 teachers chose to leave and had to be replaced in one summer. Nicholas Donahue, now president of the Boston-based Nellie Mae Education Foundation, was appointed by then-state commissioner Peter McWalters to serve as “Special Master” in charge of overseeing the implementation of these changes. When he arrived, he said, “the principals were scrambling to hire teachers right before school started. Then, he said, “on the first day of school, kids are outside standing in the rain because of massive flooding and an electrical fire. It was a mess.” As Donahue worked to uphold the state orders, he said it was “like paddling a rowboat put together by gum.”
But by most accounts, change happened. Several years of hard work and major funding—roughly $2 million a year—made Hope High School a better place. More staff meant more personalized attention for students. Block scheduling meant more planning time for teachers and time for individual advisories for students. In November of 2006, a survey of staff conducted for a review found greater staff satisfaction, a greater sense of collective efforts, and better parent and community relations. As required by the order, the school had also established partnerships with higher education institutions, including Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson and Wales University, Brown University and Rhode Island College. Donohue’s final report to the state said it all: “Order has been restored to Hope.” Just a year and half after the reforms were implemented, Hope High School was returned to district control.[i]
A turnaround success story? Not quite. In 2009, faced with a shrinking budget and abiding by his own pledge to align curriculum, instruction, and professional development district-wide, Superintendent Tom Brady announced plans to cut off the additional funding for Hope and redistribute it across the district. Union president Steve Smith knew immediately what those cuts meant: no more extra staff and no more block schedules for a school that he saw as just coming into its own. “It [was] pulling the rug out,” says Smith, “after so much work, so much progress.” Hope students literally took to the streets in protest. The reforms, they claimed, had resulted in better connections with teachers, gains in reading and writing, fewer suspensions, and a safer environment.
Brady, however, pointed to lagging student performance at Hope, which barely budged despite the reforms. In 2009, the school’s aggregate proficiency rates on the New England Common Assessments Program were 58 percent for reading, 23 percent for writing, and just 8 percent for math. The graduation rate still barely topped 50 percent. Citing the need to ensure equity across schools, Brady argued for consistency: all schools, he said, should have the same high expectations and the same graduation requirements.
Donohue says he understands Brady’s decision—with no more funding, there was little choice—but he questions what the decision will mean for Hope, and for other “turnaround” schools. “This is part of the larger fallacy of ‘turnaround’ nationwide. We take these really low-capacity schools and expect them to improve so quickly. Is the strategy to make these schools pilots and then scale to the rest of the district? Or is it to just give them a time to get them up to speed so they can go back and join the rest of the pack?”
Donohue’s is a salient question not just for Hope but for the four other Providence schools that are being “restarted” this year with a surge of new energy and funds. Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist says the state has learned lessons from the Hope experience, both from the initial intervention and from the tensions that arose when the school was handed back to the district. “[Hope] was about changing conditions for learning,” she says, “but there wasn’t a shared commitment to a set of measures of success. That’s the difference.”
The battle over Hope, by the way, is far from over. Last September, in response to a lawsuit filed by a student group, Commissioner Gist ruled in favor of the students, ordering the district to restore 84 minutes of planning time to the weekly schedules of teachers at Hope. The city immediately appealed. In November, Gist appointed a(nother) “special visitor” to the school to help the school work out new schedules. Jack Lyle, former principal of the now-infamous Central Falls High School, took the post and pledged to reinstate the teacher planning time by the start of the new semester. That start is now, late January, but the decision is still up in the air, with the latest rounds of arguments at a superior court hearing scheduled for this week.