I came across an article in the Projo the other day.
Entitled “Providence’s School Management Team Dispersing”, it details the “exodus” of five of six top managers of the Providence School Department, including Tom Brady, Sharon Contreras, Stefanie Federico, Matthew Clarkin, and Kim Rose. The details can be found at the following link:
Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Educational Policy, is quoted as stating, “It could set back a district for years in terms of the loss of valued leadership, institutional memory and just people who know how to get things done.”
Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, is quoted as saying that too much emphasis is placed on the superintendent as school savior, the superhero who rides into town and saves the day (lack of “” per the article).
Around the same time, I received an email message from a friend, attaching a news article link and telling me that “we dodged a bullet.”
The article was about a new superintendent being chosen to lead Cumberland’s Schools.
This was very important to me not because of who was chosen, but who was not… my child’s middle school Principal, Michael Lazzareschi.
So this got me thinking…
It has always been clear that dynamic, charismatic leaders can make something good into something great. Even better than making something great is leaving behind a structure or framework to continue that level of greatness.
We are all very dismayed by the turmoil at 797 Westminster. I’m sure Carleton Jones and Paula Shannon are doing their best to hold things together until Susan Lusi arrives. The concerns that have been aired about how difficult it may be to hire a management team have some truth to them… it is frightening to think about our school system trying to move forward without a strong central office. All the groundwork that has been laid over the past few years (aligned instruction, curriculum development, criterion based hiring) may be lost in the shuffle over school closings, teacher firings, endless court cases, and now this leadership drain.
Frankly I was also very frightened about the prospect of losing our wonderful middle school principal.
But the comment about institutional memory got me thinking…
Institutional memory in the Providence School system is alive and well, and resides in the form of committed parents, teachers, and school administrators. For the moment, I’d like to focus on the parents.
It was institutional memory that recently led some parents to protest the reassignment of the Vartan Gregorian Principal without any parental engagement. My wife and I (as parents) have served on several Principal selection committees at several schools over the years. This decision was a fait accompli, foisted upon the Principal and school community without any outreach to or involvement of the parents.
It was institutional memory that recently led the Martin Luther King PTO to protest the recision of the plan to place an Assistant Principal in their school. We all remember that the number of administrators in a school was usually based upon the number of students, and MLK will likely top 600 children this coming year as it receives students from some of the elementary schools which have been closed.
RIDE and PPSD are both struggling to come up with a teacher evaluation plan. And yet, it is institutional memory that allows any active parent in school building to know who the ineffective teachers in that building are (at Classical, for example, they are the teachers whose students (sometimes the brightest) year after year are getting tutors to help comprehend the material that is so poorly taught in class). Why is systematizing an evaluation process so difficult?
Active PTOs support numerous school events throughout the year, year after year (another form of institutional memory). Some go so far as to bring in supplemental programming, or provide support to teachers whose classroom needs are unmet by the limited school department budget.
Even among our School Board, consider the institutional memory possessed by Ms. Crain, Mr. Touray, Ms. Sanchez, Mr. Oliveira, Mr. Wise, Mr. Lalli, and Mr. Gould (before his departure) as either parents of children who attend or have attended PPSD schools, or as individuals who went to our schools themselves. No matter what side you take about the school closings and teacher firings, you have to appreciate that the Board made impossible decisions within a ridiculous time constraint. The Board members took their fiduciary and educational responsibilities seriously, and have served the City honorably. The Mayor recently appointed an education task force, many members of which also possess significant amounts of institutional memory. Hopefully this task force will work alongside the School Board, and not attempt to supplant it.
The loss of our Principal at Nathan Bishop would have been devastating. And yet, our Principal has set our ship on a smooth course. Along with a strong PTO (which came together before the school reopened) and dedicated teachers, he has established a strong esprit de corps and culture within the school. If he leaves at some point, of course we would want another dedicated, dynamic principal, but the groundwork for a great school has been laid.
So, what is the point here? Yes, the school department needs strong central leadership. But the existing and incoming leadership needs to recognize the resources that already exist here. No, parents cannot write curricula, or establish pedagogy, but we can play a role in helping to determine the direction in which our school system should move. Although parental engagement has been slowly improving, it is still often unidirectional, and trivializes the participation of parents in the process of governance. I’m sure teachers and administrators hate to consider this, but parents are both the purchasers (as taxpayers) and consumers (as parents of school children) of school department services, and have every right to work as partners with the administration to support and improve our schools.
Along with a change in leadership, there needs to be a change in the attitude toward parental engagement. Parents are a source of institutional memory for the Providence school system, and must be allowed to work alongside administrators toward the common goal of making our schools high achieving facilities that benefit all children, and are the schools of choice for Providence residents.