In the Meantime

Providence public school students circumvent a doomed architecture

by Ella Comberg

Illustration by Dorothy Windham

published February 16, 2018


When Alice Rayner was a senior in high school, they wrote a blog post for “the Purple Pages,” a Tumblr account self-described as “the best blog from Classical High School eva.” The post took the form of a mock-interview with an unconventional subject: their high school’s despised building. Writing from the perspective of the building, Rayner explains why so many Classical students hate their high school's physical structure: “I exist merely to contain you, lock you in, control and confine you. How can I be anything for you but hideous?”  

Four years later, the assignment from their creative writing class is still floating around the internet. The post, entitled “It’s Like Sooo Ugly,” is practically the only writing online that examines the confining Brutalist architecture employed at Rhode Island’s top-ranked public high school. Situated at the intersection of Federal Hill, the West End, and Upper South Providence, Classical’s block-long building is replete with raw concrete facades, classrooms without windows, and cement plazas instead of green space. Violet Windham, a current senior, puts it simply: “The building makes it depressing to go to Classical.” But in a school district that Rayner describes as “preoccupied with order,” using an “unyielding, monolithic” form in order to corral students makes perfect sense.

Indeed, the style, imposing yet aestheticized, can be found most frequently on university campuses across the country—Yale, Harvard, UCal, the lists goes on. But when it comes to secondary education, Classical is the only high school in the state that employs the distinctively modern style. Unlike these elite and well-endowed universities, Classical’s place in the Providence Public School district means that it doesn’t receive the same kind of constant maintenance that Brutalist buildings demand; so while Brown University’s List Art Center across town retains an unscathed concrete, Classical accumulates a dark grey patina that makes students cringe. 


Classical students’ hatred for their building is far more than an aesthetic concern—the school is ugly and confining, but it’s also falling apart. Industrial trash cans line the halls whenever it rains to catch the inevitable leaks. Water fountains spout yellowed water every day. Bunsen burners leak gas into science classrooms. Madi Kilgore, a Classical senior, told the Independent that the bathroom at her school is always shut down because of flooding, “and if you’re lucky enough to get to use the bathroom, there’s no soap or toilet paper, or towels. The walls between the stalls are ripped out so there’s two toilets next to each other in a stall.”  

Consistently beating out wealthier suburban high schools to sit atop US News’ Best High Schools list, Classical requires students to take an entrance exam for admission; 75 percent of students are people of color and 63 percent are from low-income families. For these teenagers, who spend their days in constricting and crumbling classrooms, maintaining the school’s reputation is an uphill battle. Ceiling tiles fall on their heads, they shiver in under-heated classrooms, and even if they wanted to leave, they couldn’t—in true brutalist fashion, the building's architects built very few exits. As Tati Hall, who attended the nearby Providence Career and Technical Academy, told the Indy, “so much pressure is put on the Classical students to be the best, but that facility is legit disgusting.” 

Inappropriate design and poor upkeep cause Classical’s unrelenting physical problems. Built in 1973, the building features a flat roof characteristic of the era’s modernism, impractical for New England winters. The concrete walls that were hailed for their simplicity and affordability in the 60's and 70's today make the building unbearably hot in the beginning and end of the school year, and unbearably cold during the winter months. A tunnel between the school’s main building and auditorium, once novel, is now another item on Classical’s laundry list of physical maladies, flooding almost monthly. 

Unable to withstand the slightest wear, Classical’s midcentury architecture and ongoing deterioration have begun to amalgamate into one unmanageable problem—a perfect storm of financial neglect and bad design culminates in teenagers traversing freezing cold cement tunnels. 


Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who attended Classical in the nineties, is aware of its inherent faults. In August, he announced that he would borrow roughly $400 million for city school repairs over the next decade. Nearly every news article on the mayor’s commitment featured the same photo of brown liquid dripping from a ceiling tile at Classical. As the academic year began in September and students at Classical returned to their sweltering school, they wondered if they might be next on the city’s docket for repairs. With Mayor Elorza’s announcement came hope. 

The mayor’s plan for capital improvement in Providence is much needed, even beyond Classical. A 2017 report from the Rhode Island Department of Education found that of the city’s eight public high schools, five, including Classical, are in below average or poor condition, and only three were in good or average condition. The plight of Classical students is echoed across the city, oftentimes more urgently—at Hope High School on the East Side, an entire bathroom goes unused because of asbestos. 

In Massachusetts, school buildings don’t face the same kind of long-term neglect. There, the state legislature has invested public money in school facilities seven times in the past decade. Rhode Island, in contrast, hasn’t issued a bond for school building upgrades in over 20 years. The Ocean State is now playing catch-up to follow Massachusetts’ lead, with Governor Gina Raimondo committing to fund $1 billion worth of school facility improvements over the next decade. The money will take the form of generous reimbursements to cities and towns that front the money for repairs. Providence would receive a huge chunk, making Elorza’s plans possible. 


The Providence Student Union (PSU), a youth-led student advocacy group, says that even if Providence schools see some of this state money, it will likely make little difference. Classical student by day and PSU organizer by night, Madi Kilgore argues that even if the roughly $400 million is approved, once “they spread that across the schools, it’s not even going to fix them, it’s just going to wrap up some pipes and put a bandage on the schools.” That message rings particularly true at Classical, which, Kilgore told the Indy, “is just so beyond repair.” 

Providence schools much older than Classical that were built in other styles have been able to undergo renovations and function well. Take Providence’s Central High, for example: a Tudor revival building built in the forties that underwent major renovations in 2007 and is now in “good” condition, per the Department of Education’s standards. It would only take $8 million to keep Central running safely for the next five years, in contrast to Classical’s $28 million. Because Central employs a less radical architectural style, its structure is more appropriate for both the area’s climate and the strains brought on by a high school’s heavy use. Classical’s structure, on the other hand, is inherently prone to both flooding and leaks, which in turn create a snowballing financial burden. The building has got to go. 

Kilgore describes how on one occasion, a gas leak in Classical’s science department caused the whole school to evacuate. “It triggered the fire alarms and everyone had to leave school. It was snowing outside. And while we were sitting outside in the cold for two hours, everyone thought the school was going to burn down. But it’s brick and concrete. The only way you’re getting this school to crumble is with a sledgehammer at the wall.” Such is Classical’s paradox: too structurally sound to force the city into funding a new building, but susceptible to the kind of constant, minor damage that, when unrelenting, makes students feel like people in power—administrators at Classical and in the school district, politicians in city and state government—don’t care about them. 


Classical desperately needs a new building, but such dramatic architectural upheaval could take years. With no legislation passed yet, just numbers floating around the capitol, the task of repairing Providence’s schools could easily outlive both Raimondo and Elorza’s terms. And a drawn-out political process means that current high school students will graduate before seeing any real changes. Tati Hall, the PSU’s Campaign Organizer, argues that because Elorza’s plans aren’t immediate, they will hurt current students even beyond high school: “All those students who are in high school now are going to grow up and be adults, and they’re going to have a tax increase.” At eighteen, Hall worries that “even if the $400 million passes, that’s going be on us in 10 years.” 

For now, students wait to see what the state will come up with. But they’re not waiting quietly. 

Hall, Kilgore, and dozens of other teenagers work tirelessly at the PSU—some of them after school, others full time—to create a student-centered alternative to state-driven action. Where the Rhode Island Department of Education aims for “warm, safe, and dry” schools, the PSU demands “safe, comfortable, and healthy” buildings in Article 13 of their Student Bill of Rights (SBR). This subtle difference in language is telling. Organizers at the PSU, who attend public schools across the district, expect more than the bare minimum from the buildings where they’re mandated to spend thousands of hours a year (the school district’s official motto is “every child, in school, every day, on time.”) 

Article 13 of the SBR, known as “Fix Our Schools,” wraps up the district’s architectural afflictions into one neat package. Pleas for clean bathrooms and clean water, temperature control and natural light, all constitute one article of the twenty-two article-long bill. When understood in the context of the SBR, where they’re given a name and an article number, Classical’s architectural and condition problems begin to feel more manageable. Maxx Diensthuber, who attends E-cubed Academy in Smith Hill and runs the PSU’s training programs, says that this is part of the organization’s power; it’s helped him “give a name” to the problems he has faced in Providence schools. “Once you know something is real, it gives you power to fight back against it,” Diensthuber told the Indy. 

The comprehensive nature of the SBR also means that other issues, like clean tap water, which are not directly related to construction but are nonetheless relevant to the school’s physical condition, are given attention. As Kilgore explains of Classical, “going to the bubbler and getting a drink, you see dirty water. If the water isn’t brown-looking, it just tastes nasty. And people still drink it, because there’s nothing else to drink.” Classical’s water problem is not anomalous. At some Providence schools, like West Broadway Middle School a few blocks away, the lead content in water fountains has reached 38 parts-per-billion; the EPA marks 5 parts-per-billion as hazardous. Superintendent Christopher Maher attempted to address the issue—which is caused by the buildings’ aging pipes—by mandating that schools put a watercooler in the cafeteria. But at Classical, it’s usually empty by second period. “So lunch comes and the milk is expired, and the water jug is empty, so what are you gonna drink?” Kilgore wonders. 


As students continue to drink dirty water, the PSU is pushing legislators for more long-term solutions than individual water coolers. Tati Hall explains the PSU’s advocacy plan—Agua Action—to address the water component of Article 13: “We want to go to the statehouse and set up a lemonade stand and ask folks in power, would you drink this? Would you let your kids drink this?” The lemonade stand idea is derived from the water the bubbler’s spout, so tainted that it can look yellow at times. 

The PSU organizers who work on “Fix Our Schools” say they thought school construction reform was so important because it was so visible, from the color of the water to the facade of a building. Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA), which sits almost immediately next to Classical, illustrates well the power of a visibly new building. Built in 2009, the city invested $72 million in state-of-the-art, sustainable architecture for its career prep institute. With glass-tiled walls and dramatic modern light fixtures, PCTA looks more like a building at a well-endowed university building than a public school in a financially troubled city. And students love the building. Tati Hall, who attended PCTA for three years, says they didn’t realize what a luxury it was to go there until they were sent to Central: “I think [PCTA students] have more opportunities than any school in Providence because of all the access to technology. If you need to get something done, there are like 12 different tech areas to back you up and you’re going to get all the tools you need.” 

A gleaming, modernized building like PCTA’s would revolutionize Classical students’ education. The PSU says that in order to build another structure like that, and to really get to the heart of the issues that Fix Our Schools addresses (dirty water, leaky ceilings, structural deficiency), Raimondo needs to commit to $3 billion over the coming decade, not just the $1 billion she says she’s aiming for. The PSU’s number is derived the RI School Buildings Task Force’s recommendation that the state commit $2.2 billion to repairs over the coming decade. More money at the state level means more money for Providence, which puts more significant, long-term repairs on the table.  


The PSU organizers are hopeful that the money will pass at the state level and work its way back to Providence schools, but they know that it could be years before they see tangible changes. As state monetary policy becomes a perpetual waiting game, students find that the PSU is both an avenue for activism and a physical space for coping. If Classical stands a brutal behemoth on one side of Westminster Street, the PSU’s offices sit immediately opposite the street in a reused 19th-century office building—a place where they can learn how to advocate for the causes they care about most, in a building where they like to spend time. 

The PSU is radical but not unique in its approach to activism, nor in its location on the strip of Westminster just west of I-95. Other organizations like Youth Pride RI and New Urban Arts have taken root on the same block, forming tangible alternative spaces close to, but visually distinct from, Classical’s rotting concrete plazas. New Urban Arts’ big-windowed studio provides programming to over 400 high school students from all over the city, who work in various media studios or study in a designated quiet room. The PSU’s headquarters down the street are similarly comfortable, furnished with used couches, student artwork, and whiteboards planning upcoming campaigns.  

Tati Hall lies on pillows on the floor as they explain the PSU’s Fix Our Schools campaign. They get up to turn off the overhead fluorescent light, lighting the room with a small floor lamp. The mood of the room becomes palpably different with the change. They explain how in classrooms with no windows, using a small lamp like this makes all the difference: “the fact that we don’t have access to natural light, just fluorescent lighting, definitely has an effect on the way a student is focusing.” This is the ethos of the PSU; to demand basic changes that drastically improve student experience. 

After turning on the lamp, Hall explains what PSU has done for them: “I’ve learned how to get respect from folks who otherwise wouldn’t have respected me, or would have thought of me as small. I’ve learned how to really project my powers.” For now, they’re using that power to get one message across, loud and clear: “If you’re going force me to be in a building for 8 hours, it’s going to be a nice building and that’s that.” 

ELLA COMBERG B’20 is rooting for the Classical Purples.