Separation by Design

by Erin West

published April 3, 2015

This fall, the Providence Public School Department will open two new specialty high schools with the help of a $3 million grant from the New York-based Carnegie Corporation. The announcement about these two schools follows other recent openings of schools, such as the charter Mayoral Academies. The Carnegie-funded schools, which PPSD is temporarily naming the Opportunity by Design (OBD) schools, have again sparked a reoccurring debate on how Providence students can be most successful.

PPSD Superintendent Susan Lusi is a strong proponent of the OBD schools. In a recent op-ed in The Providence Journal, she wrote that she “looks forward to learning from their successes and sharing their stories as proof points of what is possible in urban education.” The OBD schools promise to incorporate creative teaching practices such as flexible schedules, out-of-the classroom learning, and an emphasis on using technology. Lusi believes in the potential of the OBD schools as places to experiment with learning. Ideally, some of their best practices will eventually be implemented throughout the public school system.

Carole Marshall, a Providence public school teacher for over 20 years, is more skeptical. She wrote in The Providence Journal this February, “Let’s not waste our time on something that’s a proven failure, the school-within-a-school model,” referring to the OBD programs. In order to use its resources more efficiently, PPSD is not creating new buildings for these schools, but is housing them within two already existing high schools: Hope and Mt. Pleasant.

Hope and Mt. Pleasant high schools both struggle with tight budgets, low attendance rates, and below average test scores. Starting this fall, their buildings will be home to Carnegie’s well-funded, creative learning programs. Stark contrasts between fully government-funded public schools and specialty schools that receive private funding, resources, and attention are common in urban districts, but the two types of schools are usually located on separate campuses. This fall, the disparity between resources and attention given to different programs will be a glaring daily reality for all students and faculty in the Hope and Mt. Pleasant buildings.

To put the Carnegie grant in perspective, Providence spends approximately $15,400 per high school student. The $3 million from Carnegie split between the two school’s enrollments over three years would even out to $2,500 extra per student (though the budget does not explicitly allocate the funding per student). This $19,000 total figure stands in contrast to the roughly $13,500 that was spent on each Hope student last year. In essence, with the OBD schools, the school district is choosing to invest more in a small, select group of students, while the majority of students are left on the outside of these special programs and with less resources.

This fall, the Carnegie money will enter a school with a constricting budget and a lack of infrastructure and technology. Sometimes it’s simple things for Gwendolyn Rogers, a current teacher at Hope, that affect her ability to innovate like the faculty of the OBD schools will be able to. Rogers feels like teachers at Hope are strongly encouraged to be creative and incorporate technology into the classroom, but showing her students the thought-provoking video clips she found is challenging when most of her classrooms do not have projectors or Smart Boards. Besides Smart Boards, she says there are about two reliable copy machines for the over 75 faculty members, and not every classroom even has Wi-Fi. One anonymous Hope senior is unhappy about the Carnegie school and told the Independent, “[Hope] needs an upgrade, not another school going into it.” Instead of spending money on a new school entirely, she said she would rather see dollars going to fix the auditorium ceiling that's falling apart or to the backstage room that remains completely ruined from a fire that happened years ago.

When talking about resources allocated to Hope and Mt. Pleasant students and to OBD students, PPSD Communications Director Christina O’Reilly told the Independent, “There may be a perception of a greater difference than there actually is. There is no difference between an OBD student and a Hope student in terms of what kind of resources get put into them except what comes over and above with this grant.” After the next three years, O’Reilly says the spending should roughly even out between OBD and Hope students because “it is in nobody’s interest to funnel a lot of extra money into any one school.” Even after the grant runs out, however, the extra technology and improved infrastructure will certainly stick around for OBD students. “In the end, it doesn’t matter” a teacher at Hope anonymously told the Independent. “If people perceive disparity, the tension and resentment are real.”

It's the prospect of this stark separation and inequality that concerns Marshall, who was a Hope High School teacher when the third floor of the building was home to another school-within-a-school. From the late 80s to the early 2000s, the Essential School operated as a small, resource-rich program for high-achieving students. During her years at Hope, Marshall witnessed the Essential School’s detrimental effect on Hope students’ morale. She says Hope students felt “envy and anger” every time they realized that they were treated differently from the students upstairs. Marshall says Hope kids began saying they attended the “Unessential School.” Eventually, in response to the conflict, Hope community members including Marshall phased out the Essential School.

Gwendolyn Rogers worries that next fall, Hope students will again feel disregarded. Rogers feels especially uncomfortable with recent conversations surrounding how Carnegie students might be differentiated from Hope kids. PPSD Communications Director Christina O’Reilly explained to the Independent that uniforms are not being considered but that badges or ID cards are possibilities for security purposes and to help administrators and faculty identify students. In whatever form it takes, Rogers told the Independent that “if you’re going to differentiate, you’re going to send implicit messages that different students get different resources and treatment.”

Despite all these concerns, inaugural principal of the OBD in Hope Kerry Tuttlebee believes the relationship between the two schools does not have to be contentious, but rather collaborative. She told the Independent that she sees a “two-way reciprocal relationship with other schools… [in which] they are learning from us and we are learning from them.” She noted that students will share spaces like the cafeteria, gymnasiums, and play on the same athletic teams. She said it is possible they could use some of the Carnegie money to improve these shared spaces, which would benefit both schools. Besides financial spillover, both Tuttlebee and O’Reilly stressed to the Independent that these schools are worth investing in because there will also be spillover of methods and teaching practices. They believe being able to build these schools from the ground up will allow for innovation that would not be possible within an existing school with a long history and tradition of practices. As a result of this freedom, O’Reilly says, “these ideas are going to be brought as broadly as possible across other schools.” She believes most importantly that “it is not a situation of creating have and have-nots; it’s a situation of creating forerunners and immediate followers.”

But how exactly will the immediate followers feel? While the debate over what is best for students and how these new developments will impact their well-being rages on, what the actual students think may not be so clear. Rogers says she has tried to broach the topic of the OBD in her Hope classroom, but students often shrug their shoulders at it. They say the new school bothers them but they don’t see Carnegie as a dramatic change. The students at Hope see this shake-up coming, but for them, this is the norm. Placing Carnegie in Hope next year is yet another link in the endless chain of experiments and adjustments that Providence students face. Rogers says it’s possible that “students could experience this and not realize it or be able to articulate it because it feels natural.”


ERIN WEST B'18 is not shrugging her shoulders.