“It’s mad cold out here,” yells Patrick Kim of the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM). It’s a chilly afternoon, and the 18 RIPTA bus zooms across Westminster Street. Directly outside of the Providence School Department, the Providence Student Union (PSU) along with other organizations kicked off their #OurHistoryMatters campaign, which centers on a push for ethnic studies classes in Providence Public Schools. Providence, unlike its neighboring districts, has a diverse student body. This academic year, the district is made up primarily of Hispanics, who are 64% of the student body. African-Americans, who make up 17%, are the second most populous group. White students make up only 9% of the total student demographic. Asians are 5% of the student population. Yet, even though there is a clear majority of nonwhite students, there seems to be little education that is targeted specifically to that demographic. As part of the #OurHistoryMatters campaign, students in Providence High Schools are demanding that ethnic studies classes be offered in all Providence Schools starting in the fall of 2016 and that the classes should be counted as full history credits.
Themes of segregation within the Ocean State are not new. In Providence, there is a huge racial and wealth gap in schooling. Though 91% of students in Providence are minorities, a fifth of the schools within Rhode Island are more than 90% white. In fact, the UCLA Civil Rights Project ranks Rhode Island as having the sixth most segregated schools in the 50 states, based on the percentage of Latino students attending intensely segregated schools. Patrick Anderson of the Providence Journal reports that “Rhode Island’s segregated communities are largely a result of the postwar white flight to the suburbs, leaving the urban cores hollowed out by poverty, substandard housing and a lack of good jobs.” Very few schools in Providence have enough funding to support quality teachers and carry out reforms that could positively impact their students. Nowhere is this more evident than in the call for ethnic studies.
“I’m Nigerian, I’m Muslim, I’m American,” said Latifat Odetunde, “It’s not what the history books tell us, it’s what they leave out.” For a surprising number of high schools within Providence, American history is the only type of history taught. To students of color in a vulnerable district, American history education, led by white teachers, often seems like indoctrination. “Of our textbook’s 1,192 pages,” says Afaf Akid of PSU, “fewer than 100 are dedicated to people of color. That’s less than 10% of our history curriculum…and of course, the few references to people of color are problematic as well, often treating issues like slavery and colonialism as neutral or even positive developments. We deserve better.” The history of colored peoples is often deleted exclusively or told inaccurately. There should be history courses targeted at these students so that they can learn something that they feel they have a stake in. “People of color need to preserve our heritage,” says Patrick, “Teachers are speaking with intellect and not dignity. Students need to have a connection with what’s being taught.”
The Superintendent of Providence Public Schools, Chris Maher, believes that now is the perfect time to implement change in high schools. This year, the district is poised to examine the curriculum now that a new director of education has been hired. Chris Maher cites research from Stanford University that states that, “attendance in this course [ethnic studies] increased GPAs by 1.4 points and credits earned by 23.” These facts make many in Providence hopeful, as schools within the district are failing rapidly by national standards. The Partnership for Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers is a statewide exam in Math and English Language Arts and Literacy (ELA) given to students within the Providence district. In Providence, 22% of students in Grade Nine met or exceeded expectations in English language Arts. 14% of students taking Algebra I met or exceeded expectations. The rates for Geometry are more dismal: 4% of students in geometry met or exceeded expectations. Assignment to ethnic studies classes is also useful at “increasing ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points.” The attendance boost correlated with ethnic studies could curb high rates of suspension for Hispanic and black students. In November 2015, the RI ACLU reported, “more than 60% of all suspensions were meted out for low-risk behavioral offenses such as “Disorderly Conduct” and “Insubordination/Disrespect.” Perhaps these “behavioral” affronts are not out of the blue, and perhaps they are linked to a lack of interest in what is being taught. “Right now,” Seena Chhan of the Environmental Justice League in Rhode Island says, “we are being taught about the Vietnam War and how it only affected the US troops but no one knows that during that war, Thai, Laos, and Cambodia were negatively affected by what we call the American War…that my parents were actually part of.”
The call for ethnic studies also significant because it is part of a larger project in enhancing local autonomy within public schools. “Why can’t we give the tools to districts that charters have,” says State education Commissioner Ken Wagner, “This would address the demand for the charter sector.” Wagner’s vision for public education involves giving principals much more authority over budgets, hiring, and even the school day. Wagner calls for the “innovation of schools,” giving parents more control over where their children learn. This move could be better for the state’s educational system overall, since evidence shows that children whose schools are socioeconomically mixed are more academically successful, as wealthy schools are able to secure highly ranked teachers and provide a diverse background for its students. If public schools are more competitive, fewer students would leave public schools, and the funding would not leave with them. The 2010 funding formula for schools previously allowed money to “follow the child,” meaning that the cost of educating an individual student was given to whatever school they chose to attend, while fixed costs like pension and healthcare remained at the districts that the child was sent from, leaving district schools struggling to cut costs. Recently, Governor Raimondo has proposed a new budget that provides safeguards for district schools. “The districts that see at least 5% of their students attend charter schools would receive $300 per student from the state,” Dan McGowan writes for WPRI, “a boost of about $2.6 million to those districts.” The call for autonomy is not just coming from school officials like Maher and Wagner. “If you give me the freedom to build the school,” Wagner recalls hearing from teachers, “I can build a school that no one wants to leave.”
Both the call for ethnic studies and Wagner’s plan showcase the significant role that choice plays in education. When students have the opportunity to study courses that are relevant to them, taught by teachers who look like them, they have higher attendance, higher grade point averages, and higher graduation rates. The autonomy and innovation offered from many charter schools within the urban center of Providence tend to have around the same rates of academic proficiency as many district schools. Public schools, if based on a charter system, could offer favorable opportunities to children, parents, and administrators of Providence schools, especially those in poorer districts, already vulnerable due to the flight of students to charter schools. The education system within Providence—charter and district schools—requires significant upheaval, and maximizing choice can provide a way for equality within district and charter schooling. By allowing families and administrators to work together on finding a school that is a fit, Providence high scholars will benefit from having their voices and choices heard.
SHANE POTTS B’17 took his first ethnic studies class in high school.