Speaking Through Supreme Court Silence

Hope High students challenge RI Dept. of Ed.

by by Malcolm Burnley

On a February afternoon, an eerie afterschool lull occupies Providence’s Hope High School. It feels like graduation has come four months early, or like every student has been locked away in detention. Only a few kids linger about the drop-off loop, where yellow school busses disembarked from the three-story brick behemoth hours earlier. The bustle and traffic of school hours are gone, and Hope High is empty of most of its 1,400 students and 108 teachers.

Through a set of double doors, halfway down a dormant hallway, a sense of defeat pervades Room 115, where three seniors—Jose Velasquez, Cynthia Jackson, and Jennifer Sanchez—are squished into a semi-circle of desks, listening to their attorney, Miriam Weizenbaum.

The students are silent. They glance up at Weizenbaum, then back down at their desks, as she speaks: “Most of the law is used to protect those in power. That same system can be used to help people who aren’t in power, but it’s not going to help if you don’t use it. And we really gave them a run.”

It’s been a long haul since June, when Weizenbaum and the students began their legal challenge against the Rhode Island Department of Education and Board of Regents, fighting to restore a crucial feature of Hope High’s curriculum—Common Planning Time—that was severely reduced last fall.

Prior to the 2010-2011 school year, teachers were allotted 195 minutes of Common Planning Time (CPT) per week, used for one-on-one time with students, curriculum planning, and professional development. Teachers and students have credited Hope High's unique embrace of CPT for its revolution, turning it from an underperforming school in 2003 into an emblem of the district school system by 2010.

But the Providence School Board, in an effort to standardize CPT across the district at 90 minutes per week, slashed Hope High’s substantially larger CPT by half this school year, spurring the students’ legal challenge. Weizenbaum, along with Jose, Cynthia, and Jennifer,  argued that the overhaul violated state regulations against reducing CPT, and challenged the Department of Education to re-implement the lost 105 minutes immediately.

After nine months of bureaucratic wrangling, the Department of Education validated their appeal, but did not grant an increase in CPT, forestalling enforcement until after the school year. In January, Weizenbaum and the students appealed the agency’s deferral in the courts, and their case landed in the Rhode Island Supreme Court for consideration. On February 11, Weizenbaum received a brief fax message from the Supreme Court: the five justices had held a conference and decided not to hear the student’s case, ending their challenge.

As Weizenbaum articulates the Supreme Court’s legal rationale to the seniors, Jennifer voices her resolve: “I feel proud. We got involved. We went deep. We opened doors for kids at other schools to get involved in their education.”

The students' efforts to contest the retraction of CPT showed their long-term hopes for sustaining improvements at Hope High. But RIDE's repeal of the school's reforms reveals a troubling trend in education policy: how state standards trump individual experiments, even when they're overwhelmingly successful. Hope High's decade of steady improvement might shift abruptly again after RIDE's decision. A school on the rise might reverse into a cautionary tale.

CPT Spells Success
Before charter was the buzz-word in education reform, Hope High was Providence's shining anomaly—a success story of inner-city public school revival. In 2002, a Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) statewide review classified the school as “low performing, not improving,” the worst possible category. That began to change in 2003, when Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters intervened to install dramatic reforms, including a four-by-four block schedule in which students spent 90 minutes a day in four classes and teachers were given 195 minutes of CPT each week.

Once known for fights, failing grades, and disengagement, Hope quickly showed signs of progress following the 2003 reforms. According to a 2005 RIDE report, while drop-out rates persisted at high levels, the school met 19 of 21 benchmarks of No Child Left Behind, just two years after McWalters intervened.

Christina Toro, who taught full-time at Hope High from 2006-2010 and had previously student-taught there in 2003, noticed CPT’s impact on improving student-teacher relationships. Instead of teaching 130-140 students, the current average under the new six-period schedule, she was responsible for 90. Teachers met weekly to brainstorm cross-disciplinary projects and discuss their students' well-being—academic, social, and emotional. “Students knew we were actually looking out for them,” she says. “Having more than one adult know who you are is one of the biggest keys to success with these kids.”

A Legal Odyssey
But in the spring of 2010, Hope High was hit with an unexpected setback. The Providence School Board had decided to remove the block schedule at Hope in order to synchronize the district under the uniform six-period schedule already in place at other schools. Class length shrunk from 90 minutes to 53, the flexible schedule disappeared (students were mandated to take English, math, and science every day), and most crucially, CPT was cut in half immediately.

After the announcement, frustration soon reached a boiling point among students. On May 13, 400 students walked out in protest during second period. As punishment from the school administration, the students—including Cynthia, Jose, and Jennifer—served detention and were subjected to a lecture on the benefits of the six-period schedule. Several parents, outraged by the punishment, contacted the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union regarding the ongoing developments at Hope High. The students’ story was relayed to Weizenbaum, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU; she agreed to represent them pro bono. “What really came across was the value they placed in the reform that had been put in place at their school,” she remembers.

In June, Weizenbaum and the students filed a legal appeal against the Providence School Board, targeting the reduction of CPT at Hope High and citing a state Regents regulation that protects against any reduction to CPT. They demanded a full re-implementation of CPT for the 2010-2011 school year. Yet three months after their appeal was filed, Hope High began its first semester with a six-period schedule.

On September 13, Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist sided with the students, calling for CPT to be restored at the “level previously established at that school," and in November dispatched "special visitor" attorney John Lyle to investigate how Hope High might comply with state CPT regulations. Half-way through the school year, on January 10, Lyle submitted his report to the Board of Regents.

Lyle's report confirmed student frustrations, but might also have stifled reform. It cited teacher complaints about the negative impact of reduced CPT—such as diminished one-on-one time for 200 ESL and 300 special needs students—but also cautioned against flipping a curriculum mid-year: “With virtual unanimity, they agreed that to reinstitute the 4-by-4 at this juncture would be disruptive and counterproductive,” Lyle wrote. One proposed solution—using afterschool time for CPT—would have required an additional $80,000 to compensate faculty: the school budget had less than $10,000 in funds to work with. Lyle listed a total of seven options for CPT compliance at Hope, the last of which the Board of Regents ultimately adopted: “maintain the status quo.”

“As a matter of our discretion, we felt it would be inappropriate and potentially disruptive in the middle of a semester,” Regents’ Chairman Robert Flanders explained. “It would be in the best interest of the students and everybody connected with the school to wait until the end of the semester to implement that change.”

Weizenbaum believes the measure was an intentional delay tactic: “The Board wanted to deny the effect of the law until they could change the law, not enforcing it until the students aren’t students anymore.” In other words, she argues, the Regents' move avoided a Catch-22:  neither having to invalidate its own regulation nor giving in to the students’ demands, which would create a curriculum headache.

On January 20, ten days after Lyle released the report, Weizenbaum filed an appeal to the Rhode Island Superior Court, later taken up by the State Supreme Court, challenging the Regents’ stay of enforcement. Weizenbaum argued that delaying enforcement beyond the 2010-2011 school year violated the students’ right to due process.  Three weeks later, the case was dismissed. Weizenbaum still maintains the decision allows RIDE to "circumvent the effect of a clear, unambiguous, legally enacted regulation," but for the foreseeable future, it's unclear anyone will listen.

Blocking Out Time
Ms. Toro was Cynthia’s English teacher and advisor during ninth grade. In November of her freshman year, she met with Cynthia and her mother for extended conversations during CPT. Together they identified Cynthia’s A-plus grades in English and mapped out a trajectory for a career in journalism, which she hopes to pursue next year at a local college. She will leave behind a school struggling to regroup, like a punch-drunk boxer who regained his footing, only to be knocked down again.

Now, eight times a day there is a chaotic bottleneck in the hallways. The creative class plans, the extended enrichment time, and advisory, “might as well be gone,” Cynthia says. She's disappointed that the class of high schoolers won’t inherit all she had: “We did everything we were supposed to do,” she says, criticizing the Regents’ decision. “We played by their rules, and they didn’t even play by their own rules. Is that the example they’re really setting?”

For his part, Jose recalls the middle-school myths about Hope—the pulled fire alarms, the graffiti-tagged walls—though they were  quickly dispelled. “My freshman year, I was scared about going to Hope. I heard that students broke out in fights, dealing drugs, and bringing weapons. But my first day it was friendly.” He fears those rumors might now become a reality. Already, his favorite extracurricular theater, has been reduced to “a joke,” he says, due to the 45-minute periods. “We are just there to take up space."

Jennifer feels the same way about the severely shortened classes. “I feel like there is no arts program now. The schedule was our foundation. It was everything to us.” She was accepted to New York University’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a celebrated theater conservatory program, but her achievement is bittersweet. “I want to cherish my high school years, but I can’t with this change.”

Still Standing
As Jose, Cynthia, Jennifer and the rest of the senior class wait out their remaining months at Hope High, the future of the curriculum remains to be determined. Chairman Flanders says that while no further hearing has been scheduled to re-implement 195 minutes of CPT after this school year, he anticipates the measure will be taken up by the summer. Weizenbaum is less sanguine: she thinks the Regents will change the regulation before ever having to act on the students’ claim, and the challenge will die a slow death. “These kids get the short-end of the stick at every turn. They finally get to a high school that is transforming into something of quality, and then that gets ripped out from them—illegally.”

But while she’s disgusted with the case’s outcome, Weizenbaum can’t suppress a note of optimism. “I don’t know what made them so audacious that they thought they could do this,” Weizenbaum says. “Did this litigation achieve the goal of giving tools to these students to use over and over again in their lives? Yes, in that respect, we succeeded."

What began as a scribbled petition with a simple slogan–“SOS” (Save Our Schedule)–evolved into a robust legal challenge in which Jose, Cynthia and Jennifer  stood up to the state’s most powerful educators. “Before, I wouldn’t think that my opinion mattered, or a student from Providence could make something happen,” Jose says. “But seeing how far we came changed that. Students from Providence can make things happen, students from urban environments can make things happen. This won’t be the last you will see of us.”

MALCOLM BURNLEY B’12 wrote this article during CPT.