My Turn: Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune

One of our nation’s most significant challenges has been providing a high-quality public education that serves all children, and this challenge has been particularly acute in our urban communities.

Over decades the Providence Public Schools have invested in changes — new curriculum, new professional development, new schools, new tests — yet has failed to significantly shift outcomes. Close to half of our students perform below proficiency in math and English, and about half of our high school students missed at least 10% of the last school year.

So why has our district, and so many others, under-performed for so long? I would argue that our public education system is built on a foundation of deep, systemic oppression that cannot be addressed with an isolated approach. The structure of public education in the United States has systematically disenfranchised students of color, students with disabilities, students from low-income backgrounds and students who are English language learners. The system that holds the promise of uniting people from diverse communities in an informed democracy has instead sorted students into increasingly divided groups of “haves” and “have-nots.”

As a proud graduate of the Providence public schools and a mother of two children of color in the district, I am ready for change and optimistic about talk of bold action. We need to shake up the entrenched bureaucracy that is holding our schools back. But I am apprehensive about the state taking control of our schools when they lack a demonstrated understanding of our urban communities, their strengths and their needs. For years our state has neglected the urban core, only stepping in for temporary relief without sustainable progress. I know, because I was there.

My parents sent five children through eight Providence public schools, and two of us completed college. As an undocumented immigrant, English language learner, and lead poisoning survivor, study after study suggests I should not be successful. I worked hard, I had parents and teachers who believed in me, and I benefited from resources in and outside of the classroom — programs, people, opportunities — that helped me navigate all kinds of obstacles.

The dire statistics and inspiring mentors are in part what motivated me to study education policy and to run for city council. I am delighted to hear so many voices saying it is time to do right by our schools, but it remains to be seen if we really mean it.

I am already apprehensive about the prospects for real change because plans are being made without the public. The system has systematically failed our kids — my kids — sowing deep mistrust. The way to build enduring change is through a culture that embraces the realities of daily life for our children and families. The way to build enduring change is through transparency and shared trust. The way to build enduring change is by helping students, families and teachers lead.

In example after example nationally, urban district takeovers are top-down, driven by outside experts, and almost universally fail. Separating students, teachers, and families from authority, governance and expertise will limit our success. We have all seen temporary spikes in test scores. The reason our schools continue to fail is that no one has taken the bold step of building long-term community leadership. Providence, with its incredible strengths, could be the first, but only if we set aside short-term political fixes for transparency and true engagement.

Throughout the city, I’ve heard people worry that this process will prioritize politics, not children. They are worried that the plan is being formed behind closed doors.

We cannot deliver a high-quality education for our students if we fail to address the systemic ways that students, families and teachers have been disenfranchised by a public education system that should help them thrive. We should welcome bold action, but not without bold accountability for the people the system serves.

As submitted to the Providence Journal and published online on Wednesday, September 4, 2019

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