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Schools in Providence Are Poised for a State Takeover. Can the District’s Decade-Old Student Union Seize the Moment?

By Kevin Mahnken | September 10, 2019

Providence Student Union marches in the Providence Walkout to End Gun Violence (Ryan Conaty/Providence Student Union)

Updated

The moment for transformational change in Providence schools has arrived. Now the question is whether the Providence Student Union can seize it.

The small group, currently numbering roughly 50 members across a handful of high schools in Rhode Island’s capital, stands ready to capitalize on the state’s sudden willingness to consider drastic reforms. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has been authorized to take over Providence Public Schools, the largest district in the state, following decades of academic underperformance. At the same time, a high-profile lawsuit pending in federal court, which names several union members as plaintiffs, could determine whether students have a constitutional right to an education.

The takeover order, already issued by Infante-Green and awaiting final authorization by Sept. 13, was triggered by the release of a devastating report on the district from researchers at Johns Hopkins University. The 93-page study cited chronically unsafe school buildings and a burdensome teachers contract as major obstacles to student learning, finding that only tiny fractions of Providence students test proficient in either math or English. At an emotional press conference, Gov. Gina Raimondo and Mayor Jorge Elorza vowed to take whatever steps necessary to address the dysfunction.

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Johns Hopkins Report Offers ‘Devastating’ Findings for Providence Schools, Sparking Talk of State Takeover

Since that moment, the PSU has taken the opportunity to make its message heard. The concept of a student union — a nonprofit group devoted to representing the interests of young people enrolled in K-12 schools — is still unfamiliar to many, and no wonder: The model has been attempted in only a tiny number of cities. But students have now organized in Providence for nearly a decade, achieving successes that belie the group’s small numbers and youthful membership.

Members of the PSU have emerged as potent critics of the status quo in both local and national settings. At a community listening session in July, one student organizer upbraided adult leaders for heeding the message of an expert report after years spent ignoring the complaints of students and families. And the very same day the Johns Hopkins assessment was released, union members Aleita Cook and Ahmed Sesay were interviewed on The Daily Show about their efforts to sue the state.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg leads the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a research body at Tufts University that measures political participation among young people. She noted PSU’s media prowess — their date with Comedy Central followed a media blitz last fall that included interviews with The New York Times and The Atlantic — and said she was impressed by their commitment to a set of ideals and priorities that have been codified in a Student Bill of Rights.

“They were ready to go,” she said. “You can’t just do that in a month, become a competent messenger. They had to really buy into that framework of students’ rights. It’s a principle.”

The unity of both principles and compelling public relations is the result of nearly a decade of spadework. Along the way, PSU has won some important battles with city officials and earned a reputation for dogged tactics. It has followed the classic community organizing blueprint of effecting change from the outside in, cultivating its own funders and often taking an adversarial posture toward local education authorities.

According to Ahmed Sesay, a recent graduate who still pitches in at PSU as a youth organizer, the union also offered him an uncommon opportunity to truly influence decisions at his school.

“I was freshman class president, and then I was a class secretary — that wasn’t really a position — but student government just organized parties,” he said in an interview. “They weren’t organizing students to make any change in the school, like the old, rickety building. PSU was a blessing, because it’s one of the only actual organizations for students around the country.”

A ‘player’ in school affairs

Indeed, there are only a few comparable entities to PSU, the most prominent based in much larger cities. The oldest, the Philadelphia Student Union, formed in 1995 to protest underfunding of the troubled district, which itself would soon be taken over by the state. Similar organizations also took root in Chicago and Newark as a reaction against the common hallmarks of urban education reform, such as school closures and high-stakes standardized testing.

The Providence union began much more modestly, as an ad hoc group at Hope High School on the city’s East Side. First convened in early 2010 under the name Hope United, a handful of students gathered in opposition to the school’s move away from a popular block schedule that allowed for 90-minute seminars and opportunities to enroll in electives. The leaders eventually staged a 400-student walkout to protest the change, and they even filed a lawsuit to revert back to the old schedule.

Hope United was coordinated by two adults who were barely older than the student participants themselves: Aaron Regunberg and Zack Mezera, a pair of politically minded undergraduates from Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service. As part of the center’s Winter Breaks Providence program, the two young men spent several weeks studying urban education at Hope High, and they soon found themselves helping to launch the fledgling group. Mezera now serves as the PSU’s executive director, following a stint by Regunberg in that role.

Mezera draws a distinction between PSU and its Philadelphia antecedent, which operates in a district enrolling more than 200,000 students. Providence provides a more intimate staging ground, he says, allowing a union to spread faster and act more decisively over a smaller number of schools.

“I might be biased, but I do think there’s something about the size and scale here that is special,” he said. “It’s small enough that it’s achievable but large enough that it matters, and it can be a national pilot.”

That doesn’t mean that every union action has been a triumph. Mezera characterizes the group’s initial mobilization as a “Pyrrhic victory”; though the Rhode Island Supreme Court ultimately sided with students in their campaign to restore the block schedule, budget cuts eventually hollowed out what had made the system unique.

Still, over the next nine years, the organization has seen steady growth. Though participation varies from year to year — one hurdle is the fact that the most committed members take turns as union delegates and then leave for college — there are now PSU chapters in six Providence high schools. Throughout that phase of expansion, they’ve also won a few major concessions from the city’s educational leaders.

In a campaign that dwarfed the hubbub over Hope High’s class schedule, union members challenged local politicians to complete a three-mile walk to the city’s Classical High School in the February cold. The demonstration was a protest against a city policy that provided free bus passes only to students whose commute to school was greater than three miles. With nearly 2,000 Providence high schoolers residing between two and three miles from their schools, many were forced to make dingy, early-morning treks to get to class on time.

The effort, waged cannily during the 2014 Democratic primary season, drew the participation of myriad public officials, including candidates for both mayor and governor. But while it was a shrewd spectacle, the epic walk wasn’t quite enough: Buffeted by a significant deficit, the newly elected Mayor Elorza had to make tough budgetary decisions on which programs to cut during his first months in office. To finally drive the point home, PSU members made a slew of calls to City Hall, dogging the mayor with exhortations to “Keep Your Promise.”

A few months later, Elorza announced that the city would lower the eligibility requirement for a bus pass to a commuting distance of two miles, allocating nearly $700,000 to providing transit assistance to students who had previously received none.

Other fights have followed the same defiant playbook. PSU members worked furiously against the requirement that students pass a standardized test in order to graduate from high school, coaxing dozens of city and state officials to take the test themselves and parading through the streets dressed as zombies to protest the grim reality of life without a diploma. When the requirement was first postponed, and later dropped entirely, the change was received with jubilation by PSU and its allies (though some worried, and still do, that moving away from high-stakes testing set back the state’s reform efforts).

And even now, while the district faces the imminent prospect of a disruptive takeover, the group is making an aggressive push to remove school resource officers from school buildings, aiming to replace them with mental health counselors.

Part of PSU’s growing influence can be credited to its politically precocious co-founders. Mezera still helps guide the day-to-day operations of the group, but Regunberg left in 2014 to run a successful campaign for a state legislative seat. After serving two terms in office, he came within a hair’s breadth of defeating incumbent Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee in the 2018 Democratic primary.

 

Until August, Regunberg served as a top education adviser to Mayor Elorza; after helming several successful local campaigns and nearly being elected to statewide office before the age of 30, he has earned a reputation as one of the sharpest political minds in the state. Tim Duffy, the head of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said that his presence in Elorza’s office was a mark of PSU’s clout.

“Clearly, they have an avenue to the chief executive,” he said. “The mayor is really the straw that stirs the drink, because he selects the members of the Providence School Board.”

He added that Regunberg’s just-completed tenure “is no small testament to their advocating and their ability to influence policymakers. So I think they’ve done a good job in that regard.”

Dan McGowan, a longtime observer of Providence schools as a reporter at WPRI and the Boston Globe, said he had been surprised at how fast the group emerged as a meaningful local force.

“They’re a player,” he said. “When they’re making decisions, normal politicians or bureaucrats are usually thinking, ‘What’s my community going to say? What are the teachers unions going to say? What are the politicians going to say?’ And if you think about a relatively small group of students, that would not normally be a big part of that discussion.”

An uphill climb

For Sesay, three years of participation at PSU has meant more than political maneuvering or incremental wins. As a first-generation American who feels enormous pressure to succeed, he said he has found in the group a release valve for stress, as well as a foundation for strong friendships. Even after graduating from Classical High School in June, he is still working on the union’s campaign to replace cops with counselors.

“Building PSU and having the ability to contribute as a student has been everything,” he said. “All the people I’ve worked with at PSU have been like a family to me. They’ve relied on me, and I’ve been able to rely on them. That needs to be more common. Every day I have an interaction that really changes my view of the world.”

Ahmed Sesay, a recent high school graduate, still pitches in as a youth organizer with the Providence Student Union. (Ahmed Sesay)

He calls the meticulous, day-to-day work of expanding PSU’s network “relational organizing.” You bring previously unengaged peers into an afterschool meeting (free food is a big draw, he says); you draw out their concerns; and you work to fix them. Anyone can do it, he says, but the strategy doesn’t offer any shortcuts to success.

To take one example, Ahmed has diligently worked to publicize the lack of racial diversity in the Providence teaching ranks (according to one report, 91 percent of the city’s students are nonwhite, while only 23 percent of instructors are), recently sitting for an interview with the Providence Journal to highlight the indignity of so rarely encountering educators whose backgrounds resemble his own. It’s a problem also highlighted in Johns Hopkins’s damning report on the district, which noted that a number of parents and community members had complained of “minimal” teacher diversity.

Ahmed anticipates that the campaign to diversify the workforce will be a long one; the district’s student teachers mostly come from largely white schools like Brown and Providence College, he noted, and it takes time to push adolescents toward action.

“To ask for something that big is difficult, and that’s why our campaigns move slowly — we ask for things that are a bit radical [compared with] the way things are,” he said. “Right now we’re trying to activate students to start thinking about these things. And it shouldn’t be radical to want to be taught by somebody that looks like your parents, somebody that might be able to understand your struggle, or somebody that lives in your city. We’ve got to get students thinking about these things.”

The work of advocacy is unlikely to get any easier, whatever notoriety PSU has earned for the moment. The group’s lawsuit, alleging that they have been denied civic education necessary to the exercise of their rights, earned them their biggest headlines to date when it was filed last fall. Their attorney, Michael Rebell, is one of the most experienced education lawyers in the nation, and the case could conceivably lead to American students gaining a constitutional right to a civic education.

But legal observers note that the plaintiffs face an uphill climb. For the past few decades, American judges have looked skeptically on efforts to expand federal rights around education, and any attempt to establish a sweeping new precedent would run afoul of the reliably conservative Supreme Court.

Closer to home, PSU’s voice will hardly be the loudest in the room as Providence approaches a state takeover. Commissioner Infante-Green has announced that she will consider breaking the district’s contract with teachers, which includes stringent due process and seniority protections that have been blamed for the ongoing presence of underperforming teachers. Though the teachers union has refrained thus far from protesting against the idea of a takeover, losing collectively bargained perks could activate it as an organizing force that would make the PSU look puny by comparison.

Some observers have wondered whether the two unions could be on a collision course. In the debate over replacing student resource officers with school counselors, some Providence teachers believe that ceding to the students’ demands could make schools less safe. In an interview, Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro voiced admiration for the PSU’s past campaigns, praising particularly their mobilization around the issue of bus passes. But while she indicated support for efforts to make classrooms “less prison-like,” Calabro said she believed there was room for a police presence to exist in schools alongside more guidance counselors and mental health workers.

“‘Counselors Not Cops’ is not necessarily something that I don’t support,” she said. “It’s something we have a disagreement on, because I don’t see it as fundamentally one thing or the other. I think it can be both, and I don’t know that PSU feels that way. That could be something we have a conversation about.”

CIRCLE’s Kawashima-Ginsberg added that the student union’s willingness to confront adult leadership was valuable but had its limits as an organizing strategy.

“The model of ‘We have demands, and we’re going to push in’ is a really important tactic,” she said. “But it is going to run into inherent conflict with another group that has very different stakeholders, who are teachers with families who want to protect their jobs. I think when it comes down to student union versus teachers union — because of the difference in size and funding, and other reasons as well — it’s going to be difficult. It’s a question of how they navigate that conflict … because there’s going to be an effort to push them back.”

Still, the Globe’s McGowan said that the state of flux around Providence schools presents an opportunity for the PSU to advance its goals in one form or another. With uncertainty in the air, a forceful push from students could leverage their political influence into a meaningful win.

“There will be a moment when the teachers union doesn’t like every decision that gets made. There will be a moment when the mayor doesn’t like a decision that gets made. And there will certainly be a moment when the public — parents, community groups, nonprofits — don’t like decisions that get made. I think the student union could jump onto an issue that’s dear to their hearts, and probably could secure a victory.”

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