There are two stories that deserve to be told about Javier Montañez, the new acting superintendent of Providence schools.
One is the made-for-Hollywood tale of a homeless high school dropout who could barely read taking control of his life, earning a GED, enrolling in college, becoming a teacher, and working his way up the ladder to eventually lead Rhode Island’s largest school district.
The other is the one that typically unfolds for kids who grow up the way Montañez did. He was in a household that became so dysfunctional, so dangerous, that he chose to move out and live on the streets of Providence before he was old enough to get a driver’s license. Most children facing those obstacles end up dead or in prison, not running a school district.
As the new acting superintendent of Providence schools, Montañez, 54, is becoming more comfortable with discussing the obstacles he managed to overcome in life. He credits his wife, their children, and God for helping get him to where he is today.
But he also has a better understanding than most that there are children in Providence right now facing the same trauma, the same adversity, that he experienced, and he’s hoping to find ways to reach them before it’s too late.
“I never picked up a book. I wasn’t very studious,” Montañez told me as he discussed his life growing up in Brooklyn and Providence in the 1980s. “My focus was on living.”
As far back as elementary school, Montañez remembers being in survival mode.
He liked school because it gave him a chance to eat breakfast and lunch, a luxury that was uncommon at home. But he was dyslexic, which made reading nearly impossible. He has a vivid memory of being in the second grade in New York and having a teacher call on him to read from a book. He made up a story based on the pictures. The other children laughed. He even caught the teacher giggling at him.
He doesn’t like to talk specifics about his home life — “The adults made their choices,” he says — but he recalls witnessing violence and substance abuse. He knew he had to fend for himself. He choked up as he told me that when he was in middle school, he considered robbing a woman who had just walked out of a bank in New York. He needed money, and she appeared to have plenty of it. He followed her for a block or two, but a voice in his head told him to stop. The woman never knew how close she came to being a victim.
Montañez hoped that his family’s move from New York to Adelaide Avenue in Providence might make everything better, but “these issues have a way of following you.” His home life became so dangerous, so dysfunctional, that he chose to move out before he turned 16. And when a teacher found him sleeping under a tree in Roger Williams Park, he quit school altogether because he feared that child services would take him away.
He spent parts of three years with no roof over his head in Providence. He’d check for cars with unlocked doors and sleep in them, careful to escape before the owner noticed. There was a manager at a McDonald’s off Broad Street who would feed him if he cleaned the parking lot. He ate most of his meals at the McAuley House.
With few options and little hope in Providence, he moved back to New York, picking up odd jobs to earn whatever money he could. He also rekindled a relationship with his childhood crush, and before long, she was pregnant and they were engaged to be married.
That’s when Montañez knew it was time to get his act together. He wasn’t going to let his family down.
He found a job as a maintenance man in a housing complex and enrolled in a GED program at Boricua College. He’d later earn his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from the school as well.
“I kept on asking myself, ‘What if I go to school for two more years?’” Montañez recalled.
Montañez and his wife moved back to Providence, where he became a second grade teacher, after his mother died. He kept going to school, earning a master’s degree from Rhode Island College and a doctorate from Johnson & Wales University. The couple sent their three children to Providence schools.
He rose to become a principal at the Leviton Dual Language School, an elementary school where he made sure the doors were always open early so kids could eat breakfast and talk with him, teachers, or their friends.
In June, he faced a new challenge: Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who oversees the struggling school system, asked him to become interim superintendent following the abrupt resignation of Harrison Peters. Montañez thought he’d hold the job through the summer and go back to his school, but he has been promoted to acting superintendent for the entire school year that begins next week.
Moving from running a small school to a district of 24,000 students is a tall task, but Montañez is poised to be the best cheerleader this embattled system has ever had. He wants students and teachers to be proud of Providence, and he hopes that his personal story can inspire everyone.
He’s uniquely aware of the challenges his students are facing.
We all know about the crumbling buildings and the poor test scores. But there are at least 300 homeless students attending Providence schools, according to Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy organization. And there are nearly 6,000 kids living in extreme poverty, which means they live with families with incomes below 50 percent of the federal poverty line.
Those kids shouldn’t have to quit school or move out to have a chance at a better life, and Montañez is determined to help those in similar situations to the one he faced.
But really, he’s just eager to welcome all of the students back to school.
Last Friday afternoon, we stopped by E-Cubed Academy high school to tour the building and chat. He was immediately greeted by four upperclass students who were helping with first-year orientation. When he told them that he was the superintendent, they jokingly listed off their grievances. One told him to fix the bathrooms. Another thought students should get paid to go to school.
Eventually, Montañez grilled the students about what they wanted to do for work when they’re adults. A young woman wearing white Nikes said she’d like to be an accountant or lawyer or real estate agent. Another said she wanted to write, direct, and act. A young man with a bright smile said he wanted to work in sports management.
“You can do anything,” Montañez told them.
Just ask him.