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Putting bricks before kids in Providence

Even a quote meant to inspire is crumbling at Mount Pleasant High School in Providence.Dan McGowan/Globe Staff

There’s tone-deaf, and then there’s the Providence Preservation Society.

They’re having a meltdown on Meeting Street because there’s talk of building a brand new Mount Pleasant High School on the other side of town, which marks the first time in decades that anyone in any position of educational leadership in Rhode Island has shown even the slightest interest in the students who learn in that deathtrap of a building.

“Over the last eight decades, the school has continued to serve the community as both an educational and civic resource, and the impressive Collegiate Gothic-style building lends the immediate neighborhood undeniable gravitas,” the Preservation Society said in a statement last week.

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The bricks-before-kids movement is alive and well, apparently.

The preservationists say they’re deeply concerned about the cost to taxpayers of demolishing the 85-year-old monstrosity in favor of a new one, and they’re demanding transparency from the powers-that-be. Yes, the same organization that thinks tax credits can solve all of life’s problems wants us to believe they have the taxpayer’s best interests in mind.

As the organization posted on its Facebook page in August, this is really about “finding a solution that retains the architectural integrity and community value of this public building rather than mothballing or outright replacement.”

None of these people would be caught dead sending their children to Mount Pleasant High School, but boy, it sure would make a great location for the preservation society’s annual winter bash, amirite?

Let’s talk about what actually happens in that building every day.

You’ll notice that something is off the second you step foot on the campus. There’s black fencing that surrounds the entire front of the school because there’s a chance that bricks could fall on children and teachers before they make it to first period.

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If it were just the bricks, saving the school might make sense. But a report released by Providence school officials last year found that Mount Pleasant needs $151 million in basic repairs, more than every other high school in the city combined.

Among the problems listed were life safety issues, excessive energy consumption, inefficient air transfer, unusable basement and attic space, inefficient windows and roof, and outdated mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems. If Mount Pleasant was a house, it would be condemned.

Then there are the heartbreaking student outcomes.

The state’s most recent report card shows that 81 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year, zero percent of students were considered proficient in math, and the four-year graduation rate was 67 percent.

As for how the students feel, well, they didn’t exactly grow up dreaming of being Kilties. Only 36 percent of students surveyed last year said they find the physical building to be pleasant. Fewer than 12 percent of them pick Mount Pleasant as their first choice high school in the city.

But, but, but, you can’t blame just the poor building for those dismal results.

No, poverty did that.

Not giving a damn about kids did that.

Switching principals the way Kim Kardashian switches boyfriends over the past decade did that.

A brand new school isn’t likely to solve every problem, but it will give students and teachers something to be proud of.

To the credit of Governor Dan McKee and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green on the state side, and Mayor Brett Smiley and Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan on the city end, there’s a realistic plan to build a brand new school for a project cost of $110 million – with the state covering the vast majority of construction costs.

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For an idea of what students might be able to look forward to, take a look at the palace that is East Providence High School, which opened a few years ago on the same campus as the old school. According to WPRI, it offers cooking classes in a commercial kitchen, and has indoor and outdoor greenhouses, an ambulance simulator for students who want to become EMTs, automotive and construction shops, and even a classroom set up like a dentist’s office.

It’s too soon to say that a new Mount Pleasant building would offer any of those features, but at least it’s fortunate to have enough land for a similar construction project.

When I called the preservation society this week to discuss how unfathomable their position is, advocacy manager Adriana Hazelton assured me that the organization really does care about public schools in Providence.

Hazelton made a reasonable point when she expressed concern that Providence doesn’t have a great track record on maintaining school buildings, and that a brand new Mount Pleasant could soon look a lot like the current dilapidated facility. She’s right about that. But when your baby messes in his diaper, it’s not a great idea to refuse to change him simply because you think he’ll mess again.

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“It really is about the numbers for us,” Hazelton told me, pointing out that the state and city haven’t offered in-depth details about their cost projections for simply rehabbing the existing building ($176 million) versus building new ($110 million).

When I asked why the preservation society chose to weigh in on this issue, Hazelton said it was the community that influenced the organization on this one. Apparently there’s a movement of residents, a few elected officials, teachers, and even a student or two who wants to save Mount Pleasant.

That’s strange, I told her, because I’ve in the neighborhood for 14 years now, and never once have my neighbors ever gushed to me about the “Collegiate Gothic-style beauty” of that place. My son and I walk past the building every single day, and we wear helmets just in case bricks come loose.

I checked on how many kids from the neighborhood actually attend Mount Pleasant, and it turns out that only 343 out of 1,150 students even live in the same zip code (02908) as the school. For most families, it’s anywhere but Mount Pleasant.

The real concern among some in the community is the dwindling traditional public school population in Providence will mean that Mount Pleasant will be converted to a public charter school at some point in the future because charter enrollment is growing rapidly. State and city officials deny this, and there’s no track record of the state paying $100 million-plus to build a charter school.

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So the preservation society was brought in to make the architectural integrity argument, and then complain about costs.

Look, I get it that it’s the society’s job to fight to preserve architecturally and historically significant buildings. But somebody’s got to fight to preserve a future for these kids.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.