PROVIDENCE — It’s not an easy time to be a teacher in the Providence public schools.
State leaders are in the process of taking over the district following a scathing report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University that found widespread dysfunction across city government, crumbling school buildings and students who aren’t reading or doing math near grade level.
With statistics like that, it’s easy to be cynical. But there are teachers across the district who are making a difference in the lives of children every day -- educators who should give us all hope that the schools can improve. The Globe asked five women who have been recognized as the city’s annual Teacher of the Year to explain how they handle their jobs in such a stressful environment and how they would solve some of the district’s challenges.
These questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity
Pleasant View Elementary School
2014 Providence Teacher of the Year
Q: If you had a magic wand and could do one thing for students in Providence, what would it be?
A: Expose them to more opportunities. Have some experts come into schools. We really need more prominent male role models to come into our schools, especially African-American males. The kids need to see what success looks like. They don’t know what is. One of the top reasons that kids drop out of schools is that they cannot see success for themselves.
You should know what year you’re graduating high school, even when you’re in kindergarten. That should be a vision for you. Look at the opportunities that are out there. What they see in their own neighborhood is all they’re exposed to. The only occupations they know about are firefighter, teacher and police officer. We’re getting these kids ready for jobs that we don’t even have names for. If these kids only have that vision, how are they going to compete in that world?
Carl Lauro Elementary School
2015 Providence Teacher of the Year
Q: What does your day look like and what’s the top need in your school?
A: I would come to school at 6 a.m. and school didn’t start until 9 a.m. I’m on every committee. Someone has to be willing to do the work and I’m willing to do the work. We all spend more than $500 on school supplies for children every year. I can’t stand the crayons Providence buys. I go out and buy them crayons.
We need interventionists. I’m very fortunate and very lucky that my principal saw that in my building and allocated money for it. But I am one interventionist for 800 students. I have to close that gap in kindergarten, first and second grade, but half of my population is third, fourth and fifth grade. We need more hands. I’m only in reading, so poor math. Nothing for them. The children also need interventions in math.
Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School
Kindergarten (now retired)
2016 Providence Teacher of the Year
Q: How prepared are students when they are entering school, even at youngest levels?
A: We get many children who don’t have any prior school experience. We get a lot of children who don’t have a lot of language experience, either because their first language is not English or because people just haven’t spoken to them [enough]. We have students who are babysat by televisions or handheld machines, so they don’t have all of the experiences that kids came into kindergarten 25 years ago had. Yet the curriculum we have now is way more intense than the one from 25 years ago.
I once had a parent say to me, “I took him to the beach today. Sorry, it’s only kindergarten.” This is your foundation. If you start at the pre-K and kindergarten [level] and you get them to success, they’ll be ready for the middle schools. But you can’t start in middle schools. We need to empower them so we can reach them and teach them and get them ready.
Asa Messer Elementary School
2018 Providence Teacher of Year
Q: State leaders are planning to take over Providence schools. What should they be doing as they craft their strategy?
A: They need to know what’s going on and I don’t think a lot of them know that. They’re not in our schools. I don’t think we are brought the table as much as we should be. We’re in there day in and day out. We’re stakeholders just as much as anybody else. I really think they need to change their lens on how they’re looking at this.
We also need fidelity. If you want to create a culture of success, you have to provide resources to all elementary schools. It can’t just be pockets here and there where some are successful and some are not, because that’s not fair. The curriculum also has to be consistent across the district.
Gilbert Stuart Middle School
Grade 6 - ELA
2019 Providence Teacher of the Year
Q: Most Providence schools have faced criticism for poor student outcomes or deplorable building conditions, but middle schools have come under even more fire recently. What should people know about city middle schools that they probably don’t know right now?
A: Scott Sutherland is my tenth principal in 19 years. Until he came, Gilbert Stuart was pretty much known as being the worst school in the city. Then he stepped in and he is known as a principal of change. And from the minute he walked in, that’s exactly what he did. From getting windows and ceilings fixed, he did whatever he could to get it done. The culture and climate of the school has changed dramatically.
What people don’t understand is that in middle school, sometimes you have to recognize the little things. And that could be a student getting out of bed and coming to school. These kids are in dire need of feeling loved. When they leave my room, of course I want them to know as much as they can about English, but we try to make them feel like they matter. That’s why we put on dances and we do all these extracurricular activities for them. You name it, my principal is for it.