PROVIDENCE — The students at Roger Williams Middle School on the southside of Providence know what people say about their school.
When Sherderack Soe entered the sixth grade a few years ago, he recalls being scared because he was told the school was filled with gangs. Deana Baez heard the same rumor, fueled by family members and friends who attended Roger Williams in the past.
The gossip about Roger Williams and other city schools reached a fever pitch this summer when researchers from Johns Hopkins University released a scathing report outlining the district’s many challenges. Now the state is in the process of taking control of the entire school system.
But on Thursday, their third day back from summer vacation, Soe and Baez had a different story to tell about a school they’ve come to love. The 13-year-old eighth graders are looking forward to this year’s school play, after Baez stole the show as Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast” last year. They acknowledged being nervous about taking the admissions test for Classical High School next month.
And while the students said they were familiar with the Johns Hopkins report and the state’s takeover, they suggested more adults should visit the school to see why teachers and administrators refer to Roger Williams as “Providence’s best kept secret.”
“We have this [bad] reputation from 20 years ago, but it’s not like that,” Baez said. “I’ve never felt that I wasn’t learning.”
Indeed, Roger Williams looked like an ordinary middle school when a Globe reporter spent the day with students Thursday. The floors were waxed and the classrooms were tidy. For a building constructed in 1932, the school had few glaring problems. Mayor Jorge Elorza, who stopped by to welcome kids in the morning, remarked that a “fresh coat of paint goes a long way.”
Beneath the surface, there’s no denying the school faces its challenges. Only four percent of the school’s 800 students were considered proficient on the English language arts sections of the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment exam in 2018 and three percent were doing math at grade level. It is one of the lowest-performing schools in Rhode Island.
Christina Gibbons, a former semi-professional women’s football player who is now in her third year as principal, said she has worked hard to improve the culture and climate at Roger Williams. She grew up only a few blocks away, and she too has heard all of the negative rumors at the school.
Gibbons said one of her top goals heading into the school year was to fill all of the job vacancies at the school, one of the district’s top challenges. She spent the month of July hiring new teachers, but just when she thought she had a full staff, she lost a teacher. Then another. There are now seven open jobs at the school, including a teacher who resigned Wednesday.
“I will interview people every single day until we fill those jobs,” Gibbons said. Across the district, there are more than 80 vacancies left to fill, according to a spokesperson for the district.
But Gibbons said she isn’t interested in making excuses. She knows many of her students, predominately black and brown children, go home to difficult situations every afternoon. So she tries to make the school as loving and as welcoming as possible.
“Within these four walls, we can control a lot of things,” Gibbons said.
Despite the test scores, Gibbons’ staff is determined to prove their students have the ability to overcome obstacles and learn.
Teaching an eighth grade algebra class, Jaclyn Correia had her students locked in. They were sitting in groups playing “31-derful,” a game that forces students to arrange five columns and five rows of playing cards to all equal 31. One group of students jumped for joy when they thought they figured out the puzzle, only to learn one row equaled 32.
The winners were two boys named Cesar Ramirez and Dylan Flor. They each said math is their favorite subject and they too want to attend Classical next year. Ramirez wants to be an engineer when he grows up. Flor loves soccer and believes he has the chance to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo.
Baez, who was also in the math class, had an immediate response when asked what she wants to be when she grows up: “A surgeon,” she said.
As for Soe, he likes to help others. He said he wants to be a fashion designer, but right now he’s focused on building a stronger community. He was part of the young man’s club at Roger Williams last year, a group of male students who try to be role models.
This year, Soe said he would like to spend some time persuading young people in his neighborhood to get more involved with the school. He joked that he might offer them money to get them to join the club rather than hang out in the streets.
Soe smiled when he thought about why he feels so strongly about the club and his school.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.