Providence schools spent $187,000 on inspirational books. Now it has no plans to use them

Dan McGowan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — After a tough summer, the interim superintendent of Providence schools wanted to do something uplifting for students returning to class in a system labeled as one of the most troubled in the country.

She searched through Amazon and selected a motivational book, ordering thousands of copies at a cost of $187,000. The plan was to have all middle and high school students read it this month.

But after teachers and school board members complained that “Shoot Your Shot: A Sport-Inspired Guide To Living Your Best Life” was filled with religious overtones, Frances Gallo asked educators to pause their use of the book in class.

Now Gallo, a 69-year-old veteran administrator who was appointed in August to temporarily run the cash-strapped school district, admits it was a “mistake” to not thoroughly vet the book before buying 16,500 copies. In hindsight, she said she would have picked a more mainstream title.

“LeBron what’s-his-name has a book out,” she said, referring to the best-known NBA player these days, LeBron James. “But I didn’t know that then.”

Gallo said she read “Shoot Your Shot,” authored by Vernon Brundage Jr., prior to purchasing it, and the religious references didn’t alarm her. The breezy read uses stories from professional basketball stars to inspire readers to accomplish their goals.

She said the book is meant to teach “grit and perseverance,” but she now sees why some teachers were uncomfortable using it.

“Teachers clearly opened my eyes that there were religious factors in the book,” Gallo said. “I wasn’t reading the book for religious overtones. I was reading it for sports and relationships and allowing people to be vulnerable.”

Published in 2018, the book tells various stories about how the world’s top basketball players have overcome adversity. In the foreword, Brundage explains that “I identify more with Russell Westbrook than I do with Mark Zuckerberg. And, I am personally more inspired by Kobe Bryant than I am by Reverend Al Sharpton.”

And while the book often quotes athletes using religious references, it also includes a message from Brundage to readers:

“The task of writing this book was given to me specifically by God to bring into the existence and share with the world,” he wrote. “The same goes for you — God has called you to produce or to do something that only you can do.”

Gallo, who retired from running Central Falls schools in 2015, was named Providence’s interim superintendent shortly before Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green announced the state would take control of the struggling district.

The state’s intervention comes after a report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found the school system is plagued by widespread dysfunction, poor test scores, and abysmal building conditions. One member of the research team cried after visiting a school. Others called Providence the worst district they had ever encountered.

By having the entire school community read and discuss the same book, Gallo’s goal was to bring unity to the district.

The request to read Brundage’s book is similar to the way school systems around the country have deployed a program called One School, One Book to rally communities around a single book, often at the start of the school year.

But the order to teach “Shoot Your Shot” came suddenly. On Aug. 6, Gallo and Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro wrote a letter to teachers telling them to use it “exclusively during the first few weeks of school.”

“We must be intentional about building trust and connections in order to delve into tough conversations about equity, vulnerability and resilience,” Gallo and Maribeth Calabro wrote.

Gallo discovered Brundage’s book while searching for potential reading options online, and said she has no relationship with the author.

Gallo said the purchase of the books is a relatively small expenditure inside of a school budget that is approaching $400 million, but the district has been forced to put off technology upgrades and cut partnerships with nonprofit partners in recent years due to a lack of funding.

The School Department has also clashed with the City Council and Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration over broader spending decisions. Elorza appoints members of the school board, but the council has final say over the school budget. Critics have called for the council to be stripped of its authority requiring it to vote on all contracts valued about $5,000.

But Council President Sabina Matos said Gallo’s decision to spend nearly $200,000 on books that will largely go unused is an example of why there should be more oversight over district decisions.

“In the past, I’ve gone on the record advocating for more financial accountability from the school department to the City Council,” Matos said. “This is another example of the errors that can occur when oversight and checks and balances are lacking. The families in our city deserve better.”

Gallo maintains the decision to “pause” the mandatory use of the book will not be a total loss for the district. She said the books have been distributed to all schools, and teachers still have the option to use sections of it in class.

She said Brundage is still expected to visit Providence schools later this month, and that the district is not paying for his trip.

“I thought this was good learning experience for all of us,” Gallo said. “Because we all have blind spots.”

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

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