Providence Superintendent Susan Lusi opens up about her tenure in the state’s largest school district, as she prepares to step down. She spoke with Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison at the district central office before her departure next week.
While she says she unequivocally believes she has made a difference, Lusi admits that Providence's student test scores leave a lot to be desired.
"We're still performing poorly, and we're performing much better than we were in the past," Lusi said, citing some improvements including 4th grade reading scores and graduation rates.
Several factors contribute to the district's struggle. Though Lusi emphasizes that realities like poverty and a transient student population should not be used an excuse, they do contribute to the challenge. There is also a budget picture that has tightened of late.
"The fact that the per-pupil expenditure is lower now than it was in 2009-2010 is not helpful," said Lusi. "Money isn't everything, but when costs have increased and the per-pupil expenditure has gone down, that reduces our ability to provide services to kids."
Asked why she is leaving Providence Public Schools, Lusi cites a variety of factors including a city and school bureaucracy that she calls "challenging."
"Providence in the best of circumstances is a challenging place to do work," Lusi said. "Things take a long time here."
Lusi was one of the only -- if not the only -- superintendents in Rhode Island to side with students in a debate over standardized test scores for a high school diploma. She specifies that her position was about NECAP, which was administered in the fall and therefore put low-income and other students at a great disadvantage because of a phenomenon known as "summer learning loss." However, Lusi remains unconvinced that the new test, PARCC, should become part of the graduation requirement.
"I would prefer multiple measures for graduation," said Lusi, adding that she recommends the state put together a group to study whether PARCC is well-suited to the purpose.
After a career that has taken her from Providence to the suburban community of Portsmouth, then back to Providence again, Lusi says public education has improved in Rhode Island. She agrees with those who say there is room for more improvement, and she points to what she calls overly-prescriptive teacher contacts as part of the problem. But she is also quick to bring up negative rhetoric about teachers, which isn't helping.
"I can’t point to a profession or an organization that has improved based on someone saying, 'you’re doing a terrible job, you’re doing a terrible job, you’re doing a terrible job,'" said Lusi. "The finger pointing doesn't help us win the hearts and minds of teachers in their classrooms."
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