A Year At Del Sesto: A Providence Middle School Strives To Reinvent Itself

Oct 5, 2017

How do you turn around a struggling middle school? It’s a question teachers, administrators, and city leaders are trying to figure out in the state’s biggest school district. Providence is focusing this year on its middle schools.

We’ll be following this effort over the next several months at Del Sesto Middle School, a place working hard to reinvent itself.  We’ll meet some of the teachers and staff doing this work and a few of the students navigating the hallways of middle school.

The start of the school year is exciting and a little scary for 11-year-old Delasia Jones.  Del Sesto Middle School is bigger than her elementary school, and the kids are older.

“There’s a lot of bigger kids here and I’m scared to be around them in the gym,” said Jones. “There’s a lot of them.”

Jones is little shy, but clearly excited to be in middle school. Leaning against a blue locker, she says she wants to make new friends and do well in her classes, which she knows will be challenging.

“Yes like the math questions and all that,” said Jones. “There’s going to be a lot more teachers than there were last year, so there’s going to be more harder questions.”

Del Sesto looks pretty different to Emmanuel Reyes. As an 8th grader, he’s at the top of the heap this year, and he’s got a bit of swagger.

“It’s funny. It’s like seeing all these kids,” said Reyes. “Seeing how small I used to be. I used to not even be able to touch the lockers, and now I can.”

This is a big year for Reyes. He’s 13, and trying to get into a good high school. That means he’ll need to keep his grades up. Last year he got some As and Bs, but also some Cs and Ds.

“Yeah, last year wasn’t the greatest year but, this year I’m trying to get really good grades,” said Reyes. “Get into a good high school and see what I want to do.”

Reyes wants to get onto the honor roll this year, and he’s got some challenging classes, including algebra. He dreams of a career as a professional athlete.

“I want to become a baseball player, but at the same time if that doesn’t work out,” said Reyes. “I don’t know what my second plan’s gonna be that’s what I want to figure out.”

Reyes and Jones are at a critical age, no longer little kids, not yet high schoolers.  It’s also the moment educators say can determine how students will do for the rest of their academic careers. If a kid is chronically absent, or faces discipline problems in middle school, those issues will likely follow them into high school.

In math teacher Haley Davis’ class, students are starting the school year the way a lot of kids do, by taking a standardized test.

The students are using school-issued laptops, which they will hold onto for the rest of the year.

It’s just one part of the plan at Del Sesto to raise test scores. Last year, just three percent of students here were at grade level for math, and fewer than ten percent for English.

Not everyone is ready to start the test. It’s the beginning of the school year, so one new student doesn’t have a password. A classmate offers to let the kid without a password take his test for him. “I don’t want to do it” the kid says.

None of the students seem especially enthused about taking the test; some are slouching in their seats. But they’ll take various standardized tests several times this year. Teachers and administrators at this school want data, and standardized tests are one of the ways they get it.

“Remember testing is a voice level of zero,” Davis tells the class. “That means you are silent. Good luck, try your best. I expect high scores in here.”

Davis is aware many of her students are already behind, but remains optimistic. This is her second full year as a teacher. The program Teach for America placed her at Del Sesto, after she graduated from Harvard. Originally from Southern California, Davis says she recognizes she has a different background than many of her students.

“I just try to be very open and honest about where I come from and really show genuine interest in their lives and what is important to them,” said Davis.

She tries to establish trust and a good rapport with students, and help them understand how their studies relate to the real world.  Davis is part of the effort at Del Sesto to overhaul the way teachers interact with students.

Those laptops are more than just high-tech gadgets. They’re the center of a new teaching style in which students move through classwork at their own pace on their own computers. It’s a big change for a new teacher.

“Last year I got my first year under my belt, and I was like, ‘oh great, this is going to be ok,’” said Davis. “And then all of a sudden everything you did last year, we’re going to change. It’s going to be new.”

There will be new challenges this year for administrator Cassandra Charles too. She spent the last decade as a classroom teacher. Now she’s a dean at DelSesto, training to become a principal.

“The way I thought was I can only make change in my classroom, and I can only affect the kids in my classroom,” said Charles. “But I want to make change on a grander scale, so being in that administrator role, that’s where I need to be.”

As dean she’ll help administrators, deal with chronic absenteeism, and learn what it takes to run a school. Which involves getting teachers to feel like they’re part of a team.

“Helping them understand that everyone is here, we’re all a support system, everybody is in this for the same reasons,” said Charles. “We want to focus on our mission and vision and we want to focus on the students and what is in the best interest of the student.”

Del Sesto’s Principal Arzinia Gill is leading the effort to make changes at Del Sesto. She’s already proud of some of the improvements she’s seen in the climate of the school. Now she hopes better test scores will follow.

She’s gotten funding to give laptops to more students, so they can work at their own pace. But first, she has them simulate how they will care for their new computers. She has students carry around sheets of paper to stand in for the laptops.

“So we are getting them to practice,” said Gill. “So if they lose the paper that means they lost the Chromebook, so then we have a conversation with them.”

Over the school year, we’ll check back in with Gill and her staff, Cassandra Charles as she transitions to management, Haley Davis as she works through her second year teaching, and the students, the kids at the center of new education initiatives, as they figure out what they need to do to succeed here.