Providence city councilors will soon vote on a new budget that would increase spending on public schools for the first time in seven years. The district wants to use some of that money to improve its struggling middle schools.
At DelSesto Middle School, 6th grade teacher Cassandra Charles and the students in her English class are discussing the Taliban. They’ve been reading the autobiography of education advocate and Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, who describes attacks on schools in her native Pakistan.
"Why start in elementary school?" Charles asked her students. "Why not take care of the upper school that Malala goes to?"
"Because if they don't have their education at the beginning, they can't fight back when they're in middle school," one student replied.
At the end of class, Charles asks her students to write up their thoughts on the discussion.
"Give me three to five sentences," said Charles. "How do you think it went? Do you think you could have participated more? Did we cover all of the important themes in this book?"
Each student flips open a small black laptop, and the room fills with the sounds of typing and chatter. This classroom is part of a small pilot program at DelSesto, in which every student gets his or her own laptop.
They use software that helps them work at their own pace through their subjects, while teachers keep an eye on their progress. Charles says it’s made a big difference in the way she works with students.
“I couldn’t give the time to certain students, you could at some point, but then after a certain amount of time it was like, I have to move on guys, I’m sorry I have to move own,” said Charles.
Now Charles says she can give that time to the students who need extra help. It’s the first year DelSesto has used the program, using software developed by Facebook engineers. Other Providence schools are several years into similar programs.
So far, DelSesto 6th grader, 12-year-old Antonio Vargas, says he likes the program.
“Because most people are just depending on their teachers to do stuff for them,” said Vargas. “I like being independent because, you’re doing stuff for yourself and you’re learning by yourself.”
Vargas is one of nearly 1,000 students at DelSesto. It’s a middle school that once held the dubious reputation as one of the worst in Providence.
“It was a place where there was a lot of anger,” said Principal Arzinia Gill, who arrived here three years ago. “The students were angry, the teachers were angry, the parents were very angry."
Gill says teachers were leaving, faculty positions were hard to fill, and discipline was a problem. The middle school handed out more than 2,000 suspensions in one year. Now she believes things are improving.
“If you walk into the cafeteria now, you will see, kids are moving trash barrels, they’re helping each other, they’re nice to each other,” said Gill. “That is amazing, we never saw that before.”
How did they do it? Gill says it’s a number of things. She’s focused on improving relationships between students and teachers with something called personalized learning time. If that sounds like new-age education jargon, think of it as a sort of study hall, where students have individual check-ins with their teachers.
Gill says that’s important because many students here struggle with more than just grades.
“If I put a book in front of a kid and I say, you read this, and this child saw something very traumatic just last week, and was interviewed by the police, that is not going to happen, and that’s common sense to me.”
Now Gill has teachers like Cassandra Charles take time out of every school day to get to know her students personally.
“I have learned more about my students this year, because of this allotted time, than I have in my 11 years,” said Charles. “They trust me enough to come to me and say ‘I need help with this.’”
This may be one step to improving this school, but there’s more work to do to get students on track academically. About 80 percent of students here are below grade level in at least one subject.
Principal Gill says tools like the laptops will help. It’s one of the reasons Providence school officials are seeking $3.65 million dollars in new funding for education. They’re also facing a funding cliff. Next year state spending on city schools is expected to flat-line, and federal money has fallen more than 50 percent since 2011.
School officials say that will make it difficult to afford the resources needed to educate the state’s largest school district.