How a group of students took on the city of Providence – and won

Students protest Providence busing policy in City Hall. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It took about 2.5 miles for Zack Mezera to know the group of high school students he was working with were on to something big.

Mezera, the 24-year-old executive director of the Providence Student Union, was among the 50 city officials, policymakers and political hopefuls who joined the student activist group on 2.96-mile walk to school from the city’s Wanskuck neighborhood to the Providence School Department on Westminster Street in February 2014 to highlight a longstanding busing policy that required students to live more than three miles from school in order to qualify for a free bus pass.

It was around Dean Street near the Route 10 on-ramp, after the group had traveled the snow-covered sidewalks of busy Smith Street before crossing over to Raymond Street near Davis Park, that Mezera noticed the mood had changed. This wasn’t a fun exercise anymore. It was tiring. Annoying. And for hundreds of high school students across the city, it was real life.

Eighteen months later, the Providence City Council on Monday is poised to give first approval to a budget that includes about $680,000 in funding to provide bus passes to any student who lives at least two miles from school, a decision that would match busing policies in Cranston, East Providence and Warwick and mark the biggest win yet for the Providence Student Union.

The victory was no walk in the park.

The group capitalized on the right combination of timing and luck and used a well-organized campaign to execute on multiple fronts, from the initial walk that gave stakeholders a firsthand glimpse at the struggles students were facing to its #KeepYourPromise crusade that put pressure on new Mayor Jorge Elorza to deliver on a pledge he made as a candidate.

“Once again, students united to take a bold stand for the rights of young people, and once again, we were able to work with our elected officials to make a real change that will provide thousands of students in our city with safe and reliable access to their education,” the group wrote in an email to supporters last week.

Focus on ‘bread-and-butter issues’

The Providence Student Union was founded by Mezera and Aaron Regunberg in the spring of 2010 while the two were still students at Brown University. Mezera, who grew up in Florida, became the executive director last year when Regunberg announced plans to run for the House District 4 seat held by disgraced former Speaker Gordon Fox. A Democrat, Regunberg won a three-way primary and cruised to victory in the general election.

First known as Hope United, the group originally set its sights on Hope High School, organizing a walkout to protest changes the city was making to block scheduling. The Hope students later convinced food service giant Sodexo to offer a salad bar at lunch. By 2012, the group had launched chapters in several high schools across the city, making a name for itself by protesting standardized testing.

Now the Providence Student Union has 60 members across six high schools – Hope, Central, Classical, E-Cubed, The MET and Mount Pleasant – and boasts the ability to mobilize 400 students for public stunts that have included asking adults to take a mock version of a standardized test, the walk to school and, last month, a 60-lap walk around the second floor of Providence City Hall to again highlight the city busing policy.

“Usually we go into a classroom and ask students, ‘What do you want to do?’” Mezera told WPRI.com. In addition to Mezera, the Providence Student Union has two other paid organizers on staff. It is funded through grants and private donations, but does not accept money from teachers’ unions.

“We like the bread-and-butter issues,” Mezera said.

That’s what the group was focusing on at the beginning of the 2013 school year when the conversation about school busing first started. In addition to its ongoing battle against standardized testing, Mezera thought the group was planning to tackle the lack of school nurses across the city. But the student union’s chapter at Central High School organized around busing and it quickly became a priority for the entire group.

Just after winter break, the group began planning its next public demonstration, inviting dozens of interested parties from across the state to join them on the 2.96-mile walk to school from the Phebe Street home of Natalia Rossi, then a sophomore at Classical High School.

Providence high school students walk 2.96 miles to school last year.

After the walk, the group released an analysis that showed Providence’s three-mile policy was the longest in the state. Other urban cities in New England – including Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Hartford – all have two-mile policies. The students called a press conference to push city leaders to reduce the distance.

“Because I don’t receive a bus pass, I have a lot of absences and tardies,” Diane Gonzalez, then a sophomore at Central High School, said. “But it’s not because I want to miss school. My mother goes to work very early and she can’t afford to give me the $4 for two bus rides every day.”

Politics played a big role

Timing was on the student union’s side. Campaign season was already in full swing.

Angel Taveras, the mayor at the time, was running for governor. City Council President Michael Solomon was running for mayor. Seth Magaziner, now the state treasurer, joined the walk. So did Clay Pell, another candidate for governor.

The mayoral candidates were particularly interested in the issue. Elorza was first to promise he’d find a way to reduce the distance, calling it a “matter of priorities, not cash.” At a youth-led candidate forum, the rest of what was a large field at the time lined up to make similar promises.

Mezera made sure to get them all on camera. Rhode Island’s Future, the state’s leading progressive political blog, also covered the issue thoroughly, chronicling the positions of candidates and advocating for the city to make a change.

“No matter who won, there was always something to use,” Mezera said.

Soon the school board and Taveras announced they would reduce the distance to 2.5 miles with the goal of dropping it to two miles by the beginning of the 2015-16 school year. And when Elorza won the Democratic primary and then defeated Buddy Cianci and Daniel Harrop to become mayor later in the year, the Providence Student Union rejoiced. One of the first public figures to stand with them was now the key decision-maker in Providence.

Then reality set in.

Budget plan didn’t include money for bus passes

Elorza inherited a slight deficit for the current fiscal year and was forced to tackle a projected shortfall of more than $10 million in his first budget. The school department found itself in a position of needing to eliminate a $34.7-million projected shortfall in its budget. Technology upgrades, funding for the social and emotional needs of students and yes, bus passes, found their way to the chopping block.

By the time Elorza unveiled his budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Mezera, a regular at school board meetings, knew the $680,000 needed to provide bus passes to the 1,000 students who live between two and 2.5 miles from school, was not included.

The group needed to mobilize, but May isn’t the best month for student activists. Between proms and Advanced Placement exams and final college decisions, Mezera feared that the group might not be ready for a last-ditch effort to hold Elorza and other city officials accountable for reducing the busing distance.

He was wrong.

Led by Central High School senior Roselin Trinidad, the Providence Student Union made hundreds of calls, wrote letters to the mayor’s office and planned a week-long protest inside City Hall to show they meant business. They put together a video using statements Elorza made during the campaign and used social media to urge him to find the funding for more bus passes. They called their effort “Keep Your Promise.”

“If you do things creatively, if you do things differently, people are going to pay attention,” Trinidad told WPRI.com.

The group had several weeks’ worth of actions planned, but also chose to take a more a traditional route, turning out for the City Council Finance Committee’s public hearing on the city budget last week.

Brendan Caprio, a sophomore at Hope, told the committee he had a friend fall on ice and break his arm while walking to school. He said other friends wake up at 5 a.m. to prepare for their walk to school.

“We have only asked for one thing, and that is to get to school,” Caprio said.

Mahmoud Akid, a junior at E-Cubed, explained that he asked more of his friends to join him at the council meeting to discuss student busing, but many of them didn’t have a pass to get downtown.

“It feels like a punishment to these students and the only crime is that they committed is that they live 2.5 miles away from the school,” he said.

Extra revenues led to bus passes

After the meeting, the council and the Elorza administration had a decision to make.

City officials believed they had found an additional $2 million in tax revenue and fees for the upcoming fiscal year, but the council was dead set on providing a partial tax break to rental property owners who have complained about their high tax rates for several years. Needing a win of his own, Elorza pushed back, asking council leaders to set aside $680,000 for the bus passes and use the rest of the money for a smaller landlord tax reduction.

By Thursday morning, a deal was in place.

“It’s hard to say no to kids who come to you and say, ‘I want to go to school, I want you to help me get to school,’” City Council President Luis Aponte said last week.

“Our first priority was to support our kids and support our students,” Elorza said.

Aponte and Elorza joined the students for one final lap around City Hall to commemorate the victory Thursday afternoon.

All the Providence Student Union is waiting for now is final approval to provide as many as 1,000 additional bus passes to students. The council will likely approve the city budget Monday and again Wednesday before sending it to the mayor’s desk to be signed into law.

The work, Mezera stressed, isn’t over. The grueling campaign over the last several weeks put the student union behind in its recruiting for next year. And he noted that he’s getting ready to say goodbye to several of his senior leaders. Trinidad and Diana Canales, from E-Cubed, are heading to Providence College in the fall. Cheikh Gaye, another senior from E-Cubed, is on his way to Connecticut College.

Mezera said he doesn’t know what the Providence Student Union will focus on next – his members like school construction and the ability to give teachers feedback – but he noted that the seniors have sent a clear message to the entire city.

“Student campaigns have to be taken seriously,” he said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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