With summit, Mayor Elorza seeks input on improving Providence schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – One thing Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has learned about the city’s schools since he took office: sometimes parents’ ideas for how to improve things are vastly different than the policymakers in City Hall or the school department.

An example: When city officials met with a group of parents recently, they learned that some kids don’t like coming to school because they “hate” the food served for breakfast and lunch, Elorza recalled in a recent interview. In a district where 86% of students are eligible for free or reduced-rate meals, food matters.

It got the mayor thinking. “What if we had rice and beans and some culturally relevant food?” Elorza suggested.

No decision has been made on school meals, but Elorza said that type of direct feedback from parents is what city leaders are seeking as they prepare to host the city’s first “All In” education summit Saturday at the Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA).

“The goal that we have is to be the top performing urban district in the country,” Elorza said. “What does it take to achieve that? We have ideas, but we need the input from the community to flesh that out.”

To be sure, Providence has a long way to go to reach Elorza’s goal. While high school graduation rates have gradually improved, one in four city students still aren’t completing the 12th grade on time. Nearly half of all high school students were absent at least 18 days during the 2015-16 school year. And only 18% of Providence students who took the PARCC exam last school year scored proficiently on the English language arts (ELA) section while 10% were proficient in math.

But Elorza said he wants to use Saturday’s summit as an opportunity to highlight some of the city’s recent accomplishments, including a reorganization of the school department’s central office, the hiring of popular Superintendent Chris Maher, outfitting hundreds of students with laptops to increase personalized learning opportunities and a plan to provide more summer programming for kids. The mayor has also pledged to increase city funding for the school department for the first time since 2011 as part of the budget he’ll introduce later this month.

According to a tentative agenda for the summit, attendees will begin by participating in an interactive activity where they’ll give feedback on the city’s schools. Shortly before 11 a.m., table groups will discuss buildings and resources, culture and climate, teaching and learning, supporting educators, staff and administrators, and out of school time learning.

Over lunch, attendees will participate in a session titled “taking action together,” where they’ll discuss how to improve facilities, cultivating culturally responsive learning, improving out comes for English language learners, strengthening diversity and inclusion and leveraging community partnerships in schools.

The summit will close with a discussion on next steps and a small celebration featuring performances and dancing, according to the agenda.

“As we’re having conversation of where the school district is moving, there’s recognition that there’s only so much we can do as a district,” Elorza said. “We’re doing a lot. But if we really want to hit our stride, if we really want to get in gear, we really need the whole community.”

The summit begins Saturday at 9 a.m. with a Dominican breakfast.

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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