In commemoration of East Side Monthly’s 40 years in print, we’re taking a look back at education-related events that have shaped our neighborhood since 1975. While my children have attended school here since 2004, I myself grew up elsewhere, so I turned to Sam Zurier, the previous writer of this very column, for local perspective. Currently an attorney and the Ward Two representative to the Providence City Council, Sam is an East Side native who returned to the neighborhood to raise his own family and became involved in education, serving on the school board and co-founding the East Side Public Education Coalition (ESPEC), which led the way for Nathan Bishop Middle School’s renovation and programmatic restart. Sam’s thoughts are woven throughout, and I’m ever grateful for his contribution.
Two topics emerged as Sam and I talked: the consequences of population shifts and the impact of community involvement on the public schools. This short history of East Side education, therefore, leaves much unwritten. However, we must note that any conversation about public education focused on the East Side of Providence is necessarily part of larger discussions about education in Providence and beyond. No neighborhood is an island, as both history and the present demonstrate. As well, the East Side is home to many independent schools that ably serve a wide variety of populations, and are an integral part of the story of our neighborhood’s educational history.
By 1975, a population shift was underway on the East Side, as demonstrated by a comparison of the 1970 and 2000 census data. In 1970, 70% of the children who lived on the East Side attended public school. By 2000, the number of children in our neighborhood attending public school dropped to 40%. While this appears to be a huge swing from public to non-public education, these data actually indicate a population shift away from the East Side entirely as many families with school-age children moved out of Providence. This trend began during the early 1960s, as described in School Desegregation in Providence, Rhode Island: A Staff Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, published in 1977. It accelerated in the 1970s and beyond, and as a result, between 1970 and 2000, the East Side lost 2,000 school-age children. Public schools absorbed nearly all of the impact of this loss; the number of East Side children attending independent and parochial schools stayed about the same.
Forty years ago, our neighborhood had three elementary schools: Fox Point Elementary School, which was renamed Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point in 1997; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, which was founded as Lippitt Hill Elementary and renamed in honor of Dr. King following his 1968 assassination; and John Howland Elementary, which was closed in the 1980s as a result of the decline of young people in the neighborhood.
The 1977 school desegregation report describes a Providence population that has since changed significantly. At the time of its publication, and during the preceding decade, the City addressed the pressing challenge of the time: desegregating schools in order to educate white and African American children equitably and together. Lippitt Hill Elementary School opened in 1967 as an innovative model elementary school created to educate students from across the city. Created as a replacement for the outdated Doyle and Jenkins Elementary Schools, Lippitt Hill Elementary School was developed with extensive input from interracial neighborhood groups that had been advocating for a desegregation plan and improved programs and facilities. Initially, the school was a desegregation success, according to School Desegregation in Providence. “In the first year, the voluntary open enrollment policy produced a student population that was 65% white and 35% black (whereas the two schools replaced by Lippitt Hill had been more than 97% black).” Unfortunately, the school’s success as a model of desegregated education was not replicated across the district, and while King is currently more diverse that most other Providence elementary schools, most of our district’s schools remain somewhat or very segregated.
However, the education-related activism that marked the development of the school now known as MLK Elementary has continued to distinguish the East Side, most notably during our community’s response to the challenge that Nathan Bishop Middle School posed a decade ago. The decreased participation in public schools, coupled with the development of a program for academically talented students at Nathanael Greene Middle School, pulled once-strong neighborhood support away from Bishop. The school responded inadequately to a new population of students, many with significant social-emotional and learning challenges. Decreased enrollment and poor academic performance resulted in a 2006 proposal to close Bishop permanently. This threat sparked the rise of ESPEC, headed by Sam Zurier and others, which led a process that resulted in the school’s physical renovation, programmatic improvement, and, once it reopened in 2009, ongoing neighborhood support and participation.
While neighborhood engagement and community involvement are also factors in the ongoing strength of Vartan Gregorian and MLK Elementary Schools, we have not supported Hope High School as robustly. While neighborhood connections exist, including an ongoing partnership with Rhode Island School of Design for dedicated students of the visual arts at Hope, many East Side students do not attend Hope, instead choosing Classical High School when possible, or finding other options. However, Hope High School’s staff and leadership remained focused on creating the best conditions for teaching and learning for their students, often amidst administrative changes and challenges that have been beyond their control. Here’s hoping that the next decade brings stability and support to our neighborhood high school.
What will the next ten years bring to the East Side’s schools? 360 High School is a new school opened on the East Side this year. Sharing the building with Hope High School, 360 High School is starting with a class of ninth graders, with plans to add a grade per year. 360 High School is using a mastery-based personalized approach for each student that is likely to inform the district’s work throughout all of its high schools. We are also likely to see a changed approach to dual language learning, both in response to the precipitous increase in the number of students who speak a language other than English at home – 50% within the past five years – and the increased awareness of the cognitive and life-skills benefits of dual-language mastery. Finally, let’s hope – no, let’s expect and demand – that Hope, Gregorian and King are thriving in new or renovated buildings by the time the 50th anniversary issue of East Side Monthly appears, and that we’ve made the necessary investments in all of our city’s schools so that our children can learn and grow in buildings that honor and inspire their potential.