‘An end to broken promises’: Providence educators march to demand education justice and investment in resource-starved schools

“We do this job because we love our students. We do it without the resources and support that we need, but we do it anyway. But we can no longer stand by and watch what is happening.”

rally banner in providence

That was the message third-grade teacher and Providence Teachers Union activist Anna-Maria Urrutia had for state officials inside the Rhode Island Department of Education building at an April 6 rally in which PTU members and supporters (including AFT/RIFT sister union, the Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance) walked from the Statehouse to RIDE offices to demand long-overdue education justice for their students and community.

“We can no longer just let things go,” Urrutia (a 21-year teaching veteran at Robert L Bailey IV Elementary School) told a crowd of 500. “We have to speak up and stand up for our children and our families. No more keeping silent.”

In Providence, there is a crying lack of resources for a student population that is 65 percent Latinx and 30 percent ELL (English language learners), with 87 percent of students economically disadvantaged. The pandemic has only worsened these inequities. So, in the last year, the PTU has redoubled its efforts to fix the intolerable conditions that put this district into state takeover status back in November 2019 following a June 2019 Johns Hopkins report that documented crumbling school buildings with rodents, peeling lead paint, asbestos and lead in the water; demoralized students, principals and staff; and parents marginalized and shut out of their children’s education. The report noted that “racial equity is a low priority” with the district, which has consistently failed to retain educators of color.

Anna-Maria at Providence rally
PTU activist Anna-Maria Urrutia

Takeover leaders (Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters) promised resources and school-community collaboration—but the past year has only worsened the stark deprivation portrayed in the Hopkins report. The district’s peer mentoring program has been eliminated, two middle school libraries have been closed, class sizes are up in the district’s Virtual Learning Academy, and a hastily launched virtual learning program left many students unassigned as late as a month into the school year.

Educators at the rally said the pandemic means that cuts will go even deeper for children.

Sue Garland, an art teacher at Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex, said, “My school had a wonderful dance program for 20 years. It’s gone for next year. No more dance. We were the only school in the district that had this type of program. And it’s something that kids really, really responded to. Because it’s a whole-body art form, kids can process emotions and trauma, which is something that they need right now.”

Peter Quesnel, a library media specialist at Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex, said, “We now have two middle schools without libraries. Kids like to be in the library. They’re missing out on the books they could be reading, on the diverse collections that certified librarians have built up over the past decades and kept up today. It’s a key need for kids. If a neighborhood library has been closed or access has been limited, they don’t have a place anymore.”

West Broadway Middle School English teacher Kira Leander worries about rising class sizes. “If you’re going to create a goal for our students to reach, you have to also resource that goal. So if I’m going to provide individualized attention and give my students joy in the classroom and keep them engaged, then I need to have fewer students. I need to actually be able to know them.”

A lack of resources can be a matter of life and death. Social worker Nikki Bond said, “There are 1,200 students at Mount Pleasant High School. How many social workers are there? Just me. Four times in the past four weeks, I’ve had to ride on an ambulance with a student because they wanted to die. Not just die, but they knew how they were going to die, what they were going to do to die and where, and when they were going to do it. Out of the four that I rode on that ambulance with, two of them are LGBT students. … You know what my school really needs. It needs a GSA, a Gender-Sexuality Alliance. Do I have the time or resources to provide that? We need more social workers. Three weeks ago, we did lose a student by suicide. How many more of our students have to die before we get more social workers into our schools?”

speakers at the providence teachers union rally
PTU President Maribeth Calabro

Stories like these—paired with the state takeover team’s continued refusal to collaborate with educators—drove a frustrated and exhausted PTU membership to vote overwhelmingly (92.2 percent) on March 18 for a resolution of “no confidence” in the leadership of Peters and Infante-Green. The union followed up by calling on state legislators to end the takeover.

The PTU has also embraced proactive change. Months ago, the local developed a comprehensive, child-centered plan to transform Providence schools, and centered its contract bargaining proposals on that plan. Lindsay Paiva, a third-grade teacher at Webster Avenue Elementary School, spoke at the rally about this student-focused agenda.

“It’s all about using collective bargaining power to advocate for what our students, families and communities have been demanding for decades. Better services for multilingual learners, family engagement and transforming school facilities into safe, welcoming environments. An anti-racist curriculum. Recruitment, retention and support of educators of color. These are commonsense, justice-oriented demands that will help build the schools our students deserve.”

Paiva added, “Why wouldn't the district and the state want to support a contract that advocates for these crucial and responsible measures?”

The PTU has also created a Racial Justice Committee, which has grown by leaps and bounds. And it is joining in the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers’ call for the state Assembly to increase income taxes on the top one percent of the wealthiest Rhode Islanders, to raise over $128 million to invest in higher education, K-12 education and infrastructure.

PTU members are stepping up for these fights.

“We’re starting to be more vocal, honestly, and more active,” says Garland. “It seems to be a groundswell of PTU members.”

“We cannot be complacent,” says Urrutia. “We will fight both within the contract and outside of it to achieve this.”

As PTU President Maribeth Calabro told the crowd, “This is a tsunami of cries for important, commonsense action. We want significant changes to get education not just back on track but improved, which was the promise of the state takeover. The very future of 24,000 students hangs in the balance.”

[Christina Bartolomeo]