Providence, R.I., debuts cooperative reform initiative

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A record-breaking snowstorm wasn't enough to keep teachers, administrators, and community leaders away when Providence, R.I., schools launched a first-of-its kind effort to help schools identified under federal law as needing improvement—and doing it through union-district cooperation, rather than closings and other steps that disrupt schools and neighborhoods.

AFT president Randi Weingarten joined Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers Union, and other school and local political leaders for the kickoff of the new initiative, called United Providence! (UP!). Later, the AFT president met with students and staff at Carl G. Lauro Elementary and Gilbert Stuart Middle, two of three schools involved the initiative, which organizers hope can become a model for other buildings. The three UP! schools will be operated by a nonprofit education management organization in which teachers, school leaders, community leaders and national education experts will select the best and most appropriate programs and services to lift the students' academic performance. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also participated in the event via audio feed.

The new initiative embodies the conviction that school improvement "is not about finger-pointing and game playing," Weingarten told the crowd gathered at the Rhode Island Convention Center for the Feb. 22 UP! launch. "Providence has decided that we're all in this together" when it comes to fixing, rather than closing, schools. That approach is essential, because neighborhoods in Providence and around the country still look to these buildings as keys to a vibrant middle class and a bright future, she said. The challenges will be great, but the spirit of true cooperation, shared accountability and respect for teachers and staff in the buildings bodes well for the future of UP!, added the AFT president, noting that the project shares many of the key features of another effective effort to revitalize public schools a few years ago: the Chancellors' District of New York City. The lessons learned in that earlier, successful chapter in public school renewal "are still alive thanks to projects like UP!," Weingarten said.

"Ultimately this is not just about three schools," Smith reminded the crowd gathered for the UP! launch. "It's about empowering each one of those schools and replicating it throughout the district."

The PTU president stressed that the union would remain involved in UP! for the long haul because the heart of the approach is about improving schools in ways that "keep the voice of teachers at the center."

Sheri Miller-Williams, executive director of UP!, noted that work was well under way in preparation for the launch, including the formation of a strong national advisory board, an impressive list of project partners, and training to help key stakeholders work cooperatively and effectively. UP! also sent a large delegation to the 15th annual Center for School Improvement Leadership Institute in New York City last month. (See earlier story.) CSI training "gave us time to really come together as a team," she said, adding that some of that training already has been replicated and received enthusiastically in the three UP! schools.

The PTU received an AFT Innovation Fund grant to support extended learning, which has facilitated the union's involvement in the initiative.

The project already is generating national attention. Jo Anderson, special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Education, has been appointed as the department's chief liaison to UP!, and Duncan told the crowd at the launch that the program could be "a remarkable opportunity to do something special, not just for Providence but for children around the country." [Mike Rose]

February 14, 2013