Saying he will do the job as it should be done permanently, Providence’s Interim Superintendent Chris Maher provided the community with his thoughts and priorities for the city’s schools at a series of Parent Forums held this month throughout the city.
The forums were held at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex (JSEC), Nathan Bishop Middle School, Frank Spaziano Elementary School and Mt. Pleasant High School. They were co-hosted by Providence City Council representatives and attended by School Board members, school faculty and staff, parents and community members.
Offering his thoughts on topics ranging from student discipline to capital improvements, Maher’s priorities emerged clearly. The interim superintendent said that while their styles are different, he expects to build upon the direction established by his predecessor while addressing numerous other issues facing the district.
He supports school-based autonomy and establishing strong leadership teams in our schools, and also favors more personalized instruction and mastery-based learning. Those concepts will guide the curriculum of the two new high schools, now known as 360 High School and Evolutions High School, opening next month, and could be replicated at schools throughout the district.
“The more personalized instruction, the better,” said Maher. “All kids have different needs and we should be able to reach kids where they are.”
Maher has met with every school principal, student leaders, and union leadership during his first weeks in Providence. On August 3, he joined Rhode Island’s new Education Commissioner Dr. Ken Wagner on a tour of summer English Language Learning programs in Providence.
In introducing Maher at the first forum held at JSEC, Providence City Council President Luis Aponte encouraged the parents and educators gathered to ask tough questions and voice their opinions. “This is a conversation about what we believe our public schools should look like, what we believe should be the direction of our public schools in Providence,” said Aponte.
Among the initial data Maher has examined upon his arrival are chronic absenteeism at the elementary level and suspensions at the middle and high school levels, two high priority areas he plans to address.
Maher supports Mayor Jorge Elorza and the School Board in driving school autonomy by allowing the principals and teachers who know their students best to make decisions regarding their schools. He believes in moving talented staff into schools when necessary, and sees the role of the central office to support schools and help to mentor principals.
Capital improvements were a topic of discussion at Nathan Bishop. Providence is presently prioritizing its capital improvement funds for needed fire-code upgrades and long-awaited projects like roof replacement at Roger Williams and Stuart Middle Schools.
Restorative justice was an important issue for the students he has met with, and Maher would like to create alternative programs that remove barriers of frustration for students. “We are preparing students for the real world. If we ask them to come to school and throw them out for the smallest infraction, that is sending a mixed message,” he said.
As questions arose about communication between parents and the district and teachers, it was announced that a new contract has been signed for the district’s website. Parents soon will be able to access information about their children’s grades and assignments through a new parent portal to be launched during the first quarter after verification of student data by all schools. Parents will also be able to access district information through a new mobile app. “We want to create a more customer-friendly environment in our schools. We will be looking for more creative ways to open our schools to families,” he said, adding that three elementary schools are serving as satellite registration sites this summer.
“We want to talk about the great things happening in school and we want parents to talk about great things happening in the classroom,” said Maher.
When a parent asked about the Males of Color Initiative, both Maher and Board President Keith Oliveira said they are working on bringing those programs to schools. “We need to get more men of color involved as role models,” said Oliveira. Maher added that he supports a teaching corps that is more representative of Providence’s diverse community. He also supports incentives to encourage teachers to live in the city.
Summer learning loss is another priority. “The gap gets wider and wider,” he said. “We have to do something in the summertime to bridge that gap.”
As for school partnerships, Maher said he plans to review contracts with every agency to be sure the district has performance-based partnerships that are aligned with each school’s instructional goals.
Oliveira reassured parents that the School Board will continue to be actively involved. “It is important that we maintain continuity of instruction. Chris is aligned with the direction we want to go in.”
“I’m a worker, a grinder. I like being on the ground in the schools,” Maher assured parents. “I’m going to work hard and you’ll find that I’m willing to listen and learn.”