PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The leaders of Sophia Academy and San Miguel were recently featured on the opinion page of the Providence Journal. Read more:
As we follow with keen interest the plans for improving Providence schools, we were moved by Naiem Mian’s story (told in the July 23 news article “State approves takeover of Providence public schools”). He is a student at West Broadway Middle School and recently spoke about the deplorable conditions at his school.
He also misses art class.
We are familiar with Naiem’s story.
Newly minted middle schoolers arrive at San Miguel School (for boys) and Sophia Academy (for girls) with similar stories. Our devoted teachers and staff, tireless volunteers, and dedicated mentors work hard to earn students’ trust. After some time, our students express relief at feeling safe and respected when they come to school. They are quick to add: “It is fun to learn stuff, too.”
This should be the experience of every student. Creating and maintaining this culture isn’t always easy, but it is a necessary investment to assure learning.
Our students are often below grade level when they first enroll. Nonetheless, academics are rigorous and expectations high. We believe firmly that our students are capable of achieving whatever they set out to do. We build our cultures around this conviction.
It starts with thinking small. Small schools. Small faculty teams. Small classes. Each of our schools enrolls 60-65 students in grades 5-8. Although we are both private, we are microcosms of the Providence Public Schools’ enrollment: 87% qualify for free or reduced meals and nearly 100% are students of color.
A typical day begins with morning meetings that set intentions and celebrate accomplishments. Warm greetings abound. Cellphones are off and stored in backpacks. And well-trained teachers are ready when our students test limits — which is not only inevitable, but developmentally appropriate. We empower our faculty to implement rules and manage their classrooms with shared routines and systems. This creates a predictable environment that frees teachers to ignite each student’s passion for learning, social justice, and achievement.
We know a safe, empowering environment enables students to explore and embrace their identities. So we intentionally prepare teachers and staff to work with students from different backgrounds, strive to diversify faculty and staff, and commit to single-sex education. An ethnographic study in California found that single-sex classrooms improve minority student outcomes in cultures of caring. As Providence experiments with new ideas, perhaps there are single-sex models that could be explored.
In our supportive cultures, students like Naiem gain the sense of belonging that is so critical to middle schoolers’ development as learners, friends, and citizens. They leave us ready to excel in selective public, private, and charter high schools, where they graduate on time and head for college, trade schools, or military service. We look on proudly as they become successful adults and engaged citizens.
We are heartened that Rhode Island’s new education commissioner is prioritizing school culture as essential to improving student achievement. As educators serving Providence students, we are ready and willing to help, especially when it comes to re-thinking middle school opportunities.
Although it’s a stage sometimes overlooked — as preschoolers’ early learning needs and high schoolers’ career readiness occupy the community’s focus — middle school is critical to every student’s intellectual, physical, social, and emotional development, a time when a student’s educational destiny often is sealed.
Our per-student cost is roughly equivalent to Providence Public Schools’, and our costs include enrichment programs, trips, and graduate support. A community of committed donors provides most of this funding.
Perhaps now is an opportune time to take a close and pragmatic look at our model to see what elements might be “scalable” for Providence schools.
We’ve learned that the price of education in Providence today comes at too great a cost, not only in dollars, but in the lost potential of our children. We know it’s possible to do better because we have seen it happen with the right investments of money, time, and, dare we say, love.
John Wolf is executive director of the San Miguel School. Maura Farrell is head of school of the Sophia Academy.