In the second installment of the series on the Providence School Takeover, BPRadio dives back into the Providence Public Schools to further investigate the effects of a state takeover on the parents, students, and broader community. Hosted by Morgan Awner ‘21 and Rachel Lim ‘21, this episode features an interview with Gara Field, former super-star principal of Pleasant View Elementary and current Director of Global Education and Social Innovation at Moses Brown. We also look into what you, the listener, can do in Providence.
Gara Field is the Director of Global Education & Social Innovation at Moses Brown, and the former interim Head of Upper School. She was the Principal at Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence from 2011 to 2016. Dr. Field was invited to make a presentation at the White House in 2014 for the White House Future Ready Superintendent’s Summit. Under her leadership, Pleasant View received two substantial federal grants to expand technology use and Field is credited with piloting the turnaround effort of the elementary school.
I think the most important thing that came out of that Johns Hopkins report is that we have a broken system, we have a system that’s concentrating on the wrong things, a system that is not living up to the potential of what we aspire to, in terms of public education in America. And we have plenty of people in this state and I would even argue in this nation or in this city that want to roll up their sleeves and do something.
Morgan: Dr. Gara Field was the Principal of Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence from 2011 – 2016. She helped take that school from this
Dr. Field: And in 2011, Pleasant View did not have wireless internet. Nor did they have computers that actually worked. They didn’t have laptops, for kids. There were no iPads in the building. 2011, like that’s a decade and a year into the 21st Century.
Morgan: to this:
Rachel: Today, part 2 of our series on the Providence school’s state takeover.
Morgan: In order to look more closely at problems and solutions in Providence, I decided to talk to Dr. Gara Field, who is credited with stimulating major improvements at a Providence elementary school. Stay with us.
Rachel: Morgan, can you give me a little refresher of what’s going on in Providence?
Morgan: Sure, so this past summer, Johns Hopkins released a report that confirmed what people in Providence have known for decades: the school system is failing kids. State leaders stepped in and opted for a state takeover of the Providence schools, giving full control to the new education Commissioner, Angelica Infante Greene, and out of the hands of the School Board and the Mayor.
Rachel: Well, this school year is almost a third over, has anything changed?
Morgan: Actually, not really. The schools were officially taken over by the state on November 1, but the Commissioner has still not picked a new superintendent. Also, the official takeover plan will not be released until January.
Rachel: So what does this mean?
Morgan: Basically, there is still a lot of room for speculation of what the state is going to do. Optimistically, this means there is a chance of a real overhaul of the whole system, instead of just the shifting of financial burdens.
Rachel: If I remember anything from last episode, it sounds like it’s needed. But what now? Who can make this kind of change?
Morgan: I actually had the same question. Which is why I landed in a high school class listening to Dr. Gara Field.
Dr. Field: So I don’t even know where we were. Where were we? Oh, becoming an educator? Yes.
Morgan: It’s pretty remarkable Gara ended up in Providence, Rhode Island in 2011. She started her educational career at her alma mater, a small private school in New Hampshire. She then got her Masters in Education at Harvard and a Doctorate at UConn, and became an Education Psychology professor at the University of Georgia, where she was comfortably up for tenure. But, she wanted something more.
Dr. Field: It’s miraculous I got the job at Pleasantview, actually. I had never been a school leader, I had had dreams of being one since kind of midway through my educational career and Pleasantview took a chance on me. And it was the best decision I ever could have made.
Morgan: At the beginning, however, it did not look like the best decision.
Dr. Field: And when I first got to Pleasant View, So I came in the fall of 11. And I started I think in July, by that September, we were identified as one of the persistently low achieving schools and in the state, and as a result, we’re going through this transformation process. And that’s what I was talking about, we started applying for these grants is, you know, something needed to change. And in some ways, I, I saw that as an opportunity in other ways. You know, if we didn’t do it, what they knew was, I wouldn’t be the principal there much longer because that was at the time part of the Race to the Top formula was get rid of the current principal, like that was just one of the baseline things. I was like, but I just started like a month ago. Give me a minute. And so we had a reason to work together.
Morgan: When Gara arrived at Pleasantview elementary, it was identified as one of the lowest performing schools in the state. The school caters to difficult populations, including more than double the state average of students receiving special education services and over 80% of students qualifying for free or reduced priced lunch. With a situation like this, it was hard to decide where to even start. So Gara did the only thing she knew how: rolled up her sleeves and got to work. But she couldn’t do it alone.
Dr. Field: And I’d seen teachers from all over the country and I’m telling you some of the best teachers I have ever seen and worked with. were right there in Pleasant View. But what they didn’t have were resources. They didn’t have structures and systems in place to like, put a put a vision to make this to make a vision reality. And I feel like the work that we did together like it went, I mean, it connected to what this baseball player Bob Duxbury – I stole his line, which was have a dream, make a plan, do the work. And I’ve taken that with me and anything I’ve ever done. In a place like that, that has so much need, you cannot expect the teachers and the administration to do this work alone when the need is so much right. So that’s what we did. We ended up getting both grants at the same time, which we didn’t expect to get either. And we did a lot of work and and the mantra was, it was not about the tasks. That’s the one thing and it was not even about the technology. It’s how teachers use technology to differentiate instruction, meet kids where they are and have them grow. That was our plan. And that’s exactly what the teachers did. because things started improving, the culture started improving. The test scores started going up, I said, if we do this, I don’t want you to worry about the test scores because the test scores will take care of themselves. If the engagement of the kids change in a parents are bought in if we are creating a culture that is thriving in many ways, and it did.
Morgan: Now, Pleasant View earns a 3 star ranking from the Rhode Island Department of Education – the highest ranking achieved by public elementary schools in Providence – and has over 75% of students proficient in English. Of course, none of this happened overnight. So I asked how she did it.
Dr. Field: I would say that the approach I would have to go in because it’ll never be one thing for one school, it’s really going to depend on the people who are in that place. There are these unique beings that have this passion, and purpose. And depending on what the demographics of the community are itself, like, it’ll never be one thing. But I do full scale, believe in the full service Community School model. Like, there’s no question in my mind about what impact that model had on our co mmunity and within the community late so that again, it’s finding the right community partners who share a vision and a mission to make life better for each other and help each other kind of fulfill your purpose in your mission together. The other thing that I would say and this is more pedagogically rooted than it is practically in terms of community partners, but You know, we took an approach at Pleasant View that really honed in on strengths and not weaknesses.
Morgan: Gara and the teachers at Pleasant View focused on more than the classroom, including the attitudes the students and the community had about the school.
Dr. Field: It’s not going to be about seat time. It’s not going to be about rushing through the curriculum guide to make sure that you’ve covered something. It’s about hands on project based learning where kids yes are getting the skills developmentally but they learn to care about it and they want to learn more. They want to read more outside of school, not just in school, they want to run into school.
Morgan: What I found the most inspiring about the stories Gara told about Pleasant View was how simple the curriculum was, but how big the concepts they were trying to teach. Take this lesson:
Dr. Field: And my favorite enrichment Academy and I think it still exists to this day is called Bake the world a better place one cupcake at a time [Laughter]
Morgan: I mean come on! That name!
Dr. Field: And so kids, these are like second third graders, they would learn they would get their math through baking, they would actually create a product which was whatever they decided to make that week. And then they would have a bake sale the next day or or that later that afternoon. And the proceeds the monthly proceeds from the bake sale, they would have a democratic process about which nonprofit organization will get the proceeds from the bake sale, and you know, Pleasant View that I think they’re probably 85 to 90% of those kids are on free and reduced lunch and teaching them that they can create things that matter and go towards things that they care about is it’s empowering. Yeah. And so the more we’re able to connect kids to things that matter in the world, and that have meaning to them and just make the world better, we’re better.
Morgan: So, with all this experience, and after being at one of the schools that was part of the Johns Hopkins report, I wanted to know: What did Gara think about the Johns Hopkins report?
Dr. Field: Yeah, it was a bit of a gut punch in some ways, because it’s hard to read things like that and and others. There have been people that have been talking about this for decades. So it I, I’m not going to sit like some people say all shocked. I wasn’t shocked. I went to Pleasant View in 2011. They didn’t even have computers that worked. They didn’t even have wireless internet. Like, that’s not shocking to me. It’s like I said, it’s a civil rights issue.
Morgan: and then I asked for her thoughts on the state takeover;
Dr. Field: That’s a bold move. I mean, it’s an odd Honestly, I’m going to call it a risk …. Show me a place that it’s been done in this country. That is the model. I mean, we are aspiring to be the model.
Rachel: She sounds skeptical, like Domingo did. For all this talk of everyone being behind the takeover, I’m wondering why someone who knows the day to day in Providence is worried.
Morgan: Well, I think it is because she knows exactly what the day to day is like. It goes back to what Paige told us last episode; you can give kids state of the art technology, an award winning teacher, and the best textbooks, but if that kid walks into school without breakfast, or if there was violence in their neighborhood the night before, they will not be at 100%. And when these schools and teachers are already given such little resources, how can the state expect to build off a broken system?
Rachel: Yeah, wow. So what you are saying is even if the state put as much money as possible into the schools, it might not be the solution.
Morgan: Exactly right. But no one ever claimed that money would solve all the district’s problems. There is a fear among people, which Gara articulated, that the state takeover might not do much more than put new people in charge and reshuffle the decision making process. While important, this is something that most kids will go through 13 years of school and never come into contact with. So how much change can it really create?
But, its also important to recognize that looking at a problem as fundamentally broken is also a very flawed approach. This is something Gara pointed out to me, and something that was lacking in the report.
Dr. Field: There are plenty of teachers who are doing incredible work. There are plenty of parents who have you know it the one thing that that report did was act you know, I would say honestly point out that the system’s broken. The thing that it didn’t highlight, were the things that have gone really well. people’s lives or in school communities or in grade levels or, you know, like, not everything is broken within the system … there’s no secret sauce anywhere, but in the places that things where you’re seeing growth and things are improving. What are they doing to make that happen? And it has to be just beyond strong, sustained leadership because actually, the leaders are doing some things that are super important to move the needle, but it’s the teachers who on a day to day basis or are teaching kids and things for kids are improving in terms of growth.
Morgan: What Gara highlighted again and again was how important it is for people to listen, including the State, the new Commissioner, the future superintendent, and even education researchers trying to find the best solution.
Dr. Field: I think people try to oversimplify things. I think they try to rush to judgment, I think to try to make the complex simplistic. And I think they’re misguided in doing that. And I think if you take a mixed method approach to things, and you really have a laser focus on, you know, what is going horribly wrong? And what is going really well, for either certain kids or certain classes or certain schools and trying to understand why that’s the case. We’ll get closer to a real answer to what’s happening.
Morgan: Pleasant View is a perfect example, because of all the negative expectations people had in 2011 when Gara arrived.
Dr. Field: There were people that never thought, Pleasant View could do a pleasant view did. They were like Pleasant View has 42% Special Ed, they’ll never, ever do what the state is asking of them … if you’re going to have that fixed mindset, about a school or an institution or city or place, that is not going to help the cause, like just having the belief in people working towards a common goal to do something to make things better, as Like one step closer and at least like Providence can, will and should be a model. If this work is intentional, thoughtful, that timely in terms of realistic and actually makes changes that can benefit kids in communities and educators and the people that are running those institutions. I do think positive things will happen and can happen and should happen.
Rachel: So, cautiously optimistic?
Morgan: Yeah. But, it’ss really easy to look at what she is saying and think, well, I’m not a state leader, or an education researcher, so it sounds like there isn’t a lot for me to do.
Rachel: Yeah. everything we are talking about, like structural issues with poverty and a broken education system, does sound pretty out of my hands.
Morgan: True. But it was also out of Gara’s hands before 2011, before she jumped into the middle of it. So I asked, what can people do? Brown students, community members, anyone.
Gara audio 2 – 8:57 – 9:21
Dr. Field: Take the time to get to know PPSD people, kids, teachers, administrators, community partners, and find ways to make a difference like on an individual level, like, just engage, find ways find ways to engage in work that matters individually and collectively.
The work that happens through the Swearer Center and brown and, like, find, just find your niche and find people who are doing this work and assume, like, don’t, don’t go in it with an attitude of you think you know what Providence school Sort of like, until you actually step foot into a Providence school, take a step in, meet some people that have devoted their lives to these kids in these families and have done so at it is not easy. The work is really hard. And everyone needs to recognize that and there’s no panacea.
There is not going to be one thing, but if people just can appreciate how hard the work is, and how, how hard it is for the people who are doing the work every day and find ways to change the system. That’s what’s going to make it better. Yeah. Because there’s there is a lot that’s broken.
Rachel: So sounds like there are a lot of places to get started.
Morgan: Definitely. So whether Providence is your home for 4 years, you can’t find Rhode Island on a map, or you have spent your whole life here, Gara had a message;
Dr. Field: And so, in some ways people need to care, because this is like, the principles that our nation was founded upon. Yeah, do you know but really, this is? Isn’t this what we aspire to is to create a society of educated citizens who care for and about the world and each other and to make it better, like, everybody needs to care.
Rachel: So, where can students go for this type of involvement?
Morgan: We actually have so many opportunities right on campus. Gara even pointed out how much she loves BEAM which stands for Brown Elementary Afterschool Mentoring, a program which partners with a local elementary school, D’abate. And there are so many other programs like that including BRYTE and Swearer Classroom Program.
And actually, on December 5, Rhode Island students, many of them from Providence Public Schools, showed up at the Federal District Court just down the Hill for a hearing in A.C. v Raimondo, which is a case fighting for Rhode Island students’ rights to a civic education. Youth organizations across the state, like Providence Student Union, ARISE, and Youth in Action work tirelessly to mobilize students and teach them valuable civic lessons in action – and these orgs can always use help.
Rachel: Sounds like there are so many places for Brown students, and others in the community to start. And countless other opportunities for people to engage in their communities and change the schools for the better, like showing up at City Council meetings or the State House.
Morgan: Exactly. Thank you for following us on this journey. This was the final episode in our series on the Providence school takeover, but there is so much more to this story.
Rachel: We encourage everyone, Brown students and others, to go out into the city and listen to people. Take this as your introduction into the Providence schools, because there are countless other stories to be told.
Morgan: I’m Morgan Awner
Rachel: And I’m Rachel Lim
Morgan: Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll catch you next time on the BPRadio.