Problems in Providence: Nirva LaFortune talks PVD schools

When it comes to assessing Providence Public Schools’ legacy issues, the recent Johns Hopkins report and the state takeover of the district, one leader equipped to provide an array of perspectives is Providence Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune.  In the below excerpt from a recent interview, the Councilwoman and I dig into the bilateral/bifocal issues facing the district: physical/infrastructural concerns and content-based flaws.

Bill Bartholomew (Motif): Let’s get right into the story of the summer, the thing that’s going to be the pinpoint for this year, The Johns Hopkins report and the Providence schools. What’s your reaction to the report?

Nirva LaFortune: So, as a parent, as a graduate of Providence schools, as an advocate of public education, it is disheartening. But we also have to remember that what was said in the report is nothing new. These are things, some of the issues are our issues that we’ve been talking about since I was in school over 20 years ago in the Providence public school system. 


So I think that this was going to eventually happen. There was a report that came out in the 90s. 

BB: Yeah, 1993. Right? 

NL: Right. Yup. I was in middle school, I think, when that report came out. So, there are certain things that were said in this current report that were also prevalent in the previous report. We need to take education seriously. Public education is important. We need to invest in our kids. There are many families, particularly in a district like Providence, where a majority of our students are at low income, where English is not their first language. Students speak Creole, different dialects of Creole from Cape Verde, from Brazil, from Haiti. People speak French, people speak various Southeastern Asian languages. You also have Spanish, which is the prevalent language in our district. 

And so we need to ensure that regardless of what language students speak, regardless of their socioeconomic background, regardless of their race, regardless of their gender, that we have a system that serves them and assists them, that provides them with resources so that they can thrive and be successful. I’ve been working in higher education for about 14 years right now, and I’ve worked at three various institutions. They include public, private and now in Ivy. And some of the students who struggle the most are students who come from marginalized communities, and so they are already going to face barriers when they graduate from high school. So we need to make sure that whatever system that we have prepares them as much as possible so that they can thrive in the future. That’s not happened. 

BB: Right now, in your view, at at a fundamental level — just the nature of what school is doing, nevermind the buildings, nevermind the rats, nevermind that discussion. The content is fundamentally flawed at the core level.

NL: It’s a systemic issue and you’re absolutely right. The structure that’s currently in place is fundamentally flawed. And is fundamentally flawed, not just for the students, but also the people who are educating them. During the press conference that the mayor held, there was a teacher who came out and spoke so passionately about the issues that she faces while trying to educate her students. I met with a teacher who lives in my ward and who shared with me how difficult it is to try to manage such a large class, but she also has to take funds out of her own pocket just to buy resources because every student is coming in with different learning abilities and they have different needs. Or [there are] students who are getting by, but they haven’t met proficiency yet. And also we need to be careful of how we talk about proficiency because you know, not all students test well. So if we’re focusing on proficiencies, mainly on an exam where some students might be able to display proficiency in other manners, we need to look at how we can better educate our students but also measure outcomes.

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