“I don’t think our opinion matters to the people making decisions:”  Providence Plans to Close 360 High School

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Questions are many and answers are few for the staff and students of 360 High School. After they received the news that Providence Public School District (PPSD) plans to close their school, they have been given little information to help them understand why their school was selected for the chopping block.  And, they are fighting back.

“One issue is that the decision was made in absence of any input from the community.  Anyone who comes to our school recognizes it as a place they would feel comfortable sending their own children,” said founding math teacher Ellen Foley. “When they came to meet with us to tell us they plan to close the school, they said, ‘the school culture here is second to none.’ But they are closing the school anyway.”

“We are a shining light in a very troubled system,” Foley asserted.

360 is a small high school (335 students in grades 9-12) that shares a building with Juanita Sanchez High School (JSEC) in Lower South Providence.  The school prides itself on doing things differently.  It is a small high school in a system of thousand-plus student behemoths. This makes for a close-knit culture where “the comfort and safety that students feel with staff in the building is rare,” said Art Teacher Alejandra Lindstrom. “All students are greeted by name every day by the principal and vice principal.”

Also, the school was designed with input from students, staff and community members to be responsive to their needs and to incorporate best practices to serve the community. “Something we value at 360 is community input and students are involved in decisions,” said senior Noemi Tavarez.

Because students and staff are used to participatory decision-making at school, that has made it all the harder to take the lack of clarity coming from the district about how the decision was made to close their school. When Tavarez heard that the district calls its plans for the school a merger, she blanched: “I know it’s a closure. I don’t want them to put out a fake narrative. It’s unfair. I know the reasoning they have given us, but it seems like they are deflecting,” said Tavares.  “It is extremely frustrating to have not been given a direct answer. I call it speaking “air words” with no real intention for resolution. I want the real explanation.”  “It’s not a merger when teachers in the other school keep their jobs but we don’t,” said art teacher Lindstrom. Teachers from 360 would have to apply for jobs in the district and are not guaranteed positions in the revamped JSEC.

Jay Wegimont, Providence Public School District spokesperson commented that “It’s important to note that 360, a chronically underperforming school, has been identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) since 2019-2020 and did not meet the exit criteria for 2023-2024 meaning that it would have to enter redesign next year.”  He did not answer questions about why the school’s existence would be truncated before having the chance to enter redesign.

The district’s criteria for closing schools is unclear. While 360 underperforms on some criteria, like SAT scores, it is strong in others, like school culture.  And, 360 is on a short list for the court system and the RI Training School for fragile students, meaning that the school welcomes and serves students that many other schools have not, and would not, educate.  Furthermore, 360 High School has a higher percentage (57%) of Multilingual learners (students whose home language is not English and are in the process of learning it) than any other school in PPSD. Several other high schools in Providence have been in CSI for years, including JSEC, the school that 360 shares a building with, but that school has entered a redesign process instead of being closed.

360 “is fully enrolled, and even has a waiting list,” Said Ellen Foley, who has taught math at the school for 10 years, after doing research on math education at Brown.  “The importance of school culture is often overlooked. We have built an amazing culture at 360. Teacher stability and leadership stability- low turnover among staff and school leaders. We have that at 360.”

“Our data supports that we are a school that is moving up and we did not get the chance to show that we could build on the strong growth that has begun,” Foley added.

Kerry Tuttlebee, Principal at 360 High School

The school has built this culture since its beginning by showing value in student voice and input.  Students and parents sit on a community advisory board at the school.  Restorative justice practices are part of the culture: “Traditional school discipline is based on a punitive approach where a student does something and the reaction is often a suspension. Restorative Practice is deeply rooted in relationships.  The first part is the importance of building strong relationships among students and students and staff,” said Art teacher Alejandra Lindstrom.  This has meant that 360 rarely uses suspension, a practice that is more broadly indulged in other public high schools, and is confirmed by the ACLU to be “ineffectual and harmful,” in a 2023 report.

While 360 students and alumnae have been confused, and felt hoodwinked, they have not been idle.  “It is an honor to watch us put what we have been taught into action. At 360 we have been taught to speak up for what we are passionate about, but I never expected to have to put it into action like this, to try to save the school. I am very proud of my classmates and myself,” said senior Tavarez.

360 High School students marched from their school on Thurbers Avenue to PPSD Central Office on Westminster Street.

“Many of my classmates have reached out to organize and get to the school  board meeting on Thursday. I can’t make it but I am going to send my statement.  I will fight for 360 because it is the best,” said alumna Emely Vasquez.

Their hopes and plans right now hinge on the Providence School Board meeting on Thursday night. Though it is not clear who made the decision to close 360, with PPSD under the auspices of RIDE since 2019, Noemi Tavarez insists:   “These decisions should have community input.  We feel we were wronged, we feel we were disrespected.  The district should not make these decisions without fully understanding the impact on the community. We are committed to getting that message across. Our voices matter and we will be heard.”

Catlin Preston has taught kids in public elementary school and at the college level for over 20 years.  He teaches, writes, and lives in Providence.