‘There’s always a tomorrow’: From homeless teen to Providence superintendent

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The first years in Providence were not easy for Javier Montañez.

As a student at Hope High School in the 1980s, Montañez says he was homeless, living in Roger Williams Park and walking to school more than four miles away.

A drama teacher took a special interest in him.

“He was probably the first one that knew that I had a problem with reading,” Montañez said. “And took me under his wing and helped me overcome some of those issues.”

While Montañez ultimately dropped out of Hope High, he later gained his GED and college degrees in New York, before returning to Providence and earning a master’s degree at Rhode Island College and doctorate at Johnson & Wales University. He first became a teacher, then a principal at Leviton Dual Language School, and is now the acting superintendent of Providence schools.

In a recent email to staff, Montañez said he can still hear the voice of that Hope High School teacher in his ear, saying, “You can do it, Javier.”

“Those words fueled me,” he wrote in the email. “They fuel me now.”

“Ever since that teacher took me under his wing it’s been my goal to pay it forward,” Montañez said during a taping of Pulse of Providence last week, his first interview since becoming the leader of Rhode Island’s largest school district.

“It was a fork in the road,” he said of his turbulent youth. “I could’ve chose to make the wrong choices and go down the wrong path. But on the other hand it’s made me the person I am today. It’s helped me understand individuals on a different level and be very sympathetic to individuals.”

Montañez has a big task ahead of him for the upcoming school year, which in Providence starts Sept. 9. He takes over the district during the second year of a five-year state turnaround plan, and with the delta variant continuing to dog efforts to pull out of pandemic schooling.

The district was in a tumultuous phase when Montañez was first named interim superintendent in June. The first state turnaround superintendent Harrison Peters, had just resigned amid a scandal involving one of his high-level hires. And the teachers union contract was still unsettled after months of tense negotiating.

The original plan was to hire a permanent superintendent over the summer. But plans to post the job were scrapped — at least for now — in favor of naming Montañez the acting superintendent for one full school year. The teachers contract is now settled and ratified, and the Peters debacle is in the rearview mirror.

Montañez is coy about whether he wants the top job long term.

“Maybe,” he said when asked if he’s hoping to stay beyond a year. “But my concern is since this job is 24/7, my focus is making sure that everything goes smoothly for the beginning of school and the rest of the year.”

Masks will be required for students and staff indoors in Providence schools, regardless of vaccination status. While vaccines are encouraged for those 12 and older, Montañez said there are no plans to require staff to show proof of vaccination, a policy that’s going into effect for all other Providence employees on Oct. 1.

While the city of Providence’s vaccination rate is only about 54%, school leaders are not currently asking students whether or not they have the shot. (That could change in the future, a spokesperson said, if health guidance changes to allow vaccinated students to go unmasked.)

Providence has also closed its “virtual learning academy,” only offering in-person class this year, though case-by-case exceptions can still be made for students with certain medical conditions.

“Many of our students were out due to COVID,” Montañez said. “So my goal is to make sure that every student in Providence returns to in-person because we know that data shows, and research shows, students learn best when they’re in schools.”

More than half of Providence students were chronically absent last school year, meaning they missed at least 10% of the school days or more — leading to concern about learning loss.

Montañez says there will be a truancy officer working this school year, in addition to guidance counselors and others knocking on doors and trying to engage with students and families that are not coming to school.

The goal will be “to find out what are the barriers that are keeping our students out of school,” he said. “And then figure out ways to overcome those barriers to make sure that the safe learning environment is the school for the students.”

Montañez is well positioned to relate to students who face barriers to coming to school. He said he used to keep his experience with homelessness private, but has been sharing his story more often now that he’s the leader of nearly 24,000 students.

“I ask my students to ask themselves this question,” Montañez said. “What if? What if I get over that bump, what will life be like? Versus what if I stay and I don’t try to get over that bump, what will life be like?”

“This is a bump in the road,” he tells them. “There’s always a tomorrow.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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