PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Shortly after she was named superintendent of Providence schools, Dr. Susan Lusi had a phone conversation with a director at the Council of the Great City Schools, a national organization that advocates on behalf of 67 of the nation’s largest school districts.
The official pulled no punches.
“He volunteered to me that ‘Providence and Washington, D.C., are the two member districts that are most embedded in their municipal structures and you’d think they’d learn from one another that that doesn’t work very well,’” she recalls.
Four years later, as she prepares to exit the job, Lusi is reminding city officials that while Providence has made strides when it comes to student achievement, a large piece of the work that still needs to be done revolves around revamping the local government’s role in education.
“We have well-intended people trying to do the right thing from their perspectives with regard to education,” Lusi said Wednesday during a wide-ranging interview with WPRI.com. “I also think it is a very complex, time-consuming and redundant system.”
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That system was not created overnight.
A 2008 audit of the school department by Phi Delta Kappa International found that “elements of city government unduly interfered with the superintendent’s ability to exercise his lawful control of the school system.” The same report noted that the superintendent has an “inordinate number of supervisors,” including the mayor, City Council, school board and the state commissioner of education.
While Lusi maintained strong relationships with city officials throughout her tenure, she acknowledged that there are several obstacles that need to be addressed. Awarding a vendor contract is often a tedious process, she said. Approval of contracts is often required to come from the school board, the Board of Contract and Supply and the City Council, a process that can easily take eight weeks, roughly 20% of the school year.
She said Providence is one of the few large school systems in the country where City Council approval is required to make changes to the department’s organizational chart. When she started the job, she explained, it took several months to hire a chief of staff because she wanted to make small changes to the job description.
“The powers that are here need to put all of themselves in a room and figure out who does what and how that process can be as expeditious as possible,” Lusi said.Superintendent built trust, provided stability
Despite the governance challenges, Lusi maintains she’s leaving the district better than she found it.
Now 52, Lusi came to Providence after serving as superintendent of the Portsmouth School Department, a tiny district where 15% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and fewer than 1% are enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. By comparison, 80% of Providence students were eligible for a subsidized lunch and one in five were in ESL courses during the 2013-14 school year, according to the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE).
A former chief of staff to former Providence school superintendents Diana Lam and Melody Johnson, Lusi knew exactly what she was getting into when she took the job. She noted that her previous tenure in Providence included the teachers’ union voting no confidence in her boss and, of course, former Mayor Buddy Cianci’s trial and conviction on corruption charges.
When she returned to Providence to take the top job in July 2011, Mayor Angel Taveras had just issued pink slips to every teacher in the school district and closed several schools. All of the teachers were eventually rehired – and given a no-layoff clause in their contract – but she acknowledged there were “no reservoirs of trust” between the administration and the educators.
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So she went to work building that trust, forging a strong relationship with former Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith. Unlike many new administrators who seek to make their mark right away, she listened to teachers’ concerns and made few immediate changes.
“I don’t believe you get to better teaching and learning with a bunch of ticked-off teachers,” Lusi said. “At the end of the day, I think you need people’s hearts and minds rather than just compliance.”
Lusi said part of the process has included providing more support for teachers and principals, particularly in their early years on the job. She said the district’s Peer Assistance & Review (PAR) program has helped struggling teachers make great strides in the classroom.
She earned the respect of various community groups for providing more bus passes to city high school students and for speaking out against the use of the NECAP exam as part of the state’s high school graduation requirement. The state legislature ultimately approved a moratorium on the testing portion of that policy.
Lusi is also credited with working with the school board to craft a plan that gives more decision-making power to individual schools, a policy that is written into the new teachers’ contract. She highlighted the work of the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet as an example of how local education agencies can collaborate to improve student outcomes.City schools are improving
So far, those outcomes have been mixed.
She noted that during her tenure graduation rates increased, dropout rates went down and there were “marked improvements” in reading proficiency levels in fourth and 11th grade. While Central Falls, a much smaller district with similar demographics, has garnered significant praise for raising student achievement, Providence students compare favorably to that city at nearly every grade level.
Lusi said she hopes Mayor Jorge Elorza, Gov. Gina Raimondo and the next education commissioner will seek to “change the narrative” about Providence schools, but acknowledged that the district still has a long way to go. Twenty-two city schools have been classified as needing school improvement plans by RIDE, more than every other school district in the state combined.
“When I go from school to school, I ask myself if I would put my own child here,” Lusi said. “I think there’s a growing numbers of schools in which I would say yes.”
The current narrative around the city’s school system isn’t Lusi’s only regret.
She said she wishes the district could have more flexibility when it comes to hiring teachers, but acknowledged that isn’t an easy sell for the union. She stressed that the city needs to provide more funding to the school department; the budget that begins July 1 marks the sixth consecutive year of level funding from the city, and yearly increases in state aid largely go toward covering the district’s fixed costs – salaries, health benefits and service contracts – rather than into the classroom.
Still, Lusi maintains there is no one reason she’s leaving the district without a new job in hand. The Providence School Board has already named Chris Maher, an education consultant, the interim superintendent while they conduct a search. Lusi supported Maher’s appointment.
She said she plans to take the summer off before deciding on her next endeavor, but indicated consulting or finding another superintendent’s position are options she’s willing to consider.
“I like challenging jobs,” Lusi said. “I’d also like to be able to make some decisions.”