PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The removal of two co-principals from Mount Pleasant High School has caused an uproar among students, teachers and alumni who argue the administrators were effective leaders at the struggling city school.
Chris Coleman and Dr. Nicole Mathis, the co-principals of Mount Pleasant, were dismissed from their positions earlier this month as part of a major reorganization of the Providence Public School District. The reorganization came with dozens of layoffs across the district and the closure of Evolutions High School inside Mount Pleasant, as well as the hiring of leaders for a new “network model” of administration.
“I am so upset with the idea that they’re going to remove the two principals that have made a lot of students rise up,” said Nellely Miranda, a graduating senior who said she hopes to one day teach at Mount Pleasant. “They have done so much for us.”
“I honestly thought it was unfair,” said Brandon Grace, who is just finishing his junior year. “They haven’t been doing anything wrong. It’s actually quite the opposite; I feel they’ve been bettering the school.”
The vast majority of Mount Pleasant students — 87% — are described as economically disadvantaged by the R.I. Department of Education, and Miranda said the principals’ support for students went well beyond academics.
“Dr. Mathis and Mr. Coleman brought them into the school and showed them there is way more to life than just the streets and hanging out with gangs,” Miranda said. “They have shown them that every single student has a purpose and a future.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 1,600 people had signed a Change.org petition to reinstate the two principals. The petition was organized by Nikki Bond, a social worker at the high school.
“These are principals who put their life’s work into this mission, the mission of the school,” Bond said in an interview, gathered with other teachers and students outside the high school. “We just knew we had to fight for it.”
“Bring them back,” implored Lexis Fernandez, president of the Class of 2016. “It’s not right. What have they done wrong for them to be ripped out of their offices?”
And with the school about to wrap up three months of distance learning and prepare for school in the fall amid the pandemic, health teacher Sandria Yates questioned why the school would lose its leaders in the middle of that effort.
“We’re on a road trip of a storm, with COVID-19 as a storm, and you’re removing the drivers,” Yates said.
Superintendent Harrison Peters said the principals were removed not for a particular offense, but because the school needs a brand-new transformation model so it can truly improve.
“We’re just not getting it done,” Peters said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ve not served the children and students of Mount Pleasant for a long time. They’ve been on RIDE’s priority list for nearly a decade.”
He pointed to the 2% math proficiency rate at the school, along with 10% English Language Arts proficiency.
The Department of Education gave Mount Pleasant one star out of five in its “report card” for the 2018-19 school year, as part of an accountability system required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
The ranking is based on a variety of factors including test scores, graduation rate (69%), student absenteeism (half of Mount Pleasant students are considered chronically absent), and more.
Teachers have pointed out that Mount Pleasant has a large proportion of English learners, Newcomer students who are new to formal schooling, and special needs students at the embedded Birch School, which can decrease their numbers compared to other high schools.
“I refuse to make those excuses,” Peters said. “We’re not going to blame children. At the end of the day, it is the adults’ responsibility to ensure all children have a quality education. … Disability, multilingual learner, whatever you have it. It’s our responsibility.”
But teachers said they were blindsided by the news of the principals’ firings during a hastily arranged 7:30 a.m. Zoom call on June 5, especially since the co-principals had been overseeing a three-year turnaround effort called Empowerment, one of five options for schools that are identified for comprehensive support and intervention (CSI).
RIDE recently canceled the funding for the Empowerment grant, which was issued to Mount Pleasant ahead of the 2018-19 school year and was expected to last until the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
“Mt. Pleasant High School is still technically considered to be following an Empowerment model until such time when the school changes to a different model,” spokesperson Laura Hart said in an email. “However, the RIDE funding supporting the implementation of this model was stopped because RIDE and PPSD jointly felt the Empowerment model was not being fully implemented and the school had not utilized the allocated funds.”
“There is no public hearing requirement related to retraction of this grant,” Hart continued, responding to a question about RIDE’s guidance on its website, which says a school will have an opportunity be heard before losing its Empowerment designation. “However, we plan a robust community engagement process to re-envision Mt. Pleasant High School, and had our first meeting with families last night.”
Bond questioned the timing of the revocation, since there is no data yet for the second year of the program to see if there were improvements in proficiency or graduation rates. (There was also no RICAS or SAT testing this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
“The first year that we had was our baseline year, and this would’ve been our second year to compare the numbers,” Bond said. “So how can we know if the interventions were effective or not if we haven’t had the second year to compare the data?”
The Empowerment plan emphasized the need to keep the co-principals on board for continuity in the efforts.
“They’ve really involved the community and parents,” said Leanne Dube, an English teacher. “They’ve created a connection with Providence.”
But Peters says the district needs a new intervention plan, to be determined this summer and to include a nationwide search for the now-vacant principal position, cut down from two positions to one. He said Coleman and Mathis were welcome to apply for the job, and the two can stay with the district in other roles.
In a text message, Coleman declined to comment other than to say, “I really appreciate the support I’ve received from [Mount Pleasant] students, parents, alumni, faculty and the R.I. community.”
Mathis did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Peters, who was appointed as the state turnaround superintendent for Providence by Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green as part of the state takeover of the district, said Mount Pleasant would be just the first school to get redesigned. There 10 ten other schools in Providence designated for comprehensive support and intervention in the RIDE report card system, and the principals at E-Cubed Academy and Juanita Sanchez high schools were also removed during the staffing cuts.
“This is turnaround, and everybody’s not made for turnaround,” Peters said. “So you may want to think again if this work is for you.”