PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With their eyes set on reducing student absenteeism and disciplinary referrals, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Superintendent Chris Maher announced Thursday they have hired six “culture coordinators” at city middle schools.

The newly created non-union positions are part of the city’s broader strategy for catching students before they fall off track at a time in their lives when they’re particularly vulnerable. The culture coordinators will be tasked with improving school culture and student engagement.

“What we’ve learned is that we’re asking teachers to do everything and be everything, from being instructional leaders to social workers to mentors, and they need support, especially at the middle school level,” Elorza told reporters. “That’s where a lot our kids start to go down the wrong path.”

The Providence School Board voted this week to approve the hires of Nerise Beckford-Joly, Jason Figueroa, Stephen Larbi, Erroll Lomba, Carina Monge and Elsie Palmieri. A seventh coordinator will be hired in January. The full-time positions will pay between $58,250 and $60,500 a year. All of the hires will start their jobs when students return from winter vacation.

Maher said middle school tends to be a difficult time for students as they are transitioning to adolescence in larger buildings that are typically farther away from their homes. He said the coordinators will be there to support teachers and engage students.

“For a while, I think 15 or 20 years ago, people were worried about the eighth to ninth grade switch,” Maher said. “But what we know more and more is that that switch from fifth to sixth grade, from elementary to middle school, is where students start the disengagement process.”

Elorza said the goal is to invest “up front and preemptively” to support middle school students.

“It’s important to remember that you never read about the wars that aren’t fought,” he said.

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