PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Superintendent Dr. Javier Montañez knows what it’s like to live on the margins.
Montañez, who was selected as the permanent superintendent of Providence Public Schools earlier this year, tells 12 News his childhood wasn’t exactly what one would call a textbook experience.
The Providence native used to call Roger Williams Park home.
Montañez would walk several miles a day to get to and from Hope High School, where he was a student.
When Montañez returned to the park after school, he would typically sleep in the same spot.
But that wasn’t always possible, he said.
“Somedays it was tough,” he said. “Some days it was just wherever you found a spot, wherever you can sleep.”
Keeping warm wasn’t easy either.
“The dry leaves for my bedding … sometimes I took newspaper and would stick it inside my clothing just to help keep warm.”
Montañez relied on the city’s school lunch program as a teenager, adding that he went to school simply because he knew he would receive two meals a day.
When asked how he ended up homeless, Montañez said he chose to go out on his own.
“For some of the time my family was here,” he said. “But there were situations that I didn’t want to deal with.”
But while lying in the park at night, Montañez constantly found himself looking up at the stars and thought about his future.
“You’re looking at the next minute,” he said. “You’re not thinking long term because you’re thinking about how to survive at that moment.”
Decades later, Montañez drives by Roger Williams Park regularly.
It’s emotional each and every time, he said.
“I drive by here often and it always seems like … I can’t drive by without looking over,” he said. “It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, but it’s also a reminder of some of the struggles.”
Montañez dropped out of high school, but went on to obtain his GED and a bachelor’s degree in New York. After that, he returned to Providence to earn his master’s degree at Rhode Island College and a doctorate at Johnson & Wales University.
The superintendent tells 12 News his past is what propels him forward, adding that he tries to make a connection with every student he meets.
“Everyone is unique and everyone is important,” Montañez said. “There isn’t one person who is better than the next. We’re here to support each other and if we are able to support each other, we can turn things around.”
Montañez said he shares his story with students because he wants those who may be going through similar situations to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“If you don’t have hope, if you don’t believe, then what’s the purpose?” he said.
12 News anchor Mike Montecalvo spent 12 hours with Montañez to learn how he handles running the state’s largest school district, how he makes an effort to connect with students and how his faith motivates him every day.
Don’t miss the full story in our latest 12 on 12 Digital Original, which debuts Wednesday on WPRI.com and 12 News at 5.