Past and present Providence public school students spoke at Brown University Thursday night about the difficulties they face in their determination to do well, attend college, and “elevate” themselves and their families out of poverty. They spoke of good teachers, bad teachers, and resource inequality.
“It’s not the teachers’ fault and it’s not the students’ fault,” said Raycily Castillo, who attends the Paul Cuffee School. “It’s where they come from, what’s going on in their homes. No matter how good it is at school, they all have to go back home every day and face a wave of negativity.”
Francois Nduwumwami, from Del Sesto Middle School, added, “Children these days are failing school because of depression.” Mental health crises such as self-mutilation, he said, are common, even at the middle school level.
The panelists’ engagement in extra-curricular programs as well as their obvious pride in being from families who are supportive of their educations, set them somewhat apart from the majority of the city’s students, but they were clearly concerned about their peers and eager to offer advice about how to help more students.
Garren Jansezian, a graduate of E Cubed and now a freshman at URI, emphasized the need for teachers to know their students and care about them. “Advocate, advocate, advocate!” was his immediate response. But he also observed that there needs to be a societal shift in the way families do and do not support their children’s educations: “Parents’ impact on kids is so huge.” He talked about his own personal history with very young parents and how that made life challenging for all of them.
Several of the panelists addressed the difficulty of getting urban students involved in programs that would benefit them. Central High School student Destin Bibimi’s advice was to “get students you’re already working with to talk to their friends.”
“Food helps,” said Sidi Wen, from Classical High School. “Just say, ‘I’m gonna be there, pizza’s gonna be there, you should be there!'”
“We kids are really hungry,” Garren added. “Many of us go home to empty cupboards, especially the last few days of the month when the family is just trying to make ends meet. Snacks are so important. If you don’t eat, you can’t do homework.”
The panelists said they wanted teachers who care enough to build individual relationships with them, who are passionate about their subject and are well-prepared. Teachers need to know how to control their classroom, make the subject interesting to the students, and have faith that each and every student can learn.
The controversy over high-stakes standardized testing came up briefly. Garren, whose senior project last year was on the effects of income inequality on test scores, was strongly opposed. He cited as reasons for his opposition the difference in family resources, the cultural bias in standardized test questions, and the degradation of education in urban schools as a direct result of the high-stakes testing. “Teachers continuously teach to the test,” he said. You may pass the test, but then you go off to college and flunk out because you’re not prepared.”
The nine panelists are participants in Brown University student-originated programs that work in Providence middle and high schools: The RI Urban Debate League, Generation Citizen, Providence Student Union, and BRYTE (Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment).
“While this event is the brainchild of the coordinators (of the four programs), Ashley Belanger, of the RI Urban Debate League, said, “the Swearer Center has encouraged and supported us throughout the planning of the panel. The Swearer Center, Brown University’s center for public service, has increasingly encouraged (Brown’s) students to take an interest in the city in which they live. I think that the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment, Generation Citizen, and the Providence Student Union are all evidence of the increased engagement.”