‘A school worth fighting for’: Parents of 360 High School students file federal lawsuit

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Students at 360 High School on Thurbers Avenue in Providence students wait outside after school let out on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) quotes Brazilian education philosopher Paulo Freire on its webpage about multilingual learners: “Education should work to transform the quality of each person’s life, the environment, the community, the whole society.”

But Spanish-speaking families at 360 High School in Providence have apparently found RIDE’s idea of transformation lacking. They might be better represented by a quote from Freire’s famous 1968 book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” which has 164,000 citations on Google scholar: “Problem-posing education…posits as fundamental that the people subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation.”

Taking up the fight to prevent the high school’s closure at the end of this school year is Maria Pirir, the mother of a special needs student at 360: “This school is very special for our family and it is worth fighting for. I am standing up for the children.”

Pirir’s words accompanied the announcement Tuesday of a class action complaint in U.S. District Court of Rhode Island against RIDE, the Providence Public School Department (PPSD), the Providence School Board and Angélica Infante-Green, the RIDE commissioner. 

The parent plaintiffs — Pirir, Ysaura Mezón, Lucia Mejia and Juan Cruz Estevez — hope the lawsuit might stop the plans to merge 360 with the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex, which is housed in the same building on Thurbers Avenue but administered separately. The complaint asks the court to step in and temporarily stop the school’s closure, as well as craft a transition plan that can account for language-learning needs of the plaintiff’s kids.  

“This action is brought to prevent the Defendants from disestablishing their school, reassigning the students to a school that is, in all critical regards relating to their language access and support, lower performing than the school being closed,” the complaint reads. 

The merger would effectively end 360 as a distinct entity, with most of its 335 students transferred to the newly merged school, the Juanita Sanchez Life Sciences Institute. Teachers would be reassigned to the new school, to other schools in the district, or not reassigned at all. 

But the Providence school department has reiterated a potato/patato argument for the restructuring: “It’s important to note that no building will be closed,” said Jay Wegimont, a PPSD spokesperson, in a March email.

And Javier Montañez, PPSD superintendent, said at a March 28 special meeting of the Providence City Council: “I made the decision to merge it, not close.”

‘Rather unusual’ support for Spanish speakers

The complaint more readily embraces the term “closure,” and alleges that the defendants violated the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1973, which provides for all public school students a chance for “equal educational opportunity without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin,” according to the law. Forbidden under this law is “failure by an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.”

The complaint argues that the closure will deny the plaintiffs access to equal education on the basis of national origin. The parents represented are all immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic. Plaintiff Estevez’s daughter, identified only by her initials in the complaint, said 360 made her “fearless” when speaking English.   

The quality of the students’ education at 360 is uncommon, said Jennifer Wood, executive director of Rhode Island Center for Justice, in a phone interview Tuesday. Wood and her colleague John Karwashan are the two attorneys who filed the complaint on behalf of the families.

“You know, frankly, it’s rather unusual that we see English language learners or multilingual learners and their families saying, ‘This school is great for us. And please don’t take it away,’” Wood said.  “Usually, it’s the opposite dynamic, like: ‘We need services, and we’re in a school that has no service.’” 

“How many times do you hear families and students in Providence say, ‘This is exactly what we need’? It happens. But it’s not the dominant narrative…It’s a unique model within Providence. And that’s because that was by design.” 

The complaint emerges from a small set of Providence students, but there are many multilingual learners in Rhode Island. In 2022, there were 15,648 Spanish speaking students in Rhode Island’s public schools. Spanish-speaking students make up just under 81% of the state’s bilingual learners, according to state education data from 2022.

You know, frankly, it’s rather unusual that we see English language learners or multilingual learners and their families saying, ‘This school is great for us. And please don't take it away.’

– Jennifer Wood, executive director of Rhode Island Center for Justice

To serve this sizable population, Gov. Dan McKee has proposed tweaking the state’s education funding formula two years in a row. In fiscal 2024, MLLs rose from 10% to 15% weight in the calculation of per-student expenditures. McKee wants more this next fiscal year, and has proposed another raise to 25%, which would amount to a $16.6 million commitment from general revenue.

RIDE seems to agree that more funding is needed. When given the opportunity to address U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at a February roundtable, Infante-Green herself pleaded for more federal money for Rhode Island’s Latino learners: “One of the things that I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you for — publicly — is some funding that we can really direct,” the RIDE commissioner said. 

Victor Morente, a RIDE spokesperson, deferred to Wegimont for a comment on the litigation. Wegimont responded to the complaint via email on Tuesday: “PPSD and RIDE acted in the best interests of students and are committed to expanding access to high quality learning opportunities for all students, including multilingual learners. Legal counsel will respond formally.”    

‘Statistically indistinguishable’ scores in Providence

Low proficiency scores in English, math and science have been a persistent problem at Providence public schools — in fact such deficiencies informed the state’s 2019 takeover of the district. Is Juanita Sanchez a better destination for 360’s students? 

The 360 families’ complaint argues that any difference is negligible, because most of Providence high schools “have unacceptably low, largely single digit proficiency scores on standardized testing.”

“Because these standardized test results are statistically indistinguishable they do not justify denying MLL students and families access to an innovative learning community in which they are invested and which quantitative evidence shows serves them well in the ways that are most meaningful to them,” the lawsuit reads. 

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