“I want to thank all the members of the Providence Student Union for their tremendous advocacy in defense of Alvarez High School. Hearing from these youth leaders and seeing the immense time and energy they put into their activism gave me a better understanding of how much the Alvarez community means to its students, and gave us the push we needed to stop and explore other options. It also reminded me that decisions I make on the School Board must always be prioritized by student needs. I think this process provides a great example of how, when public officials and students work together and listen to one another, decisions and outcomes are better for all.” — Nina Pande, Secretary, Providence School Board
Yesterday, the Providence School Board announced that Alvarez High School is not being closed. This decision marked a full-scale reversal from the situation we found ourselves in one month ago, when the School Department presented the closure of Alvarez as the only realistic way to deal with Providence’s enrollment and capacity issues. At that time, the School Department urged the Board to vote to close Alvarez in the next two weeks, and most bystanders expected it was a close to a done deal.
The response by student leaders from the Providence Student Union at Alvarez High School was a case study in the value that a high-capacity, fast-responding youth-led organization can bring to a school system. PSU learned about the School Department’s proposal the afternoon of Monday, October 28th at about 4pm – shortly after the district sent out an email to all Alvarez teachers warning them, for the first time, that their school might be closed. By 6pm, a large group of PSU members were standing together in the School Board’s chambers, ready for the Department to offer its proposal to close Alvarez to the Board.
Luckily, public comment comes at the beginning of School Board meetings, so students were able to break the news first, calling out the plan and explaining how deeply they care about their school community. Because of PSU’s fast-response time, most Board members (who had not been briefed on the proposal beforehand) first heard about the Alvarez plan from the students who would be impacted, and not from the School Department, and it was clear this helped raise concerns among Board members about the district’s plan.
But PSU members did not sit back and relax after that. Students realized the need to mobilize the full Alvarez community to stand united, and so they began organizing a mass meeting to bring every Alvarez stakeholder together. PSU members woke up early every morning to flyer before school, and met after school to email and call other community partners. On Thursday, October 31st (that’s right, students were working on Halloween), PSU led a massive meeting with nearly 50 students as well as parents, teachers, representatives from other youth organizations – such as Young Voices, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, and Generation Citizen – and a number of City Council members. This meeting was important for getting all stakeholders on the same page and committed to the same goal of keeping Alvarez open.
It also made a big impression on the participating City Council members. PSU continued to speak with them and other Council members, pushing them to introduce a resolution requesting the School Board to slow down on this decision and look for alternatives. After a week of outreach and meetings, on Thursday, November 7th the City Council unanimously passed this resolution, and the resolution’s chief sponsor actually mentioned PSU in his comments on the floor.
All the while, PSU members were busy on other fronts as well. Students met with individual School Board members to explain person-to-person how their school was like their second home and their school community was like their family. Members did outreach to the press to ensure the issue received a great deal of media attention. They researched state reimbursement rates, and explained to some School Board members how much the district could be reimbursed for fixing up other closed buildings. And students again went into overdrive to mobilize for the next School Board meeting, which – thanks in large part to their efforts – was so packed the Board had to move into a school auditorium across the street. That meeting included student testimony from Young Voices, it included testimony from PSU members at Alvarez as well as PSU members at other schools, and it included testimony from a series of other partners that PSU had mobilized, including parents and City Council members.
At that point, the tide had clearly started to turn, but still PSU members took nothing for granted. They began to reach out to the Mayor, and delivered him dozens and dozens of letters they collected from different Alvarez students about what closing their school would mean to them.
And all of that time and work paid off. Last night, PSU’s youth leaders from Alvarez returned to the School Board once more, but this time it was with a giant “Thank you” card to express their appreciation for the Board’s decision to not close Alvarez! As Superintendent Lusi said in her comments, “We want to thank the School Board, PPSD, the community, and the Providence Student Union for their work on Alvarez. We are now looking at reopening West Broadway.”
There were a number of individuals and groups that were involved in this campaign, but it is clear that PSU’s members – from the very first moment the news broke until the final decision – were a driving force that mobilized other partners and constituents and persuaded decision-makers. This is a testament to the value of having a high-functioning youth-led organizing chapter at each high school, and we are very proud. The test now is to continue using this quick-response organizing in more proactive campaigns to work towards the schools PSU students deserve.