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Standardized test scores — cold, flawed, too often depressing — come and go with little notice these days; an ugly drumbeat we'd prefer to ignore.

But pause for a moment, and you'll hear the sound of a crisis as urgent as any in Rhode Island.

Our urban schools are failing, from Central Falls to Pawtucket to Woonsocket. And nowhere is the emergency more dire than in our capital city.

At Hope High School in Providence, just three percent of juniors tested "proficient" in math on the latest round of exams. At Central High, two percent. At Alvarez one.

And a new requirement tying test scores to graduation means two in three of the city's juniors may not be able to walk the stage next year.

It is a problem of breathtaking scope.

In a city-state like Rhode Island, it is something like a mortal threat to our weak economy. For the thousands of black, brown, and low-income families who send their kids to Providence schools, it is something like the civil rights struggle of our time.

And for a mayor with gubernatorial ambitions — a mayor who has put this big, seemingly intractable problem at the top of his agenda — it may be the defining fight of his young career.

"These kids are me," says Mayor Angel Taveras, who grew up poor in the Providence Public Schools. "I go into the classroom and I see a lot of little Angels."

The pressure is enormous, then, on the small cohort of district and union officials, principals and teachers, thinkers and doers at the leading edge of the push to turn around Providence's schools.

But that pressure has produced some intriguing ideas — ideas that have attracted regional and, in some cases, national attention; ideas that have generated a bit of optimism — or, at least, a bit of hope — in some corners of the city's sprawling educational complex.

Is it a hope justified? The state's future rests, in no small measure, on the answer to that question.


PROVIDENCE UNITED?

Rhode Island has long been a place of gritty, confrontational politics. And the schools have not escaped their snarl.

Just three years ago, Central Falls became a national symbol of dysfunction and decay when the school board fired the entire staff at the city's failing high school in a dispute over how to turn the place around.

And in February 2011, Mayor Taveras put Rhode Island schools in the New York Times again when he pink-slipped every teacher in the city at the height of a major budget crisis.

The mass firing was, in some respects, just another in a long line of brutal labor-management clashes in Providence.

For decades, union officials viewed school district headquarters as dictatorial. And former superintendent Melody Johnson recently recalled the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) as "one of the most radical and entrenched in the country."

But the relationship, however troubled, began to shift in the late aughts. Washington-based think tank Education Sector had convened years of national, off-the-record meetings of school district and union officials — including PTU president Steve Smith — aimed at forging a new approach to education reform.

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  Topics: News Features , Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Central Falls,  More more >
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