Diana Lam faces the challenge of transforming Providence's schools
by Ian Donnis
Although Operation Plunder Dome has dominated headlines since it was
unveiled in April, the fate of Providence's beleaguered public schools holds
even greater significance for the future of the city and Rhode Island as a
whole. The situation bears directly on economic competitiveness, not to mention
the state's willingness to educate a disadvantaged body of 26,000 students that
is overwhelmingly Latino, black and Asian. And when it comes to upgrading the
schools, Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. acknowledges that the
accomplishments that have made the city a symbol of urban rejuvenation were a
piece of cake by comparison.
Problems with the schools can be seen in the abysmal performance by students
on standardized tests, and rates higher than the statewide average for student
absences, teacher grievances, high school drop-outs and other troubling
indicators, according to Information Works!, a report by the state Department
But while no one has illusions about the difficulty of making improvements,
genuine progress has started to unfold in recent years: Education reform is on
the statewide agenda; a critical mass of business leaders, community groups and
interested parents has gained strength in Providence; a heightened degree of
cooperation has been struck between the administration and the Providence
Teachers Union; and although the district remains sorely underfunded, state
support for Providence schools has almost doubled since fiscal 1994, to $125
The responsibility for making the most of limited resources and transforming
the culture of learning now belongs to Diana Lam, 51, who started work August 1
as Providence's school superintendent. The daughter of a truck driver and a
seamstress, Lam was inculcated with the value of education as she grew up in
Lima, Peru, and pursued it as a career after coming to Minnesota, and then
Massachusetts, to go to college.
Lam worked for10 years in the Boston public schools before becoming the first
superintendent, from 1989-91, during Boston University's oversight of the
schools in Chelsea, Massachusetts. She went on to serve as superintendent in
Dubuque, Iowa, and, from 1994-98, in San Antonio, Texas. In San Antonio, Lam
was credited with significantly improving the schools, but she lacked support
on the school committee, and last year received a $781,000 buyout for the
31/2-year remainder of her contract.
Lam spoke with the Phoenix this week in her third-floor office at the
school department's administrative offices on Westminster Street, across from
Classical High School.
Q: You've got an initial three-year contract. How would you like the
educational landscape to be different three years from now? What are your
primary goals for what you hope to accomplish?
A: I think there are three primary goals that will emerge. One is to
improve student achievement, and I think everybody wants that to happen -- our
teachers, our administrators, our community. The second major goal would be to
create the kind of learning organization where all adults are also learning,
because I propose the adults cannot teach unless they are learning, that they
are setting the right connection there. I would like that to be a major goal.
And the third major goal would be the public engagement piece, whether it's
working with parents, with community, with agencies, with other institutions in
the city. So in three years, I don't know how much can be accomplished, but I
think we will be able to see progress in those three areas.
Q: There are many students in Providence who have been unable to
achieve academic success because of poverty, broken families and many other
reasons. How do you intend to go about changing this, particularly for the many
poor and at-risk students?
A: I think you are assuming that [poverty] is the reason why they have
not been able to achieve, and I think that's a big assumption. I think that's a
factor that obviously we need to be aware of, and we need to collaborate with
community agencies, government agencies, to deal with issues of poverty. So
obviously it's important, but I refuse to believe that that's the reason why
our children are not learning. I think that there are other pieces within our
control as a school district that we have not done to really increase the
achievement of the students.
In fact, there's a large body of evidence now that what matters most is the
quality of teaching, and if a student has three years of poor teaching it may
be irreparable. Although I want to deal with issues of poverty, with family
issues in the community, and I'm committed to that, I don't want to be
distracted. I want to focus on the quality of teaching and administration that
we have within the school district. That's where we have the most control.
Q: What specifically will you do to raise the quality of education
and the quality of teaching?
A: We need to focus on literacy, at least to start with. We need to be
very clear about our standards and expectations for all of our students, and of
course, we have to be very strong in our commitment to increase the capacity of
our teachers and administrators. And also to increase the capacity of parents
and the community to understand issues of teaching and learning.
It's an organizing effort much as you would do to engage people. In San
Antonio, we went right to the homes of parents and we conducted a number of
home meetings, as opposed to sending a little note to a parent, saying come to
school . . . You have to do it at times when it's convenient for parents, in a
language that they understand and offer them all kinds of support. Many of our
parents there, and I imagine it may be true here, too, have not particularly
had good experiences even as students, so there's that kind of distrust of the
Q: Why did you decide to become an educator?
It wasn't conscious at first. I had my first teaching job when I was going to
school with younger family members and neighbors . . . Then I had my first
official teaching job when I was a 5th grader, when I would tutor younger
students in English and mathematics . . . I knew I was in committed in very
strong ways to improving the fortunes of people, children in particular. It was
also only after attending college that I went more in the traditional track of
teaching. The major reason is that I want to be able to provide the
opportunities that I was provided with as a young child . . . I think by
offering good teaching and learning opportunities, that's how things become
true. I identify quite a bit with that student that's in need of good teaching
and that needs the support that may not always be found at home.
Q: Getting back to my earlier question, you're saying it's really
the expectations and educational culture that are much more important when it
comes to the quality of education that students receive, rather than their
socioeconomic background. Given that, why are the public schools in Providence
and other large American cities in such rough shape?
A: Because we don't believe that children can learn. When we talk among
educators, and it goes at all levels -- I'm not talking about any particular
group -- we're always suggesting that we can really not do our jobs well
because there are a hundred other reasons why we can't, and that we really
cannot trust that our students can learn.
And we have a set of beliefs that at one point in time were pretty much the
norm -- in terms of it's aptitude, as opposed to effort [that most matters].
And now we have this counterpoint of we really believe all children can learn.
And so, we're very good right now at the verbal. We are not as good yet --
although I think we are becoming better -- at implementing programs that will
address the learning of everybody.
Q: Providence ranks 31st out of 36 school districts in the state in
terms of per-pupil spending on general education. How important is increased
financial support for what you want to accomplish?
A: The major challenge is to build an infrastructure that will support
whatever it is that we need to do. Money is not always the answer, but money is
important. For example, if we really wanted to invest -- and I think we should
-- in early childhood education, there is no way we can do that with our
present budget, even if we were to reallocate resources. The whole issue of
technology, for example, and having it updateable and well-used by all students
-- that's a very expensive operation, too. If we are talking about how we teach
mathematics, then I think there is potential for reallocating our already
Q: What do you mean when you talk about building an
A: Let's say that one of our goals for the district is to increase the
capacity of teachers and administrators to work more effectively, to really get
the results that we're all looking for. I would consider setting up an
infrastructure to deal with issues such as time; how are we going to handle
time? Because whenever we say that we want to increase the capacity of our
people, we have to deal with time. We need to deal with resources -- how we are
going to pay for this, whether it's new money or a reallocation of resources.
Another infrastructure piece is once we embark on raising the capacity of all
the adults within the organization, how are we going to ensure that what's
learned actually translates into practice? Because that has been one of the
problems with building capacity or professional development programs. Yeah, we
can all go to a conference or we can all go to a workshop. We can all be very
excited. We may come back and try something, but when you try something, most
of the time, it doesn't work right away. Then you get discouraged, don't do it,
and it really doesn't matter. So I would want to pay close attention to how we
want to provide on-site assistance, so that everything is aligned and we don't
give up too quickly when things become difficult.
Q: In San Antonio, you were praised for turning around the schools,
but also criticized for overwhelming some teachers with the pace of change and
not fully communicating your vision. What will you to do avoid facing the same
A: I think in terms of the pace of change, it's very subjective.
Some people thought the pace of change was slow. I come to this job with a
realization that I'm not going to make everybody happy, and that's not what the
job calls for anyway. The job calls to provide leadership to get the student
outcomes that we're looking for. Having said that, I do think we need a good
process by which we support our teachers and our administrators in reaching
their goals. But to me, the pace depends a lot on where our kids are. You know,
who is thinking about the children? Who is thinking about the kids that can't
read and that will go on to the next grade and still not read, and on the next
grade and still not read? In terms of a process, it seems to me that we can't
It doesn't mean that we do it tomorrow, either, because we do not want to set
anybody up for failure. But certainly we do not want to continue the culture of
failure that has permeated the school district and which you alluded to.
In terms of the communications piece . . . I think that what you hear from San
Antonio or some of the criticism, that's also part of the rhetoric. Because
anybody, in any place, can tell you, oh, there's not enough communication and
there's not enough inclusivity. That doesn't mean I think I did the very best
job. I think I can always improve. My hope here in Providence is to be mindful
of that, but I think the accountability has to go beyond the superintendent.
Q: There were some members of the community here who were very
opposed to the selection of someone from outside of Providence as the
superintendent. What have you been doing to overcome that opposition and build
bridges with these people?
A: I basically have come in here with a clean book and I am giving
everyone an opportunity to also start a clean book with me. What I have been
doing . . . is to try to be very accessible to all the different groups,
established and less established groups. I have been very accessible to meet
with anybody and I've met with groups of parents, I've had community forums,
I've met with some of the organizations in the community . . . The welcome has
not been unfriendly, so if there was a large number of community people who did
not want me to be here, I have certainly not heard from them. I could not
pinpoint who they are. My strategy has been broad appeal. I need to meet with
everybody. I typically would not want to meet just with those people who have
opposed me, but with everybody, and provide opportunities for that kind of
interaction. We have done that and we'll continue to have our community forums
and meet with parent groups.
Q: What are the most important lessons you took from your experience
in Chelsea [where Lam, as the first superintendent after Boston University
assumed oversight of the school system, had to answer to two boards, and the BU
oversight was the subject of two lawsuits]?
A: I think the most important lesson that I learned is although there
may be different groups with good agendas, that as a superintendent I needed to
be very focused on children, because everybody else's agenda may not be about
children. And I was not willing to sacrifice a whole generation of students to
the political agendas of whoever was a player at that time in Chelsea, and that
has been true through my jobs that followed that one.
In San Antonio, for example, I did not find any particular group that
advocated for the right that children have to learn. I've told this story
before, but the first time that we gave the end of course algebra test in San
Antonio, there were only three students that passed it. Not one voice was
raised by anybody, not from within the district, not from outside the district,
not from any organization. It's like, so what? I mean, I just kind of felt
devastated. There were no picket lines. There was nobody saying, you haven't
been doing your job. There's never been any accountability for the learning
that our children do or don't do.
In Providence, I can't tell yet. If I do an audit and I hope to do that . . .
Of all the external partners that we have -- there are probably over 300 -- but
it's no one's job to coordinate those efforts. When you have so many partners,
with so many different agendas, but supposedly focusing on children, you also
dilute the power of the advocacy role. At this point anyway, I feel compelled
to focus on children, to be kind of the major advocate for children, because it
would be interesting to see the people who supposedly did not want me to come
here. Have they ever expressed dissatisfaction with the level of achievement of
our students? I mean, I don't know. Maybe they have. So who complains about
what is very telling.
Given the results that we have here in Providence, we should almost have a
revolution, right? There are schools where zero kids have met the standard.
That tells me that there is a lot of work to be done and we can really not
waste a lot of it. We need to be focused and to have a plan, and a paced plan,
but one that says learning is a non-negotiable piece here.
Q: As evidenced by the introduction of site-based management at only
two schools in Providence, changes in some aspects of the educational culture
have been slow, almost glacial. What will you do to diffuse authority away from
the central administration and speed other aspects of educational reform?
A: Well, I think that for educational reform to work you need to have
both -- You need to have top-down and you need to have bottom-up. Because under
educational reform, any school under site-based management can do their own
thing, and then there will be no continuity, no real standards or
accountability. I think that we need to have both. Having said that, I am
surprised there are only two schools, and it tells me a whole lot about the
process, and I believe it's a management-union piece that needs to be examined.
I included myself in a committee that will be talking to the union about
Informal feedback that I've received
from some of the principals is that they think the process is too lengthy, too
bureaucratic, too everything. They just rather have nothing than go through
that process, and they claim it's too political. I don't know that first-hand.
I want to have the opportunity to meet with union leadership and to discuss
these issues candidly and
see how we promote a level of authority
at the school level that perhaps we have
not wanted to see there. With the authority, of course, comes the
and that's kind of the other side of the coin. So I'm wondering how many of
our principals would really be ready for that right now.
I believe that now from the conversations that I've had, and now I've actually
spoken to many people, that people are hungry for some strong central
leadership. For example, with the standard. Can standards at least be uniform?
Can we have a set of assessments that are really consistent from school to
school? And so we need to have that balance. I also feel that a central office
is always responsible for the equity issues, because we can see the big
Q: Speaking of equity, the teaching staff is approximately 85
percent white, and the student body is approximately 76 percent Latino, black
and Asian. What is being done to develop an educational staff that more closely
resembles the student body?
A: I don't think anything has been done or we wouldn't be where we are.
I think what needs to happen is we need to have better recruitment, hiring,
supporting and maintaining of teachers in the school district. I believe the
area of how you get hired, and who gets hired to do what jobs, is very telling.
We need to look at that carefully, and create a different kind of human
Q: How do you plan to build accountability into the educational
A: If you are a teacher, you will know what are the expectations of
what you should be doing, of what the kids should be able to do. This is going
to be a tremendous help. Once you have the standards, we certainly want to
offer the support that teachers and other staff may need to ensure that all
children are also meeting a standard. I want to review what's happening in our
schools from the point of view of teaching and learning.
I can't say everyone's going to be accountable because it means nothing. You
know, everyone has always said that everybody should be accountable, but
obviously we haven't been. I kind of need to prepare the principals and the
teachers and the community for a change in culture, and a change in belief that
we can really make a difference. Once we do that, I need to provide very
concrete support. And then I want to visit every school and every classroom.
Q: I think there are many people, particularly in suburban
communities, who really view public education in American cities as being
broken, possibly beyond repair. What would you say to the people who hold that
A: I think we can go to many urban school districts and see pockets of
excellence, but we are still not able to see whole districts where every school
is a pocket of excellence, so that's the challenge. In Texas, there are some
schools where it's like 100 percent minority and 100 percent poor, where the
kids are taking AP [advanced placement] calculus in large numbers and passing
the test. So I would say that there are plenty of examples across the nation
that can help to pave the way. What we need to do is to create it in every
school in a district.
In San Antonio, when I went there, we had so many schools in the single
digits, and now 70 percent or more of our students in all grade levels have
reached the standards in the disciplines where we test -- a tremendous
difference. It took a few years. Now there are other challenges, because it's
not only doing well on the test, but it's are you really well educated?
Ian Donnis can be reached at