Providence lawyer takes up fight for struggling students

In 2004, the state assumed control over Hope High School in Providence in an effort to reverse the high failure and dropout rate among its pupils, many of whom were low-income students. The reform effort included dividing the high school into three separate academies and implementing block scheduling, which allowed teachers "common planning time" to organize their lesson plans and identify struggling students. Since the reforms were implemented, the school's graduation rate has increased dramatically.

But the Providence School District effectively eliminated the reforms at Hope High earlier this year by instituting a uniform curriculum in all its schools. Four hundred students walked out to protest the move.

Providence lawyer Miriam Weizenbaum is representing a group of Hope High students who sued the school district in June with the aim of restoring the system they feel is essential to student welfare. Weizenbaum spoke with Lawyers Weekly's Allison McAndrew and Matt Yas about the case.

Q. How did you get this case?

A. After being punished for their walk-out protest, the students contacted the ACLU, who brought the case to my attention. They asked me to look at a possible free-speech case arising from the students being disciplined after they protested the schedule change. That case did not proceed because the students chose to take, not challenge, their punishment.

Q. Why isn't this simply a school district decision? What is the legal basis for your challenge?

A. In 2008, the Department of Education promulgated a regulation that says that you can't reduce common planning time from "current levels," which is exactly what the Providence School District is trying to do. The block scheduling is what allows the teachers to have common planning time, so if we're successful on this front, we may be able to save the other reforms as well, depending on how closely they tie in with the common planning time provision.

Q. What's the status of the case?

A. The original action was to file a petition at the Department of Education to enforce the 2008 regulations. We were preparing to go into Superior Court, but the commissioner found that the regulation is clear on its face; therefore, the school board must maintain the previous levels. But in an extraordinary action, the district is claiming that they don't have to comply with the decision pending their appeal with Board of Regents, which can take months. We have filed a petition with the department to enforce its own decision, to compel them to act or to enter into an agreement before the next quarter. That's what I'm hoping for. Every week that goes by, kids are missing out on this critical support. They won't get that back.

Q. What do you believe is the district's motivation? Is it financial?

A. The district is claiming that it costs more to keep [common planning time] at previous levels; however, when a school district feels [a system] is imposing too much of a financial burden, they can file a waiver asking for help to meet the requirement. But in seeking a waiver, they'd have to prove that it costs more money. They haven't done that. [The district is] making a big push for uniformity, for students to be at the same place at the same time in the curriculum. The rationale is that students who change from one high school to another might suffer from a lack of continuity. However, the regulations that prohibit a reduction in [common planning time] are there because they actually improve the students' education. [The district is] letting their reasoning drive away a better education.

Q. The case falls outside of your usual practice areas. Why did you take it?

A. The passion that these kids and teachers have for the well being of their school really inspired me. These kids so desperately need the current model. The prospect of getting a good education in high school is hugely important to them. The teachers have also voiced their opposition to the school board's decision. When common planning time was instituted, these teachers stayed at Hope High while their colleagues left, so they clearly care a great deal about keeping their common planning time. ... If a school can develop academic competency, that's huge. But when they can also create citizens prepared to use the democratic process, speak, organize and take responsibility for themselves and their community, that's something that should really be protected.