Providence Superintendent Sue Lusi's radical vision

Last week, I sat down with Providence Superintendent Sue Lusi to talk reform and she unfurled a surprisingly radical vision for where the city schools need to go.

America's traditional, centralized urban districts are simply not working, she said. Look no further than Providence, where 23 of the district's 37 schools have been identified as in need of transformation.

Lusi's idea, still preliminary: shrink the central office considerably and push the resources and decision-making closer to the schools themselves.

How might that work? The superintendent imagines outside entities - district partners expert in education - overseeing clusters of three or four schools. They'd have significant autonomy, a chance to experiment. One of the roles of a slimmed-down central office might be to facilitate idea-sharing among the clusters.

The idea raises all sorts of questions, of course. Starting with quality control.

But the district has a chance to try it out. Two of these outside entities are already operating in the Providence schools: United Providence! (UP!), a first-in-the-nation labor-management partnership overseeing three troubled schools, and a joint effort by Dallas-based education consultant Cambium Learning Group and Miami Lakes, Florida-based consultant National Academic Educational Partners, overseeing another cluster of three schools.

Those two efforts are still getting off the ground. And they've had some early struggles. A recent reshuffling of school principals sparked teacher protest at one of the UP! schools.

How UP! and Cambium-NAEP perform in the long run, and what lessons they teach the district about the cluster model will, no doubt, have some bearing on whether Lusi's vision ever becomes reality. But it's an intriguing possibility.

I'll have more on all of this in a sprawling piece on the Providence education challenge in this week's Phoenix - on-line later today and on the street tomorrow morning.
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