An interview with Dr. Frances Gallo

“Will” is a very smart, cheap, renewable resource…

“Will” is a very smart, cheap, renewable resource…

An interview with Dr. Frances Gallo, the new interim superintendent of Providence Schools, on the cusp of beginning the new school year

By Richard Asinof,

At the end of her “official” first week on the job, ConvergenceRI sat down to talk with interim Providence School Superintendent Dr. Frances Gallo in her office, in what has been a tumultuous few weeks, as the state launched the move to take over the Providence schools in the wake of a critical report authored by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Her office walls are relatively unadorned, save for two framed messages: “Start each day with a grateful heart,” and “be KIND.”

To begin the interview, Gallo moved from behind her desk and sat down next to ConvergenceRI, making it clear that she wanted to be on the same level, as an equal participant in the conversation.

The conversation was remarkable for its directness, bluntness and honesty. Gallo answered all the questions with a forthright quality of engagement, as if she is always ready to learn new things, with recognition that, at this stage of her career, having come out of retirement to take this job on an interim basis for a few months, she doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. And, she will not be afraid of holding people accountable for their actions or inactions.

Gallo is strong-willed. In a response to a question about her sense of optimism, about not being overwhelmed by the difficulties she had walked into, she answered with resoluteness: “No. They are all doable. We have to have the will. And I never run out of will. Will is a very smart, cheap, renewable resource.”

When asked, as a follow-up question, to define will, Gallo said: “You stick with it. You don’t give up. I think we are at a point where teachers, students and parents are seeing that we can, as we work together, get this done.”

That is what we have to do, Gallo continued: “We have to urge everyone to garner all their will and to see to it that the changes that are needed do not stop. It starts with little steps, and then, as it gets going, that flywheel will connect and it will go on its own.”

Garner also made no bones about the inherent problems in teaching to perform on standardized tests and not about how to learn and to enjoy learning.

“I despise, to be perfectly blunt,” Gallo said, “I despise those kinds of tests that say they are measuring everything under the sun, and kids having to study to the test.”

If education is about learning, Gallo continued, “We have to first get [the students] to enjoy it. If they enjoy it, they’ll perform. Tests need to be much more authentic. They need to be hands-on, about honest-to-goodness problems.”

The best way for students to learn, Gallo explained with directness, is to go ahead and say: “I give you the authority. Tackle that problem.”

Gallo also explained that she has realistic expectations about what can be accomplished in the next few months and even in the next year. As much as Gallo believes that the school system doesn’t need all the standardized tests, she acknowledged that it is what the R.I. Department of Education has in front of them.

“When we are compared to Massachusetts, we are compared to their standardized test [results]” Gallo said. “We are not going to get there in a year; we are certainly not going to get there in my three months.”

But if we open the doors, Gallo continued, “If we open our minds, and really expand what it is we are looking for, and look at the whole child/student/young adult, we will definitely show different gains in different ways. I think attendance will perk up; I think behavioral safety issues will be down; and I think that teacher morale will be extraordinary.”

These are the softer things that have to come first, Gallo added. “And then our children, as well as our teachers, will perform to the national best.”

Breaking news
There were two significant new developments that Gallo shared with ConvergenceRI about future plans to address the way that the schools are engaging with students and teachers.

The first will be an extra professional development, or PD day, to be held on Tuesday, Aug. 27, an extra day that was negotiated by Gallo, which is not mandated but strongly suggested in terms of attendance by teachers.

The extra professional day is the result of a number of ongoing conversations and discussion. One occurred as part of a presentation during the ethnic studies professional day that was held on Thursday, Aug. 1, when a social worker from Vartan Gregorian school talked about the trauma experienced by students and what it takes to overcome such barriers, both from the student perspective, her perspective as a counselor, and from her colleagues, who may have such a child in the classroom.

Until the teacher is made aware of those issues, Gallo explained, “Until she starts to look at it from the child’s point of view, with a whole different mindset, with a new understanding and a new expectation, that’s what we are going to be talking about.”

[The strategy is very similar in its approach that has been developed in health services delivery around the importance of trauma-informed care – that until you address the trauma the patient may have suffered you cannot create a substantive, effective treatment plan.]

The keynote presentation at the extra PD on Aug. 27 will be by Kyle Quadros, the co-founder of TILO, a nonprofit organization designed to provide outreach, education and consultation to parents, families, caregivers, providers and schools on the prevention and treatment of childhood trauma.

“Kyle Quadros is a young man who is an excellent educator, who really deals with mindfulness, and who is ready, willing and able to do some workshops for all our teachers,” Gallo explained. “We’re in discussions now about how we can promote that within our district. It is all about reworking the brain, re-networking the brain, and looking at all of the things we do in the classroom in a very different light.”

A second piece of breaking news
During the first week of school, for all grades six through 12, teachers will be asked to suspend basic instruction and use the book, Shoot Your Shot, by Vernon Brundage, Jr., which identifies the key principles that many of the world’s most elite basketball players have applied to their lives – and how those same principles can help students navigate through their lives and accomplish their goals. The book is divided into quarters, seeking to make the reader feel as if they are in an actual basketball game.

“It’s a series of basketball vignettes, which clearly speak to the student’s mindset, helping them understand that no matter the struggle, no matter the obstacle, you have to rely on [yourself]. You can reach out to an adult, and you should, but if you get a rude response, don’t let that be the end result. Go to another adult, stick with it, move forward, [with] responsibility and accountability,” Gallo explained.

For teachers, Gallo continued, the message will be that you will be going through this book in a way that [sets] “a new table in your classroom, with dialogue and respect.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Frances Gallo, the new interim superintendent of Providence Schools, as she helps to set a new agenda of learning, performance, and greater accountability in the next three months, the precursor of things to come.

ConvergenceRI: Did you ever get a chance to read Betsy Taylor’s story, “A teacher speaks her mind?” [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story.]
 I did.

ConvergenceRI: What did you think?
 I think it was a very sad commentary. But I think it was a very true one as to what has happened here in the Providence schools and at Hope High School in particular.

ConvergenceRI: The reason why she was willing to share her story was because of the previous story I had published, that she had seen, read, and liked, “The importance of being earnest about education in RI.” [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story.] Did you get a chance to read that, too?
I believe I did.

ConvergenceRI: Her story went viral. It’s up to about 15,000-page views in the last two weeks. I don’t know of that many stories which get that kind of resonance in today’s world in Rhode Island. One reason, I believe, it went viral was that it captured the teacher’s voice.
 That’s right.

ConvergenceRI: It talked about the poor quality of the workspaces where teachers try to engage with students, which somehow, had not really been part of the discussion. I know yesterday that you led a tour of classrooms…
…Yesterday’s tour was about kids. It wasn’t about facilities.

ConvergenceRI: I understand, from reading about the news coverage, that everyone is now named “Gallo” in the Providence school system.
That’s right. At least while I’m here.

ConvergenceRI: It’s also still about whether the classroom is a safe place to go to.

ConvergenceRI: How do all the different voices get heard?
 We in the Providence schools have to create an environment where every voice is heard. We have to be willing to listen, and we have to be willing to then respond.

That’s what I am hoping to be able to do, certainly, as we go forward. I’m meeting with parents today. I’m meeting with some more parents next week. Students have written to me and I’m preparing responses to them and inviting them in. I haven’t said no to anybody.

Eventually, I think, I’ll be overwhelmed as one person. But we’ll spread out, and we’ll have more and more of those open sessions. [We’re asking people to] join the committees and to get in on the work. It isn’t just about coming forward to tell me a sad story. It’s about [how to] help us.

[There are] $278 million worth of repairs that are waiting out there. It can’t happen overnight.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that I thought was impressive about Betsy Taylor’s story is that she included a point-by-point plan of action about what to do.
 She did.

ConvergenceRI: Which, I thought, was different than just complaining.
 Many, many people are coming to me with: “You need to do this!” and “You need to do that!”

The students who wrote to me were very clear about their needs, and from their perspective, they’re right on. The problem is, we can’t do them all together. It’s a matter of setting the priorities – about what can I do in the three months’ time.

How can we show that we’re honest about getting things repaired, meaning both socially and emotionally as well as physically.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have an ability to set those priorities? Or, do you have to be in sync with the new commissioner?
 At the moment, I have the ability to set those priorities for this time because there is no order in place. When the order is in place, I’ll have to read it to know what it is. I haven’t met with the commissioner, so I don’t know what she’s thinking, but I’ll be responding from there, for the time that I’m here.

ConvergenceRI: Would you be willing to sit down and talk with Betsy Taylor?
 I actually just emailed her, asking to meet. I’m waiting for her response.

ConvergenceRI: That’s great. I know she was scheduled to meet with the mayor this morning [Friday].
 That’s how I got connected. [Someone from the mayor’s office had emailed Gallo, introducing Taylor, saying she would like to make a connection.] Now I’m waiting to hear from Betsy. [Editor’s note: Taylor has agreed to meet with Gallo this week.]

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that Taylor was so upset about at the Mayor’s news conference on July 19 which she interrupted was the fact that asbestos removal was being done at Hope High School, which, as best as I can determine, wasn’t part of any of the contracts.
 Right, I can explain that to you. The doors all needed repairs, and when they looked, the guck between the door and the frame was [apparently] some kind of asbestos caulking, they thought it might be, they weren’t sure, so this was a precautionary measure.

ConvergenceRI: Did they find out that it was? Do they know?
 They’re fixing it. That’s all that matters at this point. I think that this is what happens when you go into old buildings. Sometimes when you plan a project, you don’t necessarily know the scope of work until you’re in it.

ConvergenceRI: I did a little investigating yesterday. The firm that apparently has the subcontract to do the work, Acme Abatement Contractor, Inc., they operate out of a one-family house on a dead-end road in Seekonk, Mass., at 52 Fuller St. But they don’t have any signs posted that identified the business. Apparently, they are licensed for such work in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. My question is: how did they end up getting the job? Were they the low bidder? Do you have anything to say about such contracts?
 I have absolutely no say. You need to talk with Mr. Joseph DePina.

ConvergenceRI: I am letting you know. There will be a photo of this house in the next edition. [See second image above.[
GALLO: Just make sure you say: “Fran Gallo had nothing to do with it.”

ConvergenceRI: I believe in transparency.
 Thank you.

ConvergenceRI: In the first article, published on July 15, I wrote about Child Opportunity Zones.
 Yes, COZies. Which were going on when I was here originally in Providence. We started them in all the middle schools. Absolutely loved it. That’s the kind of work we need to continue. What happened to it?

ConvergenceRI: That’s my question. There appears to be no institutional memory about them. Clearly, you knew about them. Are they a potential roadmap for where you may want to go in the future?

ConvergenceRI: But it feels like reinventing the wheel.
 You’re right. To establish a room in every building for COZies, where parents can come, it’s a community opportunity zone.

Actually, when I left here, and I went to Central Falls, we created parent rooms in every one of our schools, where parents could come, where there was a little kiosk, with computers, they could [conduct] job searches, they had [access to] assistance. They could come and get any question answered about schools.

That’s what we need. Every school needs it. But, most especially, in urban schools.

ConvergenceRI: Recently I did a story about the health clinic that was set up at Central Falls High School, interviewing the director.
Because of her ability to use Title X funds, in three years, they were able to cut the rate of teenage pregnancy by 55 percent and chlamydia transmission by 28 percent in teens in Central Falls. Is that a similar model that could be replicated in Providence schools?

[See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Why Central Falls is changing the health care landscape?”]
GALLO: It would be ideal.

ConvergenceRI: I met recently with a representative of school nurses, because it was suggested to me that one of the “silent” voices yet to be heard in the discussion about Providence schools were school nurses. Would you consider elevating the role of school nurses and the role that they can play?
It is one of the things under consideration. We’re meeting with the mayor and the wellness groups. We have a wellness committee. And, our lead nurse serves on that committee. But we are trying to widen it. We are also involved in a group called, “By All Means,” and there’s a health component to that, and we’re really making connections to stretch that out.

Because, 20 percent of a child’s time is in school; the other 80 percent is outside of school. We need to widen our circle of influence on the children, educators need to widen that circle of influence, because we only get them like this [showing a small amount with her hands], and we’re trying to have them learn and perform on these tests.

It’s not good enough. We can’t possibly do that. But if we broaden our base, if we really understand the health issues, if we work hard to build a community that, using the old adage, it takes a village.

I even hate to say it, because it was overused. But, if we all gather, as a community zone, and really pick up our children, in every way, [providing] more art, more music. The reason they want to come to school is generally for all the things we offer after school. We need to flip that, and have those things happening in the middle, in between the school day, so that they are learning, and they come back happy – and they are still learning.

ConvergenceRI: Let me ask you about another innovation, if that’s the right word, that you were responsible for in Central Falls high school, which was “restorative practices” that Julia Steiny led.

Which had, from what I have heard, mixed responses. But it was still an opportunity to try and create a dialogue, a restorative dialogue, which could serve as an alternative type of discipline. I know that it has made some inroads in Providence.

The new commissioner talked about introducing restorative practices, and I asked you about that on the night the state began the move to take over the Providence schools, and you demurred, saying you didn’t know what the commissioner meant.

I do not know what the commissioner is talking about, and what she wants to do.

But I can tell you that we have a strong complement of restorative practices here in Providence; we have, I believe, that every school has a trained team and facilitators that are certified – and that they will be further training their colleagues. I haven’t had pushback saying they don’t want it.

When it is not implemented correctly, then it’s a mess. But when it’s implemented with everyone really entering into the discussion, it’s a pretty significant form of wrap-around services.

ConvergenceRI: One of the issues that I have heard in discussions around the Providence schools is what I would call a culture of fear.
 In the past, you mean. That the culture of fear is overshadowing them?

ConvergenceRI: People say in dealing with the school department, there was a culture of fear; in dealing with the teacher’s union, there was a culture of fear; in dealing with principals, there was a culture of fear. When people spoke up, there were negative consequences, that they encountered strong pushback. How will you set a tone that will be different?
 I want to hear them. I would never push back.

ConvergenceRI: It wouldn’t necessarily be from you.
Oh, I see. I was having trouble following that. I will tell you. My principals will get their marching orders from me, and they are going to hold parent meetings very frequently in their buildings, and they’re going to be sending me the minutes of the meetings, [with both] the warm and the cold feedback, right.

It’s nice to have the warm feedback, but I want to know what the cold feedback is. And, we are going to have the conversation, the principal and I, how are we going to correct that cool feedback.

And, then, we will publicly state that this is what is going to be done. It’s not about fear, it’s about how do we change the mindset.

There are issues. Perceptions set those issues. Principals might say, but it’s not true. It doesn’t matter. That’s how they see it, that’s how they feel it; we need to correct that sight and that feeling.

ConvergenceRI: I think you may have a difficult task moving forward, in part because expectations have been set at a very high level. There are lots of people who are busy sniping and trying to point the blame finger. As part of your effort, how important will it be to perform a kind of “jujitsu” to move from finger pointing to get people moving in the direction of working together?
We have to work together. There is no alternative. And, I know there is some finger pointing. But since I’ve been here and been able to observe the situation more closely, I see more and more people getting together and less and less of the blame.

I think we have to start out by saying: hold all grudges, point no fingers, let’s just hear all the issues.

One, two, three. Where can we go, what can we do? We have to hit them all, within a [limited] amount of time.

ConvergenceRI, an online subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.
The founder and editor is Richard Asinof, an award-winning journalist. 
“ConvergenceRI will fill a critical information need, covering Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem in a cohesive, cogent and comprehensive fashion,” Asinof said.