Archive for the ‘The Woonsocket Call’ Category
Sunday, December 16, 2012
At a school in Connecticut on Friday, the unthinkable happened.
There’s really not much you can say about someone who kills twenty children and half a dozen adults before turning the gun on himself.
It’s an unimaginable tragedy. No student — especially no Kindergartner — should ever have to fear that kind of violence at school. Our schools should be the safest places in the country, a place where children can go to be themselves and learn and grow. My heart goes out to all the families involved, though there’s nothing I or anyone can say that will fill the hole of their loss.
But Friday’s shooting is part of an ever-growing problem. From Colorado to Kansas City to Oregon and now Connecticut, there have been far too many high-profile killings in recent months. It’s time for our policy makers — and us, as a society — to do everything possible to prevent the next one.
In Woonsocket’s schools, we must do everything possible to ensure our students are safe. We must strictly and fairly enforce our policies against bullying and possessing weapons.
Because keeping our kids safe at school shouldn’t just be about the school building. There are no metal detectors in our schools, nor should there be. We have to prevent those tragedies well before they happen.
We need to make mental health treatment more readily available to all who need it. As I write this on Friday night, details about the shooter in Connecticut are still very unclear. But a picture is beginning to emerge — a picture not unlike the young men who killed in Colorado and Arizona and Virginia and in too many of the tragedies we’ve faced as a nation.
It’s a picture of a disturbed young man, left to handle his internal chaos alone. A young man torn apart by his own mind. A young man our society should have been able to help.
It should be much easier for to get help, before the worst happens. We should eliminate the stigma of mental health conditions and make it easier for people — or their parents, friends and doctors — to reach out and get help. Treatment doesn’t have to mean institutionalization, but it can’t simply mean leaving troubled people to fend for themselves.
And we need to do something about guns. The problem isn’t just illegal guns. It’s guns. There have been dozens of mass killings in recent years, and more than three quarters of the guns were purchased legally. In many states, it’s easier to get a gun license than to register to vote.
It should be a national priority to make sure that it’s easier to get mental health services than a gun.
Let us work together to pressure our elected officials to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Let us work to ban expanded magazines. And let us require affirmative mental health checks and training before allowing someone to buy a gun.
Some argue that until we can prevent every determined killer, we shouldn’t even try to address this problem. Those people are wrong. We’ll never be able to stop all gun crime in this country. But every murder we prevent is a parent who will get to spend more time with her children. Or a child who will have the chance to grow up. And that’s worth fighting for.
It’s never too soon after a tragedy to talk about how to prevent the next one.
“The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.” ― Alan Paton
Vimala D. Phongsavanh is the chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee
Sunday, December 2, 2012
This week I was reminded about the beauty of the education system when I visited some of the youth from Youth RAP at NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley. Between discussions about how schools could be better to preparing for college applications, the dozen students happily scribbled at their homework and got ready for the next school day.
As we adults fill our day-to-day lives thinking about policies and bitterly battling for the future of this city, our kids are growing just as they always have. Our students are developing into young adults each and every day.
It’s vital that we provide them with the best we can, and that we do it in a strategic and organized way. For the last few years our district has become reactionary, but we need to take proactive steps to be prepared for anything.
It’s not easy being the chair of a school committee with rolling deficits year after year. We know we’ll take the blame as the people’s opinion of education in this community continue to plummet. We’re working hard to change the culture in city government and the school department. Instead of pointing fingers, we’re planning for the future.
Woonsocket’s Innovative Solutions for Education (WISE) continues to inspire me as we all continue to strive towards our vision of 100% Success for 100% of Students. We’re crazy enough to believe that all our students can graduate from high school.
Our past two meetings have been some of the best all year. The group spent many early meetings talking about big picture ideas and overarching goals, but now comes the tough part: planning.
WISE is an advisory board of education and community leaders in Woonsocket, with the mission to empower educators and the community through a shared vision that promises the students of Woonsocket a brighter future. We have five cohorts working on system-level changes for the school district. That’s where the innovative work is happening.
The Data and Policy cohort will begin to work on streamlining data collection and creating data driven policies. Although it may sound dull, this work is essential. One of the first steps to striving towards collective impact is creating a shared measurement system. Just as we evaluate teachers, it’s important to evaluate all programs, inside and outside of school. We need to truly assess our district and create policies that reflect our students and community.
The Transformation cohort provides technical assistance to the school department’s 5-Year Strategic Plan, developing a plan to improve Management and Labor Collaborations, and creating Professional Development Opportunities that improve instruction and learning for students and educators. Capitalizing on connections with Community Organizations and Woonsocket Education Collaborations, we will make sure grant money gets to where it’s needed most. And we’re re-imagining the school day through looking at options for Extended Learning Time (ELT) to better serve more students.
The Public Relations cohort is working to create Pride In Our Schools. It’s simple—we want the community to believe in our schools, our students and our teachers.
The Multiple Pathways cohort recognizes that not all students are fully served by the traditional school setting. They are creating Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) and looking at ways to enhance our already outstanding E-Learning Academy. By increasing the awareness and availability of multiple pathways that are available in the school district for students, we can make sure that all students have the necessary opportunities to learn.
Lastly, our Community Engagement cohort is going to be busy working on organizing the community to recruit more believers of education.
We’re busy changing the school system. Will you join us?
“I know these guys. I know the way they think, and they will erase us. And everything we’ve done here, none of it’ll matter. Any other team wins the World Series, good for them. They’re drinking champagne, they get a ring. But if we win, on our budget, with this team… we’ll have changed the game. And that’s what I want. I want it to mean something.“ Moneyball (2011)
Vimala D. Phongsavanh is the chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
On Thursday many of us celebrated Thanksgiving with our families and friends. Thanksgiving is an annual reminder of the many things that make America great. It’s a time for everyone across the country to slow down and think about what we are grateful for. This is the first time this year I’ve been able to completely relax and spend time with my family, between an intense full time job and being local elected official, life can get busy.
But it’s also the official kickoff to our holiday season. We live in a consumer society, in which things and tangibles dominate our lives. Although I am definitely one of these consumers, I’m also reminded of the values of this country that have allowed us to practice freedom everyday. So, even though Black Friday has come and gone, I’d still like to reflect on the things I’m thankful for.
Personally, I am thankful for a supportive family and great friends who help to keep me grounded, and for my many fancy electronic gadgets that have made life more efficient. I’m thankful that I have a good job and a great staff.
On a broader level, I’m thankful to the taxpayers who provide education to our students and so many other public benefits. I’m constantly thankful to veterans and those serving in our military who defend our values and freedoms, and especially to those who sacrificed everything to safeguard the opportunities that all Americans rely on.
I am thankful for courage. Courage allows us to do the right thing, it allows us to speak up for the voiceless, and it allows us to progress as people and a society.
Students and young people, especially in Woonsocket, need courageous people to be a voice for them. Throughout the years, our teachers, administrators, and city-, community-, and faith-based leaders have stood up to do anything possible to ensure that our students are provided with a fair and adequate public education.
In these three years of service to the City of Woonsocket, it’s become clear that the inadequacies that exist in our public education system are part of a larger national picture. A fundamental belief in America is that everyone deserves a shot to be successful; it’s a belief that makes our country the greatest in this world. Yet as we progress as a nation, we are still left fighting for basic civil rights.
It is not right that poverty denies a student from Woonsocket the same opportunity to succeed as a student from East Greenwich or Jamestown or Barrington. The short-sighted desire to rid our city of the thousands of our neighbors who need a little help to pay the rent or to put food on the table sells our city short. I’m thankful for the diversity of opinions and life stories that make Woonsocket the city that it is.
In my three years as many of us work towards progress in education, there are so many obstructions that can prevent us from moving forward. For those who have been watching, I appreciate the occasional critique, but we must leave our cynicism and fears behind. I worry that if we were offered a blank check to improve our education department, we’d turn it down because we would be too skeptical of everyone.
So as we celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s important to remember our courage. It’s one of the only things that can help move a generation forward. Lastly, I’m thankful for the Woonsocket Call for allowing me the opportunity to write a weekly article and to share some of my personal beliefs and vision for the City.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill
Vimala D. Phongsavanh is the Chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Last week I spent the day with newly appointed Curriculum Director Dr. McGee and Superintendent Dr. Donoyan at a conference in Boston called “Raising Achievement Despite Shrinking Budgets” hosted by the District Management Council (DMC).
Instructors got down to the nuts and bolts of addressing technical and adaptive challenges to strengthen our schools. We also covered how to make our resources work to fulfill our district’s priorities. It was an intensive training – one of many the administration and School Committee attend every year.
We were given great tools to bring back to Woonsocket and use. It was an insightful day, and a good team building experience for the Woonsocket leadership.
In the coming years, our schools face a crisis. Each major funding source (Federal, State and Local) will be met with the same pressures that have strained them in the past few years, and voters are unlikely to support tax increases. Our financial struggles some from rising healthcare costs, rising pension costs, misplaced priorities, growing federal debt and decreasing tax receipts. Meanwhile, population shifts are having a significant underlying effect on the country and will drive voting behavior.
In a way, we’re already seeing the effects here in Woonsocket. Every person who has ever run for School Committee, City Council or Mayor knows that, to meet the largest number of likely voters in the shortest time, you have to go to the downtown high-rises. But the high-rise residents have different incentives than the residents of Fairmount or Constitution Hill. Without children of their own or a deep connection to the community, many senior citizens are unwilling to support our local school system, especially if it involves paying a dollar more in property taxes.
And that leads to some decisions that are not in the best interest of our students. Because so many of Woonsocket’s voters blame the School Department for the city’s fiscal troubles, and because so many don’t really care about our students’ well-being, the city voted for a mayor-dominated school board.
It’s easy to blame the city’s problems on the school department, but the city’s share of our education funding has been falling for more than a decade. Fact check: we’ve been underfunded for years!
It’s also easy, if you’re on the other side, to become cynical or give up on improving this city. Instead, we should work to get more people educated about the issues and voting. We need more young people to vote, and more minorities to vote. We need more people invested in our education system and active and engaged. We need an electorate that represents our whole community, and then our government will be able to serve the whole community.
New challenges require new approaches. Everyone talks about change and working together but actions speak louder than words. At the conference, we went over a values-to-action decision chain, which looks something like this:
Values –> Motivations (student based and adult based) –> Incentives –> Action
As we know, all people are different, with different priorities and belief systems. The values that guide people cause them to make decisions differently. And every person has competing sets of values that they have to balance to make the right decisions.
With educators we find that there are two conflicting value systems: student-centered values and organization-centered values. These occasionally come into conflict, because sometimes hard decisions for the students’ interests may require losing someone who has served in the district for many years and offers lots of experience. These are both very rational values, and their conflict makes change very hard.
Good leadership is hard to find, it requires someone who is willing to make decisions based on what is best for the district and our students. It means being the first person to shift behaviors, and change an environment, not kicking the can down the road for the next person. And I’m confident we have the right people to do that at the School Department now.
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” -John F. Kennedy
Vimala D. Phongsavanh is the Chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee
Sunday, November 4, 2012
On Tuesday, Woonsocket’s voters will face a profound choice about the future of our democracy. We will have to choose whether we value freedom or centralized government.
No, I’m not talking about the presidential race. I’m talking about Question 8, the ballot question that asks us if we want to give up our local control of education.
Education policy has historically been set by cities and towns for a reason. Quality education comes from involved parents and community members. When local communities are invested in their children’s futures, they work to make sure the children succeed.
That work comes in many forms. Whether it’s attending high school plays or football games, supporting the students as they compete in academic competitions, or turning out to school committee meetings to voice their opinions, parents and the community make sure the students’ best interests are taken care of.
We have that in Woonsocket already. When the school committee considered the ill-conceived plan to shut the schools in April of last year, the community made their voices heard. You came to our meeting and let us know that keeping the schools open was a priority. The passion displayed at that meeting convinced any doubters, and the committee’s vote was unanimous.
My vote to keep the schools open was never in doubt, but anyone who was considering voting to close the schools would have seen that passion and quickly changed their minds. That’s partially out of concern for public opinion, and partially for fear of reelection. And that’s a good thing! Elections keep leaders honest, which empowers voters.
An appointed school committee may have been more concerned with cost savings than with public opinion or the students’ welfare. If they voted to close early, angry parents and community members would have nowhere to turn — we couldn’t vote out the appointed committee members, and the mayor who appointed them would be able to deny any involvement. We’d be stuck, and our children would be worse off for it.
Now, I hope no future school committee will face an unexpected problem like we did this year. And not all appointed officials are soulless, penny-counting machines. But without a mechanism to hold committee members accountable, there is no way to make sure they listen to the community’s concerns.
The current school committee has taken unprecedented steps to increase transparency and make it easier for the community to hold us accountable. Anyone who can’t make it to the meetings can access our minutes online to see how carefully we scrutinize each hire and every expense. If you don’t like the job we’re doing, talk to us, or let us know in next year’s elections.
An appointed school committee wouldn’t be any better at preventing the fiscal woes that plagued our education department for the last year. The education department has been underfunded for years, partially because of a state government whose “fair funding” formula doesn’t fully take into account the costs associated with educating so many special needs students or students from families in poverty.
But the larger reason our schools are underfunded is that for years, our city government has been unwilling to make the necessary investments in our young people. Yes, it’s important to keep costs low, but there are some things our city government simply must do, and looking out for our young people is one of them.
It’s true, there has been some poor communication between the school committee and the city council in the past. But we’re moving beyond that. The budget crisis has shown how much we need to work together, and I’ve made an effort to be more open and accessible than my predecessors. I’ve never been shy about having a coffee at the Cakery with anyone, and many parents and citizens can attest, I’m pretty good at phone calls, emails, Facebook and Twitter too!
In the end, this whole issue is about democracy and representation. We should be looking to give our community more ways to be involved in civic life, not take them away.
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.” – Thomas Jefferson
Vimala D. Phongsavanh is the chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee
Don’t forget to vote on November 6. Your voice is important to decide what path our city, state and nation take in the coming years.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
I’m a huge political junkie, so I must admit I’ve enjoyed this election season. With the polls and pundits, the debates and the decisions, it’s been like Christmas in the fall.
The best part? I’m not on the ballot this year, so I don’t have to deal with the stress that comes with campaigning.
As local, state and national candidates knock on doors, talk to the press and make promises to voters, it’s a good time to check up on the promises I’ve made to this community.
Public officials don’t ask themselves nearly often enough whether they’ve lived up to their promises or if they’ve done anything to make the community a better place.
On election night three years ago, I could not have imagined inheriting the problems that faced the school department in our city. My vision has always been that Woonsocket’s students deserve a quality education system that values and engages the community in lifelong learning.
I spent my first two years trying to implement policies to break the cycle of poverty in our city, and to offer innovative opportunities for students. That means giving our kids opportunities outside the classroom. Expanded learning opportunities are the future of education, and Woonsocket has lead the effort. Woonsocket’s educators — both in and out of the classroom — are pioneers in leading the ELO effort for the state.
I also spent my first term assessing our school department, learning about our students and our education department, finding the problems and beginning to develop solutions with the resources available to us.
Was it easy? Hardly. Would I do things differently now? Of course. But if we spent our time dwelling on what could of been done differently, or who missed the accounting errors, we would never get anything else done.
With hindsight, looking at those years is heartbreaking. We made decisions under false guidance with inaccurate information. And while the past few years have been difficult, we now know that it won’t happen again, because we’re determined to make our system better through holding everyone — including ourselves — accountable.
How have my second-term promises held up?
First, I promised that we would create a more transparent and accountable school system. We’re doing that. We’ve started a 5-year strategic planning process, made up of over 20 members of the Woonsocket education community. As promised, we’re consolidating and reorganizing the School Committee subcommittees. Just this year, we cut the number of subcommittees from ten to four. And we’re working to make school committee voting records more accessible: meeting minutes are available online, and voting records should be available soon.
Second, I promised professionalism. Thanks to the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, we’ve been providing workshops and professional development so that all School Committee members can better understand our roles and responsibilities. I’ve advocated for community bus tours that would give teachers the chance to learn more about the resources for students and families in our community. There’s still much more to do, and we’re working on making more opportunities possible for our education department.
Finally, I promised more community partnerships. I said we needed to work with our community based organizations to expand new and high quality programs in Woonsocket. I said we needed to assess all our resources and work collaboratively to reorganize how funds are used. And the new Woonsocket’s Innovative Solutions for Education (WISE) initiative and our strategic plan make cooperation possible.
I think that’s a decent record. Constructive criticism is vital, and if you have any feedback on how I could do better, please let me know.
“It is necessary … for a man to go away by himself … to sit on a rock … and ask, ‘Who am I, where have I been, and where am I going?” Carl Sandburg
Vimala Phongsavanh is the Chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
In honor of National Boss’ Day this upcoming Tuesday, I wanted to honor my boss: Channavy Chhay. On Thursday, Channavy received the New Roots Program Award from the Providence Plan for her work as Executive Director of our organization, the Socio-Economic Development Center for Southeast Asians (SEDC-SEA).
I’ve learned a lot about leadership through working closely with her as one of her directors. When we first began working together a year and a half ago, the organization was not in a good place, almost on the brink of bankruptcy after years of deficits. Funders and supporters began to pull away from the organization because they had lost faith in us.
Before taking the job I was told that this job would be a challenge and that it would require a lot of work to turn around the reputation and the credibility of the organization. But I took it because I believed that Channavy’s leadership could pull us out of a mess and rebuild and reinvent a once thriving organization.
She was right, it wasn’t easy changing the organization’s internal culture, it wasn’t easy convincing our clients that our new models for programming were going to provide them what they needed on their road to self-sufficiency and success. Everyone was skeptical, and rightfully so. But our staff believed in a common mission, each and every day throughout the good and bad times.
Since then, through determination, relationship building, a talented staff and lots of grant writing, we’ve reached stability and are growing tremendously. She’s increased our funding by 50% in the past two years, including bringing in new and diverse revenue streams. We started with a staff of four people, and now we’ve got twelve full time employees and three part time employees. Non-profits create jobs and contribute to the economy, many of our employees will never become rich, but we’re rich in our mission and our drive to ensure that our community thrives.
Channavy has not only brought funding into the organization, but she has restructured the organization for the better. Many members of the board of directors are new and excited about the potential of the organization, and it is through their vision that drives programming. SEDC-SEA has undergone a strategic planning process, bringing in key stakeholders and voices to plan for the future. There has been a remarkable reorganization that helped turn us around. We believe in setting the organization up for success, so it’s important that there is a system in place after any of us leave.
I’ve worked at various organizations, but there has never been one that has made me want to work and fight harder than SEDC-SEA. It’s all about leadership. Channavy is one of the hardest working women I have ever met (next to my own mother). It is her work ethic that makes me want to come to work every day, she makes me want to make my staff thrive and to instill in them passion for their job and to make them believe in our mission every day. Our days are never easy, and they are never the same, but through teamwork and the understanding that we won’t let our organization fail, we thrive.
I’m proud of how far SEDC-SEA has come and I can’t wait to continue working to move this organization forward. So if any of you see Channavy out in the community, congratulate her on her well-deserved award. Happy Boss’s day, Boss.
“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” John F. Kennedy
Vimala D. Phongsavanh is the chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Passion drives us to do what we do. Our American freedom to pursue happiness gives us the unique opportunity to live our passions every day.
My personal passions are empowering my community, education, and voting.
I’m passionate about these things because of who I am. My experiences and those of my parents have shaped my philosophy on life and about people and human dignity. My identity defines my passions.
I’m lucky, because my work enables me to pursue my passions. Every day I have the opportunity to work in a place with a mission to provide people opportunities to become self-sufficient.
It’s not always easy. Fear and opposition make it hard for some people to pursue their passions. Across the country, an unwillingness to change has made life difficult for too Americans who don’t look the part.
It’s an attitude that stretches back to the very beginning of our republic. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to “free white persons.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese immigration for a decade. It wasn’t until 1952 that citizenship law banned racial and gender discrimination.
Our country is changing, because of our people as much as our policy. It is important that we recognize our similarities as much as our differences.
So that’s where my passion for voting comes in. As our population changes, our representation needs to change. Our country needs policy makers who truly understand the people they serve. Policies must truly reflect what is best for the country and maintain human dignity.
We need to start electing people who represent all people in our changing population. For those communities that haven’t had a voice before, voting is power. It matters.
Underrepresented communities need to stand up for themselves by voting. And the way to encourage more political participation is through education. It’s through empowering people to believe that their voices matter and that as Americans our right to vote is the core of our democracy. Too many people have died for our rights and too many were denied their rights for us to simply throw away our votes.
It’s not always easy. New Americans come into my organization all the time to learn English – we actually have a waiting list – and they’re always so excited to learn the skills that help them get ahead. They often struggle in the classes, but once they get the basic skills down, they thrive. Through their new skills, people are empowered to do so much more with their lives; they become self sufficient, and gain confidence for their job searches and interviews. The more they know, the higher they aim for the American dream, and the more they encourage their children to take education seriously.
Here’s my point: don’t judge a book by its cover. Let us educate ourselves about our neighbors, even though they might not look, speak or think like “us.” The more we understand each other the more we will realize that we’re all very much the same with very similar values. And we all have passions that drive us.
At the end of the day, everyone strives to be better and to do better for themselves and their families. Some people just need more help to get there. We should be there to give it to them.
“This Pennsylvania will in a few years become a German colony; instead of [their] learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live as in a foreign country.” –Benjamin Franklin, 1751
Vimala Phongsavanh is the chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee
Sunday, September 30, 2012
The industrial revolution started in Woonsocket’s back yard, and brought prosperity to the region. The factories that rose up along the Blackstone River supported a strong and growing immigrant community for decades.
But it couldn’t last. Manufacturing moved overseas, and the factories closed. Our community, which struggled at the end of the last century, has been hit hard by the recession. While the rest of the country recovers, Rhode Island has lagged behind.
They say that history repeats itself. Well, let’s hope so. It’s time for another revolution in our community.
This won’t be an industrial revolution. It will have to be a an intellectual revolution. It will require us to invest in education more than ever before. Because the next revolution won’t be built on our backs; it will be built on our brains.
We need to make sure that our children can compete against the best minds in every country if we want them to be able to hold their own in a global market.
The challenges we face are big — history book big. If we tackle them well, our children’s children will study our era’s successes the way we learned about the generations that came before us. And if we don’t? Well, I’d rather not think about that.
The revolution begins with our students. All of them. We need to support the children from low- and moderate-income families, so that they can have the same opportunities as our luckiest students. We can’t do that by just throwing money at programs; as we increase funding, we need to ensure that every cent is spent wisely and that every dollar brings greater success. It’s time to stop making excuses and kicking the can down the road. We need to take responsibility now.
Things are starting to look up. In the last few months, we have started to rebuild the very foundation that is our school system. Our strategic planning process is kicking off next week, Woonsocket’s Innovative Solutions for Education’s (WISE) cohorts are busy in the process of developing projects and working towards achieving goals, and we’ve gained a couple of believers along the way.
But still, our schools are struggling. Our finances are still in peril. Our parents and community members are starting to doubt whether we can change. The path ahead is hard, and we need to work together to restore faith.
We need to make our schools the best they can possibly be. But our goal should be more than that. We need to give our young people a reason to stay in Woonsocket after graduation. We need to expand our city’s cultural offerings and make Woonsocket a place that people want to live.
Great schools will draw young families to Woonsocket, and help us reach that goal. The growing arts community centered around the downtown arts district will attract more. And our cultural celebrations — from Autumnfest to the Christmastime Candlelight Stroll — will help show visitors that Woonsocket is more than just an exit off 146.
But it all comes down to our intellectual revolution. Let us dedicate ourselves to educating the next generation of Rhode Island’s leaders here, in Woonsocket. Let us set the bar high, and aim even higher. And let us work together to make it happen, and not rest until we succeed.
Because this city has the potential. If we’re willing to put in the work, we can give Woonsocket a new birth of prosperity. We can be the change that sets this community on a new path for the future.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight — it’s molded by people who don’t give up.” – Mary E. Pearson
Vimala Phongsavanh is the chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
On Saturday, the St. James Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, celebrated the new MLK Memorial located at the intersection of Mason and South Main Street. The project was funded by Citizens Bank and legislative grants from Representatives Baldelli-Hunt and Brien. I’m proud of Woonsocket for this asset to our city.
Dr. King believed that all people have the power to be great because we all have the ability to serve our communities. He dreamed of finding equality and peace through the power of service and giving back to others. His ideas have had a profound impact on this country and paved the roads for many of us to walk on. Dr. King is a personal hero of mine, and my only hope is that I can carry his message forward in my life.
In many ways, our country is different from the one Dr. King knew. But in too many ways, little has changed.
Would he be proud of where we’ve come? Is his dream complete? I would say no. We haven’t done enough to provide all communities and all students with an equal opportunity.
Just look at Woonsocket. In Rhode Island and across the country, the achievement gap between students in the suburbs and students in inner cities is growing wider as poverty levels increase. It’s unacceptable.
Dr. King understood poverty, and vowed to eliminate it. “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age,” he wrote in 1967. “It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of
civilization… The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
But yet, poverty has not been addressed in this country. In fact, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that the United States has the second highest rate of childhood poverty in the developed world. And our policymakers do virtually nothing to address it.
If we do nothing to solve this problem, it will get worse. Childhood poverty leads to poor education outcomes, and insufficient education leads to lower lifetime earnings, causing more poverty. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
It’s fine to say that our country is built on the idea that people can rise from nothing to great wealth. That’s the American dream, after all. But in truth, there is less social mobility in the United States than there is in Europe today. Without quality education for all, Americans will continue to be stuck where they’re born.
That’s not what this country was built on, and that’s not what Dr. King would have wanted us to do. He went to jail for what he believed in and died for what he believed in.
When Dr. King was assassinated, he was in Memphis, supporting striking sanitation workers. He understood that all workers deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
In Chicago this week, teachers have been fighting for the same principle. With schools expected to do more than ever before, the city asked the teachers to do it all for less. Chicago spends a little less per student than Woonsocket, and while there are certainly ways to squeeze more out of every educational dollar, cutting teachers’ benefits and training is not the way.
But still, about 350,000 students are locked out of school. If the strike continues much longer, they will fall further behind and the road to success will become even more difficult.
Our country is great because we believe that all of us have the potential to become great and contribute to our society. Our lawmakers should help teachers lift students up by doing more to combat poverty. That’s what Dr. King believed, and that’s what I’ll continue to fight for.
“If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty, and the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Vimala Phongsavanh is the chairwoman of the Woonsocket School Committee