And the group, in what amounted to a radical revision of an historically adversarial relationship, developed a template for joint management of troubled schools. The model complete, the next step was to try it out in the real world. Smith said he could make it work in Providence.

As an Education Sector report titled "Unlikely Allies" would later note, the experiment required a partnership between two very different characters. Smith, a former teacher and state legislator, was a "short fast-talking populist from the wrong side of town." Then-Superintendent Tom Brady was a retired Army colonel who'd honed his crisp management style in the Washington DC and Philadelphia schools. "Be brief, be bright, and be gone" was his motto.

Both men faced considerable political risk in entering into an alliance. After years of battle, rank-and-file teachers were suspicious of upper management. And for Brady, a partnership with the union could make him look weak.

But there were powerful forces drawing the two together: the accountability regime of the No Child Left Behind Act, the promise of federal funds, and a recognition that teachers unions — increasingly under fire in the national press — had to be part of the reform movement or risk being swallowed by it.

In time, they forged a first-in-the-nation partnership known as United Providence!, with dominion over four struggling schools. The idea was to trade a certain amount of flexibility for enhanced accountability.

The plan won widespread attention. Education Sector wrote its report. And US Education Secretary Arne Duncan took to singling out the effort on a national stage.

But radical change does not come easily. Members of a new school board, which hadn't been part of the process, were skeptical about whether it could work. And when Taveras took office and fired all the teachers, the promise of collaboration seemed to collapse.

Brady left the district shortly thereafter. And by the time incoming Superintendent Sue Lusi sat down with Smith at the Parkside Rotisserie & Bar on North Main Street in June 2011, a martini at her fingertips, the union chief was vowing to leave his post after negotiating one final teachers contract.

But the contract came and went. And Smith, still in place, agreed to revive United Providence! in time for the current school year. The focus would be on a new batch of troubled schools: Carl Lauro Elementary School, Gilbert Stuart Middle School, and Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School.

It took UP! some time to get off the ground. The non-profit operated for months with no formal staff. A first round of interviews for an executive director didn't turn up any suitable candidates. And officials didn't install their eventual choice, Sheri Miller-Williams, until August 27.

Education_Miller-Williams_m
‘YOU CAN’T TRAIN CHARACTER, BUT YOU CAN TRAIN PEOPLE’ Sheri Miller-Williams of UP!

There have been problems since the school year began. Limited funding means UP! can only afford one math specialist and one English specialist for the three schools, when the challenge calls for a math and English specialist at each school.

And when the district transferred Stuart principal Jeff Goss as part of a larger reshuffling at six struggling schools, teachers staged a public protest.

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