One UP! instructor told the Phoenix the non-profit is a weak presence at her school. Promises of enhanced professional development have fallen short, she says. And the panel that's supposed to be making decisions at her school — an "instructional leadership team" with a heavy teacher presence — is without authority.

"Nothing has been different from last year," she said, "at all."

But even she voiced long-run hope for the model. And it's not hard to find similar sentiment elsewhere in the district. Not least in the person of Miller-Williams, the executive director, who recently met with the Phoenix in UP!'s small offices in the PTU building on Corliss Street.

A Houston native, she's possessed of a soft, Texas drawl. But it doesn't conceal her intense drive. Miller-Williams, a former teacher, is sharp, put together, and oozing competence.

As principal of a high poverty, K-8 school in Detroit, she helped boost academic achievement by some 50 percent in two years. Executive positions with for-profit charter operator Edison Schools followed.

And when she launched a pioneering principal training program in her native Houston, she brought in big thinkers like Harvard University education guru Tony Wagner and New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera to advise.

Noguera serves on an UP! advisory board that paid its first visit to Providence just a few weeks back. And while the panel found promise in the model, Miller-Williams says, it found plenty wanting — starting with a less-than-welcoming environment at some of the schools.

UP!'s first charge — and this fits neatly with Miller-Williams' own philosophy — is to improve that environment. Research, she says, shows that struggling schools can't hope to boost achievement without a climate shift.

That means building parent-teacher organizations, posting and celebrating attendance gains, and, at Lauro, asking home improvement behemoth Lowe's to donate the plexiglass bulletin board covers required by the state fire code. Only then can the school display student work.

The path from plexiglass to proficiency is a long one. But Miller-Williams insists UP! can get there; insists administrators and teachers can build a real and transformational partnership. "This won't work if schools feel we're here to do something to them," she says.

Miller-Williams knows there's a lot riding on the UP! experiment. If it flops, she says, observers around the country will conclude that labor-management collaboration can't work. And the local impact could be just as dispiriting.

"Right now, there is a glimmer of . . . light shining on Providence," she says, "and I think if [UP!] fails, it might dim a bit."

Education_Gara_Field_main
‘THIS IS WHERE THE MAGIC IS’ Principal Gara Field in a classroom at Pleasant View Elementary School.

PLEASANT VIEW

Principal Gara Field marches down the hallways of Pleasant View Elementary School with the lumbering, energetic gait of an athlete.

She was a jock growing up in New Hampshire. She played soccer in high school and college and went to work for ESPN afterward. But she had an epiphany during an Outward Bound course at Big Bend National Park in Texas; television, she decided, wasn't for her.

Her second epiphany came in 2009 when her mentor, education reformer Ted Sizer, died. Field, then a professor of education psychology at the University of Georgia, decided she had to leave the academy.

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