But Miller-Williams of UP!, who started the principal training program in Houston and has offered to do something similar here, insists leadership can be cultivated.

"You can't train character," she says; you can't teach a principal to believe in kids. "But you can train people."

You can offer intensive workshops on school strategy, Miller-Williams says. You can assign would-be school leaders to shadow master principals for a year.

The district, as Providence schools chief Lusi acknowledges, does not have strong principal training programs at the moment. And that's a real problem.

But in the meantime, leadership is developing elsewhere.


OUTSIDE INFLUENCE

It is school vacation week and Drew Milligan, a third-year science and special education teacher at the Juanita Sanchez high school complex meets me at a bar and restaurant downtown.

Milligan, who is working toward a masters in urban education policy at Brown University, has been impressed with the political energy unleashed by Rhode Island's education crisis.

The General Assembly has approved a funding formula that allows for a more equitable distribution of state dollars. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has led an aggressive charge to improve achievement. And Mayor Taveras, he says, seems to have embraced the cause.

But between the leadership and Providence kids, Milligan says, there is "this big monster" — a school system filled with too many mediocre administrators and too many old-school teachers who can't attach a document to an email, never mind use new data systems meant to provide a richer view of student strengths and weaknesses.

Improving schools, he is convinced, is about cultivating talent and then giving schools, which know their kids better than anyone else, greater autonomy.

One way to build human capital is to make use of outside organizations like Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates like Milligan — a Cornell alumnus — in urban classrooms.

Milligan was the only TFA teacher in the building his first year. In his second year there were 11 TFA instructors, he says, and it meant a significant shift in the school's culture (if not, yet, the school's achievement levels).

But TFA, a relative newcomer to Rhode Island, is aiming for influence beyond individual classrooms. Its nationwide mission is to build a cohort of young reformers, baptized by their classroom experience, who will serve as principals, run school districts, and win elective office.

TFA is not the only ambitious outsider that's come to Providence of late. Rhode Island Teaching Fellows trains college graduates and mid-career professionals to become impact teachers. City Year, the urban peace corps program, has placed teams of young, low-wage, red-jacketed workers in urban schools across the state.

And with the district staring down a stunning attendance problem — about one-third of kindergartners and five in 10 ninth graders were deemed "chronically absent" last year — Family Service of Rhode Island has launched a "walking school bus" at Fogarty Elementary school on the south side of the city.

Every morning, a Family Service staffer, teachers, and volunteers don bright yellow pinnys and walk the neighborhood, picking up kids who live too close to the school to qualify for bus service, but are often late or absent because a parent is chronically ill or works the late shift.

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