Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1997-1998 index

Distributed November 25, 1997
Contact: Kristen Lans

First in a two-part study

Ten-year demographic study of Providence finds revolving door at schools

The first half of a demographic study of Providence led by James W. McNally of Brown's Center for Population Studies, offers a look at the public school system. The statistics are part of a database that will describe all aspects of city life from 1987 to 1997. The database should be completed by March 1998 with regular updates thereafter.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Most of the children who start off in the Providence Public School System do not stick around long enough to collect their diplomas, according to "Counting on Ourselves," a demographic study of the capital city over the last ten years.

Of 1,845 children who enrolled in the first grade in 1987, only 503 remained when that class reached the 10th grade. The number of students continuously entering and leaving the system - a factor called "churning" - was one of the most striking findings in the first part of a year-long project to compile statistics on the city, said study director James W. McNally, of Brown University's Center for Population Studies.

"Many of us went to school when you acquired a group of friends and stuck with them growing up," said study partner Edward D. Eddy, of the Providence Blueprint for Education (PROBE). "That doesn't happen in Providence."

That trend was only one of many the city school system faced during the last 10 years. In many cases the statistics validated trends that people within the school system had already noticed, McNally said. Educators had seen a burgeoning enrollment at the elementary school level. Those students will swell middle school ranks in coming years, filling the schools and forcing the School Department to find more space for grades six through eight, according to Eddy.

Educators had also noticed a growing number of Hispanic students. A decade ago the student population was 20 percent non-white Hispanic. That figure is now 40 percent, McNally said. The student population in the public schools does not reflect the general city population of 160,000, about three-quarters of which is non-minority.

Changing demographics of Providence Schools, 1987-1996

Native American0.51%0.62%0.66%

Each change poses questions for the system. "It really says that we have to think carefully about how we plan to educate our children," McNally said. For example, the trend toward churning has obvious implications for teachers, students and administrators. Education is based on the idea of continuity, that a student learns certain information at each grade level. But Providence teachers have addressed 56,800 different students during the last 10 years, more than twice the enrollment of the entire system. With that many students coming and going from the classroom, a teacher must spend educational time assessing what each student knows, McNally said.

Also, with an emphasis now being placed on academic testing and comparison of results between districts, Providence will be at a disadvantage, Eddy said. There is no base for comparison because the makeup of a grade level is constantly changing, he added.

The study was not designed to address issues posed by the statistics, McNally said. He hopes the database will attract scholars to study the information, planners to use it in charting a course for the schools, and social agencies to address community needs. "Small cities like Providence change so rapidly that planners need to know what to plan for," McNally said. "The report has to become part of the tool box for anyone who has an interest in the city."

The study was funded by the City of Providence, the Providence Public School System, The Providence Journal, the Rhode Island Foundation, the Rhode Island Department of Education, and the Public Building Authority and was completed by McNally in conjunction with The Providence Plan and PROBE. The second half of the project, to be completed in March 1998, will provide a look at business and employment in Providence. It has not yet been determined which organization will manage the database in the future.