Brown awards $1.25 million to library, participatory budgeting projects in Providence public schools

Disbursements from the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence will strengthen libraries at nine PPSD high schools and enable local middle schoolers to decide how their school spends $100,000.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A total of $1.25 million in new grants from Brown University’s Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence will support crucial Providence Public School District initiatives to strengthen high school libraries and boost middle school students’ financial literacy.

Most of the funding will support a three-year collaboration between the Brown University Library and librarians and teachers at PPSD high schools. The $1.15 million project will enhance libraries’ existing collections and facilities, increase high school teachers’ curricular engagement with the libraries and create programs that bring high school students into community and University libraries for unique learning opportunities.

A second grant will support an upcoming collaboration between scholars at Brown University and Nathanael Greene Middle School. In June, close to 250 students from the middle school will visit the University to take part in a participatory budgeting project, where they will work together to decide how PPSD should spend $100,000 from the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence to support students across the district.

A Public Education Committee composed of Providence and Brown community members, including state and district educators, voted unanimously to support the two projects with payouts from the Fund.

Members of the committee joined elected officials and leaders from Brown and PPSD to announce the Fund disbursements at a Friday, May 19, event at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex. University President Christina H. Paxson said the newly funded projects are a testament to Brown scholars’ deep engagement with K-12 educators and students.

“At Brown, we recognize that nobody understands the needs of local schools better than members of those school communities themselves,” Paxson said. “These two projects are impactful because, while they are led in part by scholars at the University, they place student and educator voices front and center. These projects enable people in Providence schools — students and educators — to choose how to spend money on books, library revitalization and other improvements.”

Established in 2007, the Fund is a permanent endowment at Brown, with a current value of $14.6 million, that promotes academic excellence and success for K-12 students in Providence. As one element in a wide-ranging partnership between the University and PPSD, the Fund advances initiatives to improve teaching and learning in local classrooms, ensure access to high-quality education for students and support Rhode Island Department of Education and PPSD priorities. Recent payouts have supported a library transformation project and delivered internet access to students in need as schools shifted to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

PPSD Superintendent Javier Montañez, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Public Education Committee, said the projects will advance district-wide goals to boost students’ literacy, numeracy and sense of belonging.

"We are thrilled with this collaboration with Brown University,” Montañez said. “Literacy is one of the foundations to student success. By expanding access to books and choosing libraries that meet students’ interests, we are growing the building blocks to success for Providence children."

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley named improving educational outcomes in the city among his top priorities and hailed the Fund disbursement as an important step toward furthering that goal.

“Providence’s collaboration with our dedicated community partners, like Brown University, is vital for elevating the level of support and education our students receive,” Smiley said. “The investments announced today will help support equitable access to high-quality learning opportunities and have a meaningful and lasting impact on our students, setting them up to succeed.”

Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said this year’s Fund disbursements illustrate a deep understanding of local educators’ needs — the result of numerous partnerships between Brown and Providence schools over decades, and the expertise and perspectives brought by the Public Education Committee members.

“We are deeply appreciative of Brown’s unwavering commitment to our students and to turning around Providence public schools,” Infante-Green said. “The grant funding that has been made available through the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence will support our students through enhanced library offerings and will help bolster programming for financial literacy — both areas that will greatly benefit students in the capital city. Through our close partnership with Brown and state and city leaders, we will continue to make progress in the district and improve student outcomes.”

At Brown, we recognize that nobody understands the needs of local schools better than members of those school communities themselves.

Christina H. Paxson President, Brown University
Christina H. Paxson speaking at a podium with one arm raised

Refreshing libraries with students in mind

Nora Dimmock, Brown University deputy librarian, said the three-year library project originated from a focus group with high school librarians in public schools across Providence. Those conversations were convened as part of a community engagement initiative at Brown’s Center for Library Exploration and Research, which she oversees.

“Librarians told us they want to stock their shelves with the kinds of books students want — manga, books in Spanish, books that feature characters who come from a diverse set of backgrounds,” Dimmock said. “They shared that some of their libraries double as administrative meeting places, which means there’s less time for students to come in and take advantage of the resources in that space. And they said they wished there was more time to partner with teachers on curriculum development.”

Peter Quesnel, a library media specialist at Juanita Sanchez Education Complex, said the collaborative project isn’t just an investment in enriching student learning — it is an investment in public-school libraries, whose facilities and staff provide crucial support to students even in the midst of resource and funding challenges.

“Providence school librarians bring resources to students, provide their school communities with innovative learning experiences and cultivate a love of reading and learning, all with limited budgets, year after year,” Quesnel said. “This kind of investment in school libraries validates and honors the work we do at a time when the value of libraries is increasingly being questioned by various segments of society.”

In the first year of the Fund-supported project, Dimmock and fellow library colleagues will continue to gather details about the needs and challenges of each public high school library in Providence. Steering committees at all nine of the schools, ideally composed administrators, teachers and students, will help to guide that work.

We are deeply appreciative of Brown’s unwavering commitment to our students and to turning around Providence public schools.

Angélica Infante-Green Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Angelica Infante-Green speaking at a podium

Together, the committees and librarians will make decisions on how best to outfit each library to serve students — whether through the purchase of books, furniture, subscription services or software. The process, Dimmock said, will be similar to the one employed in 2021 when the University partnered with Providence’s Hope High School to revitalize its library, another Fund-supported project. Working with the school’s librarian, Susanne Gordon, Dimmock surveyed teachers and students before the team purchased more than 300 new books.

In the new project’s second year, Dimmock and colleagues will work with the high schools to explore opportunities to amplify classroom curricula through library programming and resources.

“During this phase, I can imagine a group of librarians, teachers and students coming together to create an interactive curriculum unit on Rhode Island history, for example,” Dimmock said. “The curriculum could incorporate library resources, visits to local museums or monuments, interactive classroom activities and maybe a visit from a local historian. We’re interested in getting teachers, librarians and students to talk to each other in a way that ends up enriching the learning experience.”

In the project’s third year, Dimmock and colleagues will find ways to further enrich high school teaching and learning through partnerships with community public libraries and the University’s own library facilities. They’ll establish a workshop series on research tools and methods, teaching students how to work with primary sources, how to participate in collaborative research projects, and how to use University and community library facilities for individual and class study.

“Libraries are important because they level the playing field,” Dimmock said. “They create community centers where people can learn English and financial literacy, read for pleasure or learning, and connect with the rest of the world, all for free. What’s exciting to me about this project is that it has the potential to transform libraries to active learning spaces that students and teachers are excited to use. It could take learning to a whole new level.”

Providence school librarians... provide their school communities with innovative learning experiences and cultivate a love of reading and learning... This kind of investment in school libraries validates and honors the work we do.

Peter Quesnel Library media specialist, Juanita Sanchez Education Complex
Peter Quesnel smiling

Boosting financial literacy and belonging

Like the library project, the second new Fund-supported project emanated from an existing partnership between scholars at the University and educators at K-12 schools.

Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science, public policy and education at Brown, has already worked several times with area schools on projects that demonstrate the power of “participatory budgeting” — a democratic process that asks community members to decide how to spend allocated money.

Since Fall 2021, Collins has facilitated several participatory budgeting projects at a Providence middle school, where students have decided to steer funds toward bathroom renovations, the development of a culinary arts class and the creation of a seasoning station inside the cafeteria. In Summer 2021, Collins and his research team worked with the school district in Central Falls, R.I., on a participatory budgeting project called Voces Con Poder (voices with power), facilitating a process that positioned community members to decide how to allocate $100,000. The community ultimately chose to fund after-school extracurricular programs and to create an app to improve communications between students, parents, teachers and staff about school safety concerns. 

With $100,000 from the Fund, Collins will now facilitate another participatory-budgeting project — this time bringing about 250 students from Nathanael Greene Middle School to the University to decide how to invest that money in schools across PPSD.

“My previous work has shown me that a viable  pathway to creating a school system kids deserve is to ask the kids what that looks like,” Collins said. “These middle school students have the maturity and intellectual ability to give us that kind of information. It’s not our job to impose all the ideas on them — it’s our job to augment the kids’ ability to solve problems.”

With assistance from his research team, and Brown’s Swearer Center and Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Collins will facilitate a full day of student-led idea generation and voting at Brown in June. In the morning, he’ll ask students to generate about 10 district-wide issue areas they’d like to focus on — support for English language learners, for example — then break into groups and rank the issues in order of importance. Then, in the afternoon, they’ll deliberate on which of their top three or four issues is most important.

Later, Collins and his colleagues will visit the middle school, working with about 30 student delegates to find ways to confront the main issue their peers identified. The students will generate a proposal based on their deliberation, even creating a line-item budget for the $100,000 to send to the University.

“I see the $100,000 investment from Brown as just one of many positive benefits to students,” Collins said. “Materially, the project allows students to invest money in ways that fulfill overlooked needs within the schools.

“But the impact extends so much further than that: Kids become more curious about how budgeting works. They end up improving their financial literacy, which is so important to any adult’s success. And they experience an increased sense of what’s called ‘school utility’: they see school as more useful and practical.”