How should Providence public schools spend $100,000? That’s up to these middle schoolers

At a participatory budgeting event facilitated by scholars at Brown, more than 100 local middle school students debated how the Providence Public School District should spend $100,000 in funds from the University.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Middle school can be tough: new social circles, new teachers, new hormones. Many adults look back ruefully on those years, wishing they could have improved the experience.

On Thursday, June 8, 120 eighth-grade students from Providence’s Nathanael Greene Middle School got the chance to do just that.

With assistance from Brown University faculty, students and staff, the middle schoolers spent a day away from the classroom deciding how to spend $100,000 from Brown’s Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence to improve Nathanael Greene and other schools in the Providence Public School District. After taking part in a series of small-group exercises, discussions and voting exercises, the students agreed to spend the funds to boost hands-on learning.

“I think it’s easier to learn something by doing it yourself, instead of just listening in class,” said Jaisen Galvan, an eighth-grade student at Nathanael Greene, in a small discussion with a dozen of his peers. “When you have to figure it out for yourself, it sticks.” 

The daylong event at Sayles Hall, called Power to the Pupil, was the brainchild of Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of political science, public policy and education at Brown. Last month, a Public Education Committee composed of Providence and Brown community members, including state and district educators, voted unanimously to support Collins’ project, along with another project focused on strengthening high school libraries with payouts from the Fund.

“We’re going to turn your ideas into real, practical investments into the school district,” Collins explained to the room full of students. “This is your chance to be a part of something really special.”

It wasn’t Collins’ first time handing young people the financial reins. Since 2020, the scholar has worked with Providence-area schools and governments on multiple projects focused on “participatory budgeting” — a democratic process that asks community members to decide via conversations and deliberations how to spend part of a public budget. This time, Collins enlisted the help of staff from Brown’s Swearer Center, Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a handful of University undergraduates to offer a day packed with participatory budgeting activities, workshops and campus fun.

Collins said his own hands-on research has shown how the participatory budgeting process can empower and engage people whose voices are often excluded from conversations about public spending.

“I want to have processes like these operating everywhere, especially in places where there are high concentrations of people of color, low-income people, and others whose voices have been marginalized,” Collins said last year while overseeing another participatory budgeting workshop. “It’s so valuable for them to take part in a democratic process that so explicitly prioritizes their voice — one where the people with the fancy titles aren’t doing any of the talking.”

That’s particularly applicable to a middle school like Nathanael Greene, he said, where public data show that 87% of students come from low-income households and 83% identify as Black or Hispanic.

In the midst of Thursday morning’s discussion, where students considered 10 potential ways to spend the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence on improving schools, some described how their backgrounds pose practical challenges toward engaging fully in classes and excelling academically. 

“People who speak English… get awards quickly, because they understand exactly what to do,” Kayleana Curran said. “For the people who don’t, like the Hispanic kids… they have a harder time. They’re sitting there not understanding what they have to do to get awards. Maybe it’s better to get an interpreter or a translator just to help them out, so everyone has the chance to get awards.”

Sergio Castaneda Resulero, meanwhile, said that stocking schools with pencils and other basic school supplies was one small improvement that could make a big difference, because not all students have the budget to purchase their own supplies.

It’s so valuable for them to take part in a democratic process that so explicitly prioritizes their voice — one where the people with the fancy titles aren’t doing any of the talking.

Jonathan Collins Assistant Professor of Political Science, Public Policy and Education
Jonathan Collins holding a door open

Discussions and decisions

After a morning of deliberations facilitated by Brown undergraduates, the middle schoolers used colored popsicle sticks to vote on their favorite improvement ideas. The top three contenders: skill-based learning, like woodworking, culinary and clothing design courses; better student health, like improved access to period products or mental health care; and hands-on learning, like internship opportunities and robotics courses.

Following the first round of voting, students grabbed lunch at Brown’s Verney-Woolley Dining Hall, then came back together to narrow three options down to one — ultimately choosing hands-on learning.

On June 12 and 13, Collins will work with a smaller delegation of the middle school students to take the funding proposal to the finish line. The small group will agree on specific hands-on initiatives and programs to fund, he said, and they’ll draw up a line-item budget.

Kelly-Jean Domenico, a social studies teacher at Nathanael Greene, said the participatory budgeting activities appeared to not only improve students’ financial literacy but also boost their confidence.

“Kids come back from these activities and say to me, ‘Wow, did you know how much we spend in taxes?’” Domenico said. “I love that it’s about hearing the kids’ ideas and taking them seriously, but it’s just as much about teaching them how to budget and showing them how far money goes.”

Participatory budgeting wasn’t the only order of the day. At lunchtime, Joshua Rodriguez, assistant director of co-curricular learning at Brown’s Swearer Center, led a workshop on equity, asking students to define the term and apply it to situations like school building access and cafeteria food selections. 

“The topic of equity is something we teach students at a college level, but I know everyone here is capable of learning at that level,” Rodriguez said. “Because even though this is a college-level topic, equity is part of all of our lives. You’re going to take it beyond these budgeting decisions today. You’re going to think while you’re playing video games, ‘Hey, does this video game network have LGBTQ+ representation in the characters?’ Asking those kinds of questions makes everything so much more engaging.”

In the late morning, Brown undergraduates representing a diverse set of academic concentrations led the middle schoolers around College Hill on mini-tours, regaling them with stories about dormitory life and describing annual traditions such as the Halloween midnight organ recital. Middle schoolers got the chance to ask Brown students questions about their classes and concentrations. Domenico and her fellow teachers, meanwhile, observed a few of their charges beginning to consider higher education for the first time. 

“On the tour, some of my students said, ‘I can’t wait to go to college — look at these students, they have so much freedom,’” Domenico said. “The important thing is, it shows them that college is a possibility. I didn’t know that when I was a kid.”

Collins said he hopes this is the first of many College Hill participatory budgeting events that put PPSD students at the center of the decision-making process. 

“In addition to the impact the actual funds will have on schools, you can see a bit of a cultural change starting to happen,” Collins said. “Kids are more curious about how budgeting and school finance works. They’re being creative and thoughtful about how to improve the academic environment, and they’re feeling a sense of ownership over the school. There’s so much richness that I think is happening. We’re only just beginning to see and measure the benefits.”