This month’s installment of Still Working, our ongoing oral history series, features David Tedeschi, guidance counselor at Alvarez High School in Providence.
I worked with David for a few years around the turn of the century at Feinstein High School. We butted heads a few times, and I beat him in an election for PTU building representative, but over time it became clear that he, along with counselor Judith D'Antuono and the rest of the staff and leadership of the school, was quietly having great success in getting inner city kids into and through college. When Feinstein was named “persistently low-performing” by Deborah Gist’s RIDE and closed by Tom Brady’s PPSD, it was a real tragedy. Tedeschi, and several other Feinstein teachers, moved to nearby Alvarez High School, in Elmwood, on the site of the former Gorham silver factory, and Tedeschi was recently honored at The White House for his success in helping students at that school get into college.
Visiting the White House
I was nominated by the College Advisor Corps (CAC). The head of the Rhode Island CAC nominated me to the national office, and then I ended up getting the award. They had a big event at The White House. The national teacher of the year gave a nationally televised speech on C-Span. The state teachers of the year were there, and what they called "distinguished educators." That's what I was, I was one of the "distinguished educators."
I grew up in Cranston. My parents were divorced when I was seven, so I lived with my mother and my grandparents until I was 12, then I moved over with my father and step-mother. I was educated right in Cranston at Hugh B. Bain (Middle School) and Cranston East. Barely graduated high school. Went to CCRI (Community College of Rhode Island) for a year, and then went over to RIC (Rhode Island College) for five years to get my health and phys. ed degree. I was able then to get hired at Feinstein (High School) where I taught phys. ed for about six years.
I was on only child. My parents didn't go to college. In my family we had about 24 cousins, only two of us went on to college. My grandmother was first generation from Italy and had five kids, who had lots of kids.
My father did a bunch of different things. My step-mother had a job with Verizon, which was then New England Telephone Company, and those unions were really strong, so she started working at 18 and at 43 had full lifetime benefits, so she was able to retire pretty young.
I was 24 (when I started teaching). I was really lucky. I had always thought I would get a job in Cranston, because I had coached in Cranston, and I knew some people in Cranston. I had graduated and was working third shift at Stop & Shop, and I was doing some basketball camps and stuff. I was getting married in September.
I got married and came back from my honeymoon in October, and I applied to Cranston, and I was told I would start subbing soon. I applied to Providence on a Friday. My wife said "Just go do it," so I applied. They said, "We'll give you a background check and get back to you." On Monday morning at 6 o'clock my phone rang. They called me to sub. I subbed Monday; I subbed Tuesday. When I got home from subbing on Tuesday they called me to say "Listen, we have a long term placement at Feinstein. The woman who was there quit. We're going to send you there as a science teacher, and if you like it, you can be phys. ed the following Monday." And that was it.
That was the first full year of the (then new) school. I had classes with 50 something kids in them. We would be walking because we didn't have a gym, we had nothing, so we would walk to the Elmwood Community Center, walk to Ardoene Field. I'd be losing kids; kids would be smoking. It was a very tough school the first couple years. The district had kind of made it a bit of a dump school. There was nothing any of those kids could have done that would have made me say "I can't do this anymore." I learned quickly. I had some really tough classes, but then I had classes with six or eight kids in them, great kids. It was just a mix of kids. There was a lot of really strong kids that wanted to embrace a small school, and other kids that were just placed there.
I also had a really supportive counselor at the time, Katia Paris, who led my way, and I also had a de facto mentor that was assigned to me. We shared an office. The school had a nice mix of teachers who wanted to finish their career at a small school, and it was their last hurrah. We had a couple in the middle, and then we had a lot of young teachers with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It was a nice mix of the older teachers looking out for the younger teachers, the ones that they thought had some potential. I had a lot of support in my first four years, which was really important.
Switching to counseling.
I had originally planned on going into admin. I thought my skill sets and personality would fit into an administrative role. When I said that to our counselor, she looked at me and said, "Absolutely not." She said, "Just trust me, you'll thank me later. I'm retiring this year, if you can get your degree done in a year, this should be your job." I got the degree done in a year, didn't get the job. I had a little problem with that and ended up getting the job a couple of years later. I have to say I'm glad I listened to her advice.
In 2001 was my first year as counselor at Feinstein. They added a second counselor position (along with counselor Judy D'Antuono), which was lucky for me. The school developed from '01 to the '04 class, which was when we started to get big jumps for kids going to college. At Feinstein we always said we were second to Classical (in the district). We were second getting them (into college), second keeping them there their sophomore year, and we were second in completing the degree within six years.
Getting kids in the door at college
The (Talent Development program at) URI took a chance on some of the kids, based on my relationship with some of the counselors there, but then the kids went there and delivered. That made it easy for them to justify taking them. Our kids were going there and doing well.
One of the comments we would always get was that our kids were always the best writers. Our kids did so much writing at the school, doing portfolio work, they were comfortable speaking, comfortable presenting, and they could write. For TD (URI Talent Development), that's an important piece.
Because we had success at TD, they kept accepting a lot of kids. We had a really good relationship, and a lot of kids graduated.
At graduation time in May is my favorite time of year, because you see all the kids that have made it (usually via Facebook). A lot of kids from the Feinstein days are now nurses, teachers, counselors, I work with one of the Feinstein graduates from '05. There has been a lot of successful students whose lives have been changed from graduating from TD (at URI) and RIC for PEP (Preparatory Enrollment Program). The last class, we had two Holy Cross, two (PC) Providence College, several URI and RIC, even kids who graduated early and are working.
At PC and Holy Cross, we started getting a lot of kids in there, and they did well, again, so they kept accepting those kids. It is really important, that first or second kid who goes to that college, if they don't do well, it is trouble. You have a real hard time getting someone else in, or getting the financial aid to make it feasible to attend. I've talked to kids about that. "You are a trailblazer at this particular college. You will open doors for other people."
Preparing students for college
A big thing is experiences in high school that simulate how intense and rigorous college is. We had that at Feinstein. I felt like when they got to URI, RIC, or wherever they were going, they were like, “OK, I’ve got mid-terms. I’ve been through this before. I’ve done this. I’ve had to stay at school until 8:00 or 9:00.” If the right teacher is teaching an AP course, it does that. The teaching is key.
The first time can’t be at college, because the first time normally doesn’t go very well when you’re exposed to something.
Moving to Alvarez
When I came to Alvarez, there was another counselor who had middle school experience. He didn't really have any high school experience. I walked into a difficult situation. It was 175 seniors in that class and two counselors. 625 in the school. There was a lot of work to be done with getting kids ready for success. The senior class my first year, the kids who were from Alvarez were distinctly different in their skill level (compared to Feinstein students). In terms of abilities, the same. In terms of work ethic and effort, the same. But their skills were lacking because of the education they'd had.
(The demographics at Alvarez are) 92% free and reduced lunch. It is 72%, I think, Hispanic. Next year we're going to be close to 50% ELL (English Language Learners). We're adding another program that's coming in for newcomers. They're adding another 52 newcomer students who tend to be older, no credits, and have not been educated in their own country for normally about 2-3 years. So they're coming from really difficult situations in most cases. We have an ELL program already that has expanded. At Alvarez we have a sprinkling of Nepali, small pocket of Iraqi, not too much Liberian anymore, a couple. Mostly DR (Dominican Republic). After that border crisis a couple of years ago we were getting a lot, and we're still getting a lot of Guatemalan, El Salvadoran, Honduran as well.
Luckily I worked with an administrator, Mr. Torchon, who knew there was some work to be done, and we worked together on building up an AP program. When I came here there were two AP classes, in a couple years we expanded that to seven. Putting the right people in those spots. Immediately went to work on the senior project. Originally it was a three to five minute presentation, really no paper, to where we are now six years later where we have a 50 page handbook, they have to do three papers before they get to their big paper, a 10-15 minute presentation in front of several teachers. In my opinion, from what I've been told from other schools in Providence, it’s by far the most rigorous. We moved to a teaming model, a little more project based. We've eased that in the last couple of years. This group of sophomores have been on a team for two years, they'll stay together as a junior team.
Part of it is the culture of the building. It has to be a team effort. I can say "You're not quitting. You're gonna do it," and if they go to the next three classes and the teacher says, "You're done. You can't do it." It's not going to work. It is that communication in conversation with your colleagues. The professional courtesy with your colleagues, knowing that if I talk to a kid, and the kid has done nothing for three months and all of a sudden now the kid is motivated, and the teacher doesn't say "You've done nothing for three months, get out of here." They need to embrace that flame the kid has now. It's always been a team effort. I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of talented teachers that have the same philosophy as I do, that it's almost never too late, and there's always something.
Students not going to four year colleges
Everybody leaves with a plan. It could be work, for a couple kids every year, it is. This year we have two that are going to the military. And then a lot of CCRI. It is a sprinkling of others, the MTTI, New England Tech or UTI. The majority of that other 50 percent is CCRI. We have a program in place with CCRI so they come over a few times. We try to make that transition smooth. This year we won the FAFSA challenge. We had 89% of our students complete the FAFSA. For a lot of kids they get paid to go to CCRI, with the amount of the Pell Grant versus the cost of CCRI, it is a plus for them. They go there for free, their books are free, and sometimes they get a couple hundred dollars extra as well. We try to eliminate the hurdles to actually get them to go there.
Relationship with the PTU
The union has been there for me any time I've needed them for issues of equity in counselor to student ratio, where is some schools it was 150 to one and I had 325 to one. Every time they were able to help get to the bottom of things. I've had a lot of success with the union in that way. Being 100% honest and transparent, I struggle because the union sometimes protects or supports people who I don't feel should be protected and supported, and who I and a lot of other people see the damage done to the kids, especially when they get to me as seniors, because they're lacking skills because they've had this English teacher or that. That's the frustrating side to the union. I certainly see the need for them, and I've been really appreciative of what they've done in many cases for me, but I struggle with the fact that there are a lot of people in this building and all buildings probably that I don't know if this is the right career for them, and they've been able to stay in that career for a really long time.