The Return of Julia da Cruz

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Before her first day of student-teaching at Central High in South Providence this January, Julia da Cruz ’00 had asked the students in her ninth-grade biology class to bring in objects that are particularly meaningful to them. It was an icebreaker of sorts, a way to get to know this roomful of teenage strangers before she raised the grim subject of classroom rules or talked about genetics (which the class would be studying that term). And so when she asked if anyone had remembered her request, a flock of hands went up. “I brought in the flag from my country,” said a boy in the front row. “But I left it in my bag.”

“What country is that?” da Cruz asked.

“St. Kitts,” the boy mumbled, ducking his head into his shoulder.

“I brought my ring that my boyfriend gave me,” boasted a girl at the back of the room.

A quiet girl seated near the door held up a hot pink spiral binder. “I just brought in my poetry,” she said, “because when I can’t express myself, I can do it in here.” Then she slumped back in her chair, clutching her coat across her body like a shield and tugging it up until only her eyes were visible.

After everyone had a chance to speak, da Cruz walked to the front of the room and unfolded a red, green, and yellow flag. “My personal item is my flag,” she said. “It’s the old Cape Verdean flag. This is the one I grew up with.” She explained that she had been born in the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Senegal, that her family had moved to the United States when she was a toddler, that she’d gone to Fox Point Elementary School (now Vartan Gregorian Elementary) and then Nathan Bishop Middle School and Central. She refolded the flag and sat on a desk facing the class. With her long hair pulled back, wearing a stylish black pantsuit and high stacked heels, da Cruz looked sleek and elegant—not your grandmother’s schoolteacher.

“I graduated Central in 1995,” she said, “and then I went to Brown University, up on College Hill. After graduating from Brown, I taught for two years near Boston. Now I’m back at Brown getting my master’s degree.” She slid off the desk and began walking around the room. “Now, if you have any questions, you can ask me. You can ask anything,” she said, flashing a wide smile, “but I might not choose to answer everything you ask.”

The class, normally a shy group, barraged her: “How old are you?” (“You do the math,” she told them. “I was seventeen when I entered Brown. I’m an October baby.”)

“Are you married?” She shook her head, and a boy in the front row punched the air in delight.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” (Yes.) The boy up front groaned.

“How much money do you make a year?” (“I make nothing. I’m a student.”)

“Was you smart?”

“Did you ever get suspended?”

“Is Brown hard?” (“It was really challenging,” she said, drawing out the words, “but it was also a lot of fun.”)

“Can you speak Cape Verdean?” (“A little Creole. I want to learn Portuguese.”)

“I’m from Cape Verde too,” said a sweet-faced girl when da Cruz passed by her desk. You could sense the hope rise in the girl’s face as she smiled up at her new teacher.


FOR TEENAGERS GROWING UP on the south side of Providence, the concrete plaza in front of Central High School represents a crossroads—the kind that can shape a life. To the north lies the star of the city’s educational system, Classical High, an exam school that prepares students for college and careers in the knowledge industry. To the south is the Central-affiliated James L. Hanley Career and Technical High School, where Rhode Island’s next generation of electricians and carpenters learns the trades. And in the middle, behind a bunker of concrete barriers, looms Central itself—urban education unvarnished.

Physically, Central is not a welcoming place. Its bricks are dark with soot, its windows are grated, and the arch above the entrance seems to menace more than it soars. A phalanx of locked steel doors is encrusted with black paint and graffiti. School days, only one door is open, and to enter you have to hook your fingertips around a painted-over steel plate and pull.

Central’s reputation is equally formidable. “We’re a factory school,” says one veteran teacher. “I would never send my kids here.” “Low-performing, but improving,” says another.

Low-performing, but improving is precisely how Rhode Island ranked Central last year—along with Mount Pleasant, another big Providence high school. A third school, Hope High, was taken over by the state this year for failure to improve. Central’s low ranking is indicative of serious problems: in 2001 its dropout rate was 47 percent, and fewer than 15 percent of its students passed the state’s math and reading tests. In addition, truancy was endemic and the halls and the classrooms were chaotic.

But Central teachers take a measure of heart in the “improving” part of the latest evaluation. Led by a powerhouse of a new principal, Central has embarked on an ambitious restructuring to create a more manageable climate for learning. Still, the school suffers from outdated and impersonal facilities, a severely disadvantaged student body, a conservative teachers union, and an old, seemingly unshakable reputation for violence that stems from a shooting in 1990.

That, as it happens, was the year before a thirteen-year-old Julia da Cruz entered Central. In eighth grade she’d taken Classical’s entrance test (“to see what would happen”) and passed. Intimidated by the social and educational challenges Classical represented—it is widely regarded as the city’s best public high school, and most of the students in its advanced placement classes are white—she opted instead to follow her older brother and two sisters across the plaza to Central. Her choice was so unorthodox that the school department automatically enrolled her at Classical, and she had to transfer to Central. Da Cruz graduated as valedictorian in 1995 (as her sister had before her) and went on earn her bachelor’s degree in education and Afro-American studies at Brown. That led to a job teaching math at a private school for dyslexic children outside Boston. After two years da Cruz wanted to switch to high school biology and decided it was time to return to school herself. So last spring she enrolled in Brown’s yearlong master of arts in teaching (M.A.T.) program. She spent the summer taking education courses and teaching high school students in Brown’s summer school, then took more biology courses in the fall. By January she was ready for her student-teaching.

When she receives her master’s degree in May, da Cruz will be certified to teach in nearly every school district in the United States. As an African-American teacher with two Ivy League degrees, she could work almost anywhere—at top-tier schools, public or private, with the smartest and most highly motivated of students. What she’d like to do, though, is work in an urban public school like Central. As a teenager she chose it because it felt familiar; now, as a young woman, she wants the challenge.

Long-range, da Cruz says she’d like to teach high school for a while, then move into administration. She can envision herself as a principal, perhaps eventually a school superintendent.


JULIA DA CRUZ and her classmates in the M.A.T. program are entering the teaching profession at a critical time. Over the past decade, educational policy makers have been warning of an impending teacher shortage with the intersection of two demographic trends: a surge in the number of children entering schools and a shortage of teachers, as baby boomers retire (the 1993-94 federal survey of teachers revealed that one in four teachers was over fifty).

Retirement is not the only reason teachers are leaving, however. “Fifty percent of teachers last less than five years,” says Eileen Landay, a senior lecturer in Brown’s education department who supervises fledgling English teachers and oversees their placement in Providence schools. Last April, the University of Pennsylvania’s Richard Ingersoll found that teachers leave their jobs at a rate of 13.2 percent a year, compared to the 11 percent turnover typical of other fields. In impoverished school districts like Providence, with vast numbers of poor students, attrition is even higher: 15.2 percent. Low salaries are a major factor, Ingersoll found (low-paying private schools lose faculty even faster than public schools), but 39 percent of the teachers leaving urban public schools cited job dissatisfaction as their reason for quitting.

Training teachers not only to teach but to survive long enough to improve the system is one of the challenges facing programs like Brown’s. “I tell my students, ‘Beware where you work,’ ” Landay says. “I don’t want them to go to a great big city school and get chewed up.” Landay and other faculty encourage M.A.T. students to start out in small schools and charter schools, so they aren’t driven out of the profession by frustration.

Size, however, is unavoidable in urban education, and Central is the largest of Providence’s high schools, enrolling close to 1,700 students a year. Plus, it fulfills a critical function for the city by admitting students year-round. If a family moves to town from Fall River or El Salvador (or if a kid gets kicked out of Mount Pleasant or Hope High), Central makes room. On average, more than thirteen new students enter the school each week.

One way Providence is countering the impersonality of its big high schools is by mandating the creation of “house” systems within them—one of the innovations that triggered the school’s “improving” label. Central has divided the ninth grade into groups of twenty to twenty-five students, each with a core team of teachers and a common guidance counselor. The teams meet weekly to discuss their students’ progress. Central’s next step will be to expand the program to the upper grades.

To cut down on the chaos for which the school was infamous, the new principal, Debra DeCarlo, banned all hall passes, with the result that pretty much the only people wandering the halls during classes are teachers. Wearing hats and chewing gum are forbidden in the classroom; tardiness is punishable by detention.

English classes now meet for double periods, cutting by half, from one hundred to fifty, the number of students for whom teachers are responsible. All teachers now attend after-school professional development seminars—with varied levels of enthusiasm. Behind DeCarlo’s back, teachers call her “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” but they’re quick to point out that both attendance and morale are on the upswing.


ONE FRIGID MORNING in early January, while most Brown students were still on winter break, da Cruz raced into Central to observe a dissection lab. Like all student teachers in the M.A.T. program, she’d been assigned a mentor teacher—in her case, longtime biology teacher Bill Pare, whom she’d had for health class when she was a student. This morning, Pare was dissecting a cat for his ninth-graders. Although da Cruz wouldn’t be taking over the class for a couple of weeks, she wanted to watch.

When she opened the classroom door that day, the smell of formaldehyde was overwhelming. Pare, whose nonstop grin and energy level belie his twenty-plus years in the classroom, had set up a small table in the front of the room. Students sat in two long arcs of desks facing him. Pare’s bare hands were buried in the thorax of the cat he was dissecting. “Who can tell what this is?” he asked, holding up the heart. A group of boys called out a series of answers ranging from the accurate to the bizarre.

“I’m not sure I’ll be able to do this,” da Cruz whispered, looking pale.

“The reason we’re doing this here instead of upstairs in the lab is that that there are no chairs up there,” Pare said, addressing da Cruz. “There are benches and there’s running water, but no stools to sit on. So I decided to do it down here.”

“Now, what do cats eat?” he asked the class, holding up the stomach.

“Rats!” called out one boy.

“Cat food,” tried another. Pare smiled. From the cat’s abdomen he pulled what looked like a string of misshapen sausage links. He stretched them out theatrically, looking like a crazed butcher in his well-worn lab coat. “Anyone know what this is?” he asked, as he measured the small intestine with a yardstick. “Forty-one inches,” he announced. A clutch of girls huddled by an open window at the back of the room, alternately giggling and making gagging sounds.

“I warned you, you didn’t have to come today. You will not be graded on this,” Pare said. “I’m doing this just in case one of you might want to go into biology.” His shock treatment may have worked, at least on some level. Not one of his students slept through class that morning, and despite all the melodrama and joking, they watched his every move. What’s more, many of them showed at least a rudimentary knowledge of what takes place in a mammal’s digestive system. And a couple of weeks later, when da Cruz asked students to write down on an index card how they learn best, one of the boys asked out loud, “How do you spell dissection?”

The Providence School Department serves some 24,000 children speaking sixty-four different languages, and the magnitude of that diversity is apparent the minute you set foot in Central High. The student body is 92 percent minority, mostly Hispanic. For many Central High students, English is a second language.

The teachers, on the other hand, are mostly white. In addition to her character and her training, da Cruz brings to the classroom a whole set of personal strengths: she’s of African descent, she grew up in the neighborhood, and her parents are immigrants. From a student’s perspective, she embodies possibility. “Look at me,” she says. “My parents worked in factories. My mother was a housekeeper. If I’d come from a well-off family, I know I’d be a lot less credible. I know I can’t help every child. But I’m gonna try.”

“My parents came [to the United States] for one reason,” da Cruz says, “to educate their children. My grandfather’s brother came first, in the 1960s, on a boat. He brought my grandmother and paved the way for my mother.” Like many Cape Verdeans in Providence, the family settled in Fox Point, just east of the Brown campus. Julia’s father came six years later, and the family then moved to the city’s south side. There, on factory and janitorial wages, her parents reared and educated six children. Neither parent was schooled beyond second grade, says Julia. “I was the first in my family to go to an Ivy League school.”

The da Cruz family is legendary at Central. Julia’s oldest sister, Maria, went on to the University of Rhode Island and is now a teacher at Roger Williams Middle School, where she taught many of the kids now in Julia’s biology class. Their brother Victor went to Rensselaer before getting a master’s at Stanford. Fatima went to Connecticut College and is now earning her doctorate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale. Younger sister Crisolita broke the Central legacy by attending Classical; she’s now at Rhode Island College getting her master’s in physical therapy. John, who also went to Classical, joined the Marines six days before 9/11. He was scheduled to leave for Iraq in March.

“My mother couldn’t help me with my homework every night,” Julia says, “but she could make sure I did it. And one of my parents always walked us to school or to the bus. We were never on our own.” With one parent working days and the other nights, the da Cruz girls took turns cleaning the house and cooking dinner. “My parents were very strict with all of us,” Julia says—“all the girls anyway. I didn’t go out [with friends] till senior year. And dates were unheard of!”

Julia was determined to follow her sister to the University of Rhode Island, but her physics teacher, Ronald Kahn, pushed her to go to Brown. “It wasn’t even something I thought about,” she says. “I ended up applying to get him off my back.” URI was a lot less expensive, she figured, and she’d know kids there. Still, Kahn kept at her. When a Brown M.A.T. student was assigned to her class, Julia’s parents allowed her to go visit College Hill with the student-teacher as a chaperone.

Brown, da Cruz says, was not a happy place for her—at least not at first. “I shed many tears,” she says. “It was a hard, hard year. My confidence level was not very high. I beat myself up, and it was reflected in my grades.” She’d enrolled in Brown’s engineering program, hoping to concentrate in bioengineering, but was frustrated. “I’m a people person,” she says now. Sophomore year, she quit the program. “I felt I was wasting my time—and my parents’ money.” Although Brown had arranged a hefty financial aid package for da Cruz (as it has for her graduate-school costs as well), it didn’t cover all her expenses.

Julia recalled this story at the University’s Third World Center last fall. “This was my home,” she said, spreading her hands calmly on the Center’s polished wooden conference table. “I would come over here to Dean K’s office, and we’d make plans. She saved me.” Dean K, or Dean Mom, as Julia also refers to her, is Karen McLaurin ’74, the Third World Center’s director. She was one of a handful of mentors da Cruz sought out on campus, who collectively helped her survive the transition from a low-income high school to the privileged environment that is Brown. With their help, da Cruz decided to switch her concentration to education and Afro-American studies, and to take time off. While on leave, she became an AmeriCorps volunteer, teaching with a national network that teams talented middle-school students with high school and college-age teachers. Her future was under way.


WHEN THE LUNCH BELLrang after da Cruz’s first morning of teaching at Central High, students raced out, and she and Pare settled into seats at the front of the room to eat their brown-bag lunches. “Did you notice the new desks?” Pare asked, pointing to the brand-new plastic student desks and chairs that had appeared in his classroom. “I didn’t even ask for them. And look at the textbooks. I didn’t ask for those either!” he said. The books were stiff and new, published in 2002 (and coauthored by Brown biology professor Kenneth Miller ’70, one of her former professors, da Cruz proudly observed). “The material’s probably over kids’ heads,” Pare said with a shrug, but he clearly wasn’t looking this gift horse in the mouth.

The morning had gone well, he observed. Da Cruz’s second period, usually a quiet group, was particularly chatty. “They’re fascinated by Julia now,” he confided when she stepped out to microwave her leftover chicken. “They’ll be testing her two weeks from now.” When da Cruz returned and sat down to eat, the conversation shifted to individual students and their family circumstances. One girl lives in a group home, Pare said. He didn’t know much more about her situation, but it had surprised him to hear her talk so much today.

He mentioned a girl sitting over on the left, in the front row, asking if da Cruz had noticed her. “Every afternoon,” he said, “she goes home and cleans the house and cooks dinner for her family.”

Julia nodded: “I’ll keep an eye on her.”

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.
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