Mar 25, 2021
A virtual event focusing on the concept of motion in the context of art, research, and activism.
Sprout and S.T.E.M. Executive Director Victor M. Hunt recently had the pleasure of speaking at the 2021 TEDx Motion Conference hosted by Brown University. This virtual event focused on the concept of motion in the context of art, research, and activism. Throughout his presentation, Victor discussed the forces that prompted him to found Sprout and S.T.E.M., a nonprofit organization focused on academic equity, and introduced the notion of "common sense advocacy."
Hunt (first row, sixth) pictured at TEDxBrownU Motion Conference alongside producers, organizers, and fellow speakers.
See full transcript below.
How does one restore the health of a dying school system? It’s a familiar question asked by every major city throughout the United States, and that said, I’d like to propose a way that the local community can bypass red tape and take action to improve the conditions of our urban public schools.
First, let’s consider the Providence Public School System where some high schools rank in the lowest national percentiles in math and English language arts. The conditions here resemble those of other urban centers like Newark, NJ and Worcester, MA, and if you examine the similarities, you find that many of the problems faced by public education in large cities are the consequence of insufficient resources and racial adversity.
Because public schools are typically financed through local property taxes, districts with a high concentration of poverty are unable to adequately fund for education. Urban schools often lack the amenities enjoyed by their suburban counterparts, those amenities being guidance counselors, school psychologists, and personal laptops. What’s worse is that underfunded schools more frequently encounter situations like students outnumbering desks with student-teacher ratios exceeding 30:1.
More so, the same schools lacking resources are those which predominantly serve the socially marginalized. Children of color constitute the overwhelming majority of students enrolled in urban public high schools, and urban public high schools constitute the overwhelming majority of failing schools.
I became aware of the conditions in Providence in 2019 after reading an assessment published by The Johns Hopkins School of Education. The assessment listed a number of discouraging findings, including chronic absenteeism, in-school violence, and exceptionally low expectations for instruction and student learning. And it was only after I took a birds-eye view of the City and College Hill with Google Maps when I realized a tragic juxtaposition.
Here we have Hope High School, circled in blue, a public school which ranks in the fifth national percentile for math and ninth national percentile for English language arts. 93% of the student body at Hope identifies as children of color, and 88% qualifies for free or reduced lunch. A brief 400 foot walk down the street and we’ll find two private high schools circled in red—the Moses Brown School and the Wheeler School—each costing $40,000 in yearly tuition. In both of these schools, only 13% of the student body identifies as children of color.
With this example being a microcosm of a much larger problem, the correlations between income, race, and the quality of education are blatant.
It was during this virtual exploration on Google Maps when I also realized that a number of public high schools throughout the city were adjacent to premier colleges and universities. For example, Hope was directly adjacent to Brown; Classical, Central, and the Providence Career and Technical Academy to Johnson and Wales; and Mount Pleasant to Rhode Island and Providence Colleges.
My own experiences in public education prompted me to intervene. I am a graduate of Woonsocket High School, an urban public high school located in a city north of Providence. There, I received a decent education, but based on what I was reading from the Johns Hopkins report, the students of Providence were having a far worse experience.
Every student deserves the right to a decent education, and not only were the Providence high schools drowning, but they were also in arms reach of life vests—those vests being institutions of higher education. Frustrated by the inefficiency, I decided to utilize these readily-available resources and reallocate human capital, facilitating a collaboration between undergraduates and graduate students and high school students. After recruiting a dozen classmates and colleagues to volunteer, we began to provide the local high schools with free after-school tutoring and mentorship.
I still remember our first tutoring session. One school agreed to let us borrow a science classroom at the end of the school day. We entered and scanned the room for white board markers, but none were to be found. The other tutors, unsure of what to do, shot me a concerned glance, so I redirected by asking the several students who joined us that day to show us what they had been learning in their biology textbook...except they didn’t have those either. The conditions in this one science classroom exemplified the district as a whole, and strengthened our conviction to continue advocating.
Today, our tutoring program has evolved into the nonprofit organization Sprout and S.T.E.M. with "S.T.E.M." being the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. The idea behind Sprout and S.T.E.M. is based on the belief that science holds the potential to not only improve the world around us, but also improve the lives of individuals making profound inquiries and discoveries. This is why I value the importance of diversifying science and creating opportunities for disadvantaged students with limited resources.
Like everything else, our program was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’ve transitioned to an online platform. Monday through Thursday, we host after-school Zoom tutoring sessions in biology, chemistry, physics, and math. We also supervise an online forum where students can write and post questions. Post-pandemic, Sprout and S.T.E.M. looks forward to hosting science fairs and in-school seminars, and we’ve continued to coordinate ancillary projects like academic scholarships and a virtual art gallery, the Gallery of Life— an advocacy initiative which showcases the beauty of benchwork while challenging the notion of science being a rigid and unaesthetic discipline.
Sprout and S.T.E.M. exemplifies a concept I define as common sense advocacy. Common sense advocacy is a service that is unambiguously positive and relies on the utilization of readily-available resources. Some examples of common sense advocacy include donating our spare clothes to homeless shelters and grocery stores sharing surplus goods with food banks. This type of advocacy is easy to conceptualize and defines the approach I took with Sprout and S.T.E.M., an approach which can be replicated to precipitate widespread change in public education. Providence is home to outstanding universities. These universities are adjacent to public high schools in chaos. Facilitating a collaboration between these two systems was a common sense way to initiate change in public education.
In closing, I encourage you to seek out ways to improve your local community through common sense. Examine the problem, brainstorm straightforward solutions, ignite a common cause, and execute your vision. Be the motion; you don’t have to change the world, just someone’s world.