From Providence’s Failing Public School System to Medical School. The unsung glory days of an education that shaped the doctor I am becoming.

by winnell

I’ve lived in New York City for the past 11 years since starting  college at New York University in 2008. Today, I reside in Harlem, New York as a third year medical student.  Everyone I’ve met here states that I am the first person from Rhode Island that they have met besides watching the ‘Family Guy’ characters on television.  Many often ask about what life is like growing up in Rhode Island. While my New York friends would talk about their  big apple “isms”  and shared dissatisfaction over their standardized Regents exams, I had an exam to brag about as well.  I would often interject my claim to fame about going to a college preparatory high school that required taking an exam for admission. I prided myself on attending Classical, a public magnet high school in Providence, Rhode Island. My New York friends were quite impressed with my hometown education. A few months ago, this same school district made national news and my boastful anecdote has fallen from grace.

PROVIDENCE, RI – APRIL 25: The Providence School Department headquarters in Providence, RI is pictured on April 25, 2019. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

On June 25th of this year, John Hopkins Education published a shattering report of 12 randomized public schools in my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. It detailed a dismal educational infrastructure that is literally crumbling in a non-conducive learning environment. When the report was released and shared widely by fellow high school classmates, friends and family, I was disconcerted. It was quite devastating but I wouldn’t say surprising.

Of the schools mentioned in the report include Hope and Central High School. Quite the paradox of its name, ‘Hope’ High school’s condition is listed in dire need for reconstruction. Central High School isn’t quite a central gateway between education and college. The dreary report implies a grim future for students in the Providence school system.

While I did not attend these schools, I am proud to say that I completed a public-school education from 1st to 12thth grade in the Providence School system. In 1.5 years, I will receive my doctorate to practice medicine and surgery. In less than two years, I will join the ranks of individuals in the most highly respected profession. It is my honor and duly privilege to practice medicine with integrity, equity, equality and dignity for my patients.

An Anomaly

With a crime rate 40% higher than the national average, 1 in 3 people living in poverty and 13% college graduates, Providence has quite a reputation. Hailing from a school district in this afflicted city, you can see how much me becoming a physician is such an anomaly.

But, statistics only tell half of the story.

While poor school performance has a lot to do with innate “intelligence”, the external limiting circumstances of students cripple their ability to thrive. I was fortunate to have the social and financial family support where my only focus was getting to school on time. For many students, the next meal, safety and shelter is the most significant thing on their to-do list. At that point, survival takes precedent over homework.

While my story might be the pick of the litter, I can truly say that I owe the core of my foundational learning in regard to english, science and history to my Providence public school education. In many ways, it piqued my inquisitive spirit and has shaped me into the doctor I am becoming.

The Johns Hopkins report painted a blaring catastrophe of the Providence public school district, but what I experienced was far from it. Perhaps it was a nuance or I managed to hit the lucky renaissance era, but we must acknowledge the tremendous contributions offered by this very district.

So, here’s my story.

First Elementary School

In first grade I was slated to attend Broad Street (now called Alan Shawn Feinstein) elementary school which was within walking distance from my home. I remember my mom walking me over in my new outfit as I gleamed with excitement about being a “big girl now”. When I arrived in the classroom, I saw a few students standing up against the wall. Back in my kindergarten days, this meant time out so I knew it wasn’t a good sign. Not long after, I was subjected to stand against the same wall. Fortunately, I wasn’t in trouble, but the classroom had been overcrowded. Myself and the other children in the lineup were simply awaiting desks to sit in.

After the classroom fiasco, I had lunch and headed back to the classroom to end the day.

The following day, my mom said that I wasn’t going to that school anymore. My mom was furious because I was being transferred to another school on the other side of town which meant I had to take a bus very early in the morning.  This was quite inconvenient as my brother and I would be attending different schools and I was so far away. For context, anything more than 10 minutes driving distance is far in Rhode Island.

Second Elementary School

I attended Vartan Gregorian Elementary School formerly known as Fox Point. Before I was this outspoken, Beyoncé dancing seemingly extroverted person, I was a mute student. I mean, I spoke when spoken to and only raised my hand to answer questions asked by the teacher. Soon enough, I had raised my hand to correctly answer questions so many times that I was promoted to another classroom. I did my homework as directed and never missed a day of class. While I was very shy at school, my home life was very active and what I’d describe as the typical “Disney kid” who also learned the latest dance moves from Pop stars on TV. Studying was always a part of me but never consumed my life to the point of having limited leisure time.

Fox Point was the pinnacle of my academic achievements.

I was a two-time academic achievement awardee, which led me to numerous award ceremonies at Brown University. These ceremonies honored the student with the highest grades in their respective grade levels. The banquets were a big deal at the time. Imagine, Rhode Island’s only Ivy league school sponsoring an event with college recruiters already tracking the “Future of Brown University”. Each year, the gift was the same, a certificate and large dictionary with words beyond the current reading level.

My elementary  school experience was the most valuable educational experience that I’ve ever had. I remember so many aspects of my elementary school life like it was yesterday. As a two-time school Spelling Bee winner, I am still haunted by losing the national contest by misspelling Broccoli and Antique.

My favorite teacher is still Mrs. Polhemus, my fourth-grade teacher. She literally made history come to life in her classroom. I remember learning about the British tea party and she transformed our classroom into 18th century England. Our classroom recreated a traditional English high tea with scones and crumpets along with the Minuet dance. We even had custom tailored aristocrat garments to wear while we danced the Minuet.

While European time travel was interesting, I constantly wondered when we would learn about the people that looked like me. Unfortunately, I learned of the brutal history of my ancestors who were enslaved and remained in captivity against their will. Despite this dark history, Mrs. Polhemus designed a project for us to highlight the life of an enslaved person. I learned about a poet named Phyllis Wheatley and fell in love with her story. Phyllis Wheatley was a slave but an accomplished poet who, despite being denied her rights to an education could compose the most profound poetry that spoke into the depths of the reader’s soul. I was drawn to her because I’ve always had a passion for writing and up until this point, I had not seen anyone of color in the history books. I wrote so many essays about Phyllis Wheatley and created numerous projects in her adoration.

From one tragic historical time to another, I came to learn the story of the brave hero Anne Frank. She so bravely chronicled the most horrific times of her childhood. Her diary allowed us to have an introspective glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust. She was the second hero I learned about. Lastly, my research paper on Golda Meir introduced to me another powerful woman who left an indelible mark in history.

Elementary Arts

Elementary school exposed me to the arts at an early age. I played the violin for several years, participated in the drama club, which produced a large production at the end of each year.

Excuse my braggadocio, but my Oscar worthy performance as the black panther in The Jungle Book play is to be recognized lol.


We also had an extensive module where we learned about environmental pollution. Our module was turned into a play to raise awareness of keeping our oceans clean. I remember so clearly when we had to state the consequences of polluting the ocean. I firmly stated “There would be no seafood”. The audience laughed hysterically.

These activities broke me out of my shell, and showcased another side of me that I often hid in the classroom. Fox Point even taught me useful Japanese greetings and conversational phrases. The Japanese module ended with me being treated to my first sushi experience at 7 years old.

Our science curriculum was out of this world thanks to Mrs. McElroy. Fox Point had a separate science room, where I first encountered living species and examined their anatomy. I dissected a pig’s brain, cow’s heart, sheep’s eye, and crustaceans all before the age of 9.

Art classes were superb as well. My art teacher would select student’s paintings at the end of the year for an annual charity auction. I’ll never forget somebody bid on my eclectic vase de egg carton canvas painting for $350! Looking back, I wonder if the auction was just for show. Either way, my little heart is still smiling at the fact that I painted something that someone wanted to purchase.

Early Career Goals

Research shows that third grade is the time when children start to form their career choices. I entered a career drawing contest and won third place for my illustration of a dentist with their patient in a dental chair. Interestingly enough, I went on to study dental hygiene, work as a hygienist with aspirations of becoming a dentist in college. This was all before realizing my ultimate passion to become a medical doctor of course. For that experience, I’m forever grateful because I know it left a lasting impression on my future career endeavors.

Middle School

I attended Nathanael Greene Middle School for the next three years. This school had a Gifted program, where high performing students were selected based on passing a standardized test and allowed to enroll in more challenging classes.

I was placed into the Gifted program.

Middle school was a lot different than elementary. Puberty was on the horizon and teachers were less coddling.  Every subject had a different classroom. The final report card grading system was different from our grading system in elementary school, which was a numerical system ranging from a low 1 to a 5, which was outstanding performance. Middle school used the traditional A-F grading system.

My sixth grade first quarter report card arrived in the mail, crisp and ready to change my life. When I opened the envelope, I saw 4 A’s 1 A- and one B-. The B- was in math. I cried like a baby.  I felt like I had let myself down. Math wasn’t my strong suit but I did my best. I felt like I had failed in comparison to my elementary school “glory days”.  That same quarter, I received a letter stating that I achieved honor roll status and there would be a ceremony to commemorate that achievement. My eyes glowed up as I secured yet another awards ceremony that my African parents could attend and be proud of. I stress African parents because as good as a student you may feel you are, tangible signifiers of your grades make them prouder.

I came to discover that Honor Roll was based on the cumulative grade point average rather than, the actual letter grades received in each class. This new discovery was a game changer. It reduced my anxiety about getting all A’s in every class, but the downside ultimately led to establishing a sense of mediocrity.

As math started to get more complex, I settled with just passing exams with high Cs or low B’s because I knew the other A’s would balance out my cumulative GPA and I would make the honor roll each quarter.  Instead of trying my hardest in math, I settled. I absolutely hated math and I felt math hated me right back. There was no middle ground I wished to find.

Aside from dealing with my arch nemesis of mathematics, sixth grade was a period of enormous enlightenment. I recall Mrs. Pangborn’s social studies class had a guest teacher from, I want to say South Africa. He taught our class for about two weeks. The guest teacher was a white man, much to my surprise. He was a historian and he shared history with our class that I will never forget. I learned about the Kush empire, Timbuktu and the ancient history of Africa outside of the Egyptians who constantly represent ancient African history. In all my years as a scholar, I had only known my people as enslaved persons. Egyptian gods did not represent the Africa that I associated with.  Slavery was also a sensitive topic and often embarrassing to learn about if we’re being honest. As a young African girl, my heart smiled from the inside out and I remember running home to my parents with this rich history I had learned. African history begins with Kings and Queens, illustrious gold, diamonds and goods. Timbuktu was the center of science and mathematics from which we learn from today. How gratifying it was to know that my history did not start with pillage and captivity. Learning that I come from royalty, gave me a sense of pride in my culture and the momentum to aspire to greatness.

High School

While Timbuktu was the birthplace of mathematics, me, the long-descended ancestor, continued to struggle with math. I had already decided that I hated math and I would continue to settle for less than grades. I never really applied myself to math until high school. As I mentioned earlier, I attended Classical High School in 2004. Classical High School is a college preparatory public school in Providence that requires a test for admission. When I entered high school most of the students from the Gifted program at my middle school were admitted. This was a plus because I didn’t have to go through the awkward stage of making new friends and fighting to be accepted into one of the many cliques. The classes in high school were very doable and not particularly difficult given the advanced curriculum. This of course, was with the exception of math.

I continued to conduct the mediocre mentality in math classes so much that my B- turned into a D+ one quarter and I was distraught. I got my first D in geometry. This was unacceptable and I was 100% at fault. So, from thereon, I asked the teacher to give me extra assignments and also went to after hours to review practice problems. Along with content review, I reset my mentality from a negative to positive outlook going forward. I couldn’t afford to get another D, so I was determined to improve my grade. Winning the battle of defeat is truly mind over matter. I realized when you approach classes negatively, you will get out what you put in. I learned to love geometry or at least fake the funk for the sake of getting a better grade. Long story short, I worked my way up to an A in that class.  A positive attitude really changes things and I am living proof.

Aside from, my academic life, my social life was active. The girls clique I was a part of was pretty much like Cady Heron, Gretchen Weiner and Regina George in Mean Girls.

We started off as the best of friends, attending basketball games, the mall and having 5- way phone conversations. Soon, gossip and drama started to infiltrate the group. This led to catty arguments and even fistfights. Eventually, we all went our separate ways.

First impressions are hard to fix. Because of the reputation, we created during freshman year, our image was forever tarnished amongst administration who viewed us as the troublemakers. Even though we matured by sophomore year, the principals often made statements implying a murky trajectory of our future success based on our past behavior.  It never bothered me because I always knew I’d prove them wrong. High school was a pivotal time of transformation and self-discovery. We were just a bunch of intelligent misfits forced to cohabitate the same environment.

Despite my friends’ circle crumbling to pieces, I maintained a great GPA, was always top 40% in the class, danced in every talent show and never missed a party. I’d say my School-work- life balance was good.

I’ve always been the unconventional student who could have a flourishing social life, minimal studying and still manage to get A’s and B’s in my classes. From the outside looking in, I didn’t fit the stereotypical “nerd” who buried her head into books all day.


In 2008, I received an acceptance letter to the school of my dreams, New York University  (NYU). Dental Hygiene was the major I chose and I set out to attend dental school. In the interim, I began working as a Dental Hygienist.

I was rejected during the first dental school application cycle and continued working with plans of retaking admissions exams and boosting my GPA. While working as a Dental Hygienist, I realized how much I enjoyed the preventative medicine aspect of dentistry and I didn’t enjoy the procedural component much. No offense, but I couldn’t see myself drilling teeth and doing root canals for the rest of my life. Being a hygienist was more fulfilling because I was an active change agent and taught patients how to reverse their gum disease and take a front seat to their oral and overall health.

Soon enough, I begin researching a profession that would allow to provide care for my patients beyond the scope of the oral cavity in a comprehensive, evidence based manner.

Now, I am on the journey to my destined career as a medical doctor. I am quite the nontraditional medical student as I did not get in right away nor did I have the right tools. I admit, I started to question my intelligence and worthiness of such feat when I encountered setbacks with standardized entrance exams like the DAT and the MCAT. Long gone were the days of being defined and rewarded by entrance exams like I was in middle school and high school.

I reverted to thinking that perhaps people who are into the fashion, Beyoncé choreography, hip hop music and dabble in ebonics are probably not “doctor material”. That couldn’t be further from the truth. All it took was faith, perseverance and the drive to keep going.

I began my educational journey as a high achiever and somehow in the midst fell victim to bouts of mediocrity and self-doubt. I credit my amazing support network of friends and family but also the cynics who counted me out and expected me to be entrapped by misbehavior, troubling statistics and stereotypes.

To the students whose dreams may seem too large or elusive to pursue because society has never invested in you or told you to put your best foot forward, take that leap. Take that leap of faith and bet on yourself, because you will reap the biggest return on your investment. According to the Johns Hopkins report, many of the school buildings’ infrastructure is dilapidated and crumbling, but life evolves outside of those four walls.

Close your eyes and envision yourself elevated in the social hierarchy.

It is an honor and pleasure to be not only on my way to Dr. S but I am paying it forward by offering myself as a mentor in person and online. I currently have a free newsletter of internships, jobs and advice for school, career and self growth. If my story can reach at least one person and positively impact their trajectory, my job here is done.

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