On Tuesday students went back to classes, and to a district still licking its wounds after a bruising summer.

For decades, Providence public schools haven’t provided a quality education to the city’s children. That’s the thesis of a scathing report on the district from Johns Hopkins University that came out as the last school year was ending.

The report highlighted low morale, high discipline and sub-par infrastructure. It spurred a series of emotional neighborhood meetings across the city, and a pending state takeover set for late October.

But on the first day of school at Mary Fogarty Elementary on the city’s south side, those problems seemed far from view. Hundreds of children darted around the black top, as teachers and parents mingled.

“The possibility, the optimism, I love working with elementary school children,” said Principal Courtney Monterecy, who’s led the school for the last five years. This is her twentieth year working with elementary schoolers.

But Monterecy says all the critical findings in Johns Hopkins report didn’t surprise her. And few years ago, she says, Fogarty was guilty of many of them.

“They were down and out. Constantly the lowest performing school, the butt of all jokes, no teachers wanted to be here,” Monterecy said.

Today, Fogarty is not ranked among the lowest performing elementary schools in the city. And as the rest of the district continues to scramble to fill open teaching positions, Monterecy says she has no vacancies.

But even here at Fogarty, with its green ball field, brightly painted wall murals, and smiling teachers , challenges remain. Last year, just ten percent of the students at Fogarty were proficient in English, just three percent in math. And Monterecy says she’s supportive of the proposed state takeover.

On this particular first day, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is also out an about; greeting teachers and talking to parents, his own, young son in tow.

"To all the boys and girls, you’re gonna have a great year this year and to all the parents I want to say thank you because we know for everything we want to do in our schools we need everyone’s participation," Elorza said to the enthusiastic crowd.

And there is a lot to do in the Providence schools. For the last three months, the Providence schools have been working to make necessary repairs to buildings and classrooms. This summer, the city spent some $20 million on repairs. Much of that funding went to fixing leaky roofs.

Elorza conceded that some work in the schools may still be years in the making.

“We’re talking about decades of lack of maintenance and so, it’s going to be decades, it’s going to be a while before every school and every building is going to be in the shape that it deserves to be and our kids deserve,” Elorza said.  

Still, parents here are hopeful, including Stevie Perry, who had just dropped off her daughter.

“This is her first year coming here,” said Perry. “She’s going into the second grade. I like the environment. The outlook is really, really good.

But plenty of parents in the city remain wary. At a back-to-school barbeque over the Labor Day weekend, just a few blocks from Fogarty elementary, some parents said they had little faith in the public school system. Carmen Nova decided to put her boyfriend’s five-year old daughter in charter school.

“I had to pray a lot because I said, ‘I don’t want her in Providence public schools,’ because it’s going from bad to worse,” Nova said.

This year, she’ll start kindergarten at Achievement First, a charter system which operates an elementary and middle school in the city, and has sought to expand. Though they are a flash point, parents say charters offer an important alternative for people desperate for schooling options.

“When she was three I actually applied for the lottery, in case she got in, I was just going to say save her a spot for when she turns five,” Nova said. “Because I was stressing every day, what school are we going to put her in? And I cried when she got into the charter school, I literally did.”

But for the thousands of parents who children don’t win the lottery into a charter school, they’ll be in the Providence Public schools, and be part of what education officials and community members hope will be a transformational change. Charter schools will likely be a part of that discussion.

A state takeover of the Providence Public School District raises questions about what it actually takes to turn a school system around. We want to hear from you. What do you think it will take to fix Providence's schools? Share your thoughts here.