In R.I., new state turnaround superintendent sees opportunities for change in Providence’s troubled schools

Central High School in Providence.  (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)
Central High School in Providence. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)Lane Turner/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Harrison A. Peters, the new state turnaround superintendent for Providence Schools, said Monday he sees opportunities in leading the state’s intervention.

He promised to build trust in the community, with parents and students.

Governor Gina M. Raimondo, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Rhode Island Board of Education Chairwoman Barbara Cottam introduced Peters to the crowd of elected officials, teachers, faith leaders and others involved in seeing the turnaround through for Providence schools. Mayor Jorge Elorza did not attend.

Harrison’s three-year contract starts Feb. 20. He will be paid a $225,000 annual salary for the first year, with 3 percent increases for remaining years and possible renewal from the school district.


Peters said he plans to stay in Providence “as long as it takes and as long as I’m effective.”

Peters is the outgoing Deputy Superintendent and Chief of Schools for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida. He said the challenges in Providence — where students are failing in math and English, school buildings are crumbling — are not unique.

He said has been in places like Providence before — at Hillsborough County, Charlotte Mecklenburg, Chicago Public, Houston Independent — “serving kids in places where, quite frankly, the challenge were great and change was needed. And that’s what fulfills me.”

Peters has been a teacher, a principal and a school administrator, but the experiences that shaped his life began when he was a teenager. He was raised by his grandmother, who had a second-grade education, and a teacher in high school took an interest in him. That made all the difference.

He recognizes the impact that teacher made during the trips that he takes as a ritual at the beginning and end of every school year. He goes to Houston, Texas, where he visits a brother who has been in prison since he was 18. And, he goes to Pensacola, Florida, to visit the grave of another brother, who was killed in a shooting.


“I’m standing before you because education changed my life," Peters said.

“I truly believe that genius and talent is distributed equally across zip codes,” he added, prompting some nods from people in the room. "But what I’ve found is opportunity isn’t. Our job together is to unleash and unlock opportunity for all children.”

Out in the hallway at Leviton Dual Language School, students looked curiously as they passed the standing-room-only crowd gathered to meet Peters for the first time.

“Kids can’t wait. Our children cannot wait. They’ve been waiting for a long time,” Peters said, as a few students paused by the door. “So please know that I will work every day with a sense of urgency. Children are my North Star and they are the center of the mission.”

Teachers and students have toiled in a school system that’s been broken for too long, Raimondo said. Peters, she said, believes that all children can succeed. “That’s important,” she added. “We’re going to end the culture of low expectations for these kids. ... Other places have done it, and we can too."

Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, said in a statement Monday afternoon that the union “hopes and expects” to have a collaborative relationship with Peters and his staff.

She took a swipe at how he was chosen, saying he was selected without input from the community or union.


“Starting now, we would like to have a genuine collaborative relationship to make Providence schools places where all kids want to attend and excel, educators want to teach and the community is proud to support,” Calabro stated. "When all of the critical pieces are working together, we can ensure a world-class education to serve as a model for the rest of the country.”

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.