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Providence school leaders: Our goals are attainable

“If me or anyone else isn’t producing results, we don’t need to be here"

Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters talked to a student.
Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters talked to a student.Providence Public Schools (custom credit)

PROVIDENCE – Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence schools Superintendent Harrison Peters said Tuesday that they are laying out an ambitious agenda as they begin the turnaround process of the city’s struggling school system, but they insisted that their goals will be attainable if they can engage students and families.

Infante-Green and Peters also said they expect adults to be held accountable for their actions, and the public will receive quarterly updates on the progress the district is making with the Turnaround Action Plan that they released on Tuesday.

“If me or anyone else isn’t producing results, we don’t need to be here,” Peters said during a conference call with reporters.

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The plan seeks to get Providence students on the same pace of achievement as the top 25 percent of schools in Rhode Island, which would include dramatic increases in test scores in every grade, a reduction in chronic absenteeism among students and teachers, and the creation of a parent support system that would be as robust as any urban district.

Infante-Green acknowledged that the plan lacks specific proposals for how the district will reach its goals, but she said it lays out a strategic vision with benchmarks that every teacher and family will become familiar with.

“There are not going to be fireworks coming out of the plan because this is not how you do education turnaround,” Infante-Green said. “But we are really invested in the students, the community, and the education community as a whole.”

Infante-Green hinted that she will soon begin rolling out more announcements, including a new school on the city’s South Side that will be for students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

She appeared to be referring to a long-rumored plan by former Mayor Joseph Paolino to gift the vacant St. Joseph’s Hospital on Peace Street to the city or the state to turn into a school. Paolino, a prominent real estate investor, purchased the building in 2016 with the goal of turning it into a social services center, but the plan never came to fruition.

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Providence’s turnaround plan come a year after a scathing report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found nearly every facet of the district needed to be reformed. The state took control of the district in November, and hired Peters as superintendent in February, shortly before the coronavirus forced every school in the state to close for the year.

The district faces several challenges, including low morale among students and teachers as well as crumbling school buildings that need millions of dollars in repairs. But it’s the poor academic outcomes that prompted the state takeover.

Only 12 percent of students in Grades 3 through 8 are proficient in math and 17 percent are proficient in English, according to results from the annual Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam. At four schools, more than 95 percent of students aren’t doing math or English at grade level.

The turnaround plan seeks to at least double – and in many cases, quadruple – math and English test scores in every grade over the next five years. The district is also vowing to hire more teachers of color, certify more educators to teach English learners, and negotiate a teachers’ union contract that makes it easier to replace poor-performing teachers.

Infante-Green and Peters praised community members who helped craft the report, but they acknowledged that the district has more work to do to gain the trust of families in the district. They said they believe they’ll accomplish that goal by putting students first.

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“Right now, Providence is an adult-centered agenda,” Infante-Green said. “It is about what is important to adults, what’s comfortable for adults, what makes sense for adults. That is not what we are going to do going forward.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.