If you’re angry today about the lack of transparency around the search that wasn’t actually a search for Providence’s next superintendent of schools, ask yourself this: Had state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green conducted an intergalactic recruitment process and landed on someone who wasn’t from Rhode Island, would you be complaining that they should have stuck with Javier Montañez, the guy who has led the district this entire school year?
If the answer is yes, there’s a good chance that you’re part of the problem.
Montañez has essentially been interviewing for this job since last June, and the biggest education-related mistake Governor Dan McKee and Infante-Green made over the past year was making him wait this long to be the permanent superintendent.
Kids don’t look up to superintendents the way they do to sports stars like LeBron James or Steph Curry, but Montañez is a true role model. As a teenager, Montañez was homeless and sleeping under a tree in Roger Williams Park, and now he’s running a district filled with thousands of students facing similar obstacles to those he overcame in his life.
Teachers don’t usually look up to superintendents, either. But in Montañez, they’ve got someone who truly understands what they’re going through. He has both taught and been a principal in Providence, so he has the ability to connect with the city’s 2,000 educators in a way no school chief has in many years.
Now comes the hard part.
Montañez has a life’s worth of credibility and a career’s worth of goodwill to be the transformational figure that Providence schools desperately need, especially when we’re more than two years into a state takeover that hasn’t produced any significant results up to this point.
With the pandemic hopefully beginning to become an afterthought, and stable leadership in place at the district and state level, this is Montañez’s chance to make his mark. It’s not a tryout anymore, and while he’ll always face doubters who believe Infante-Green is really running the show, it’s Montañez who needs to establish himself as the face of this turnaround.
Doing so will require Montañez to get out of his comfort zone.
For the past year, he’s been the ideal cheerleader for the district while also proving that he can run the operations of a large school system. He has excelled at both. He’s in his element when he’s talking to students about their future or joking around with them in the hallways, and he’s proven that he can make sure the buses run fine, the buildings aren’t in complete disarray, and the students are safe.
His challenge now is to begin articulating and then executing a vision for getting Providence schools to a place where the majority of kids are proficient in math and English. It’s a tall task. As it stands now, only 6.8 percent of students in Grades 3 through 8 were proficient in math and 14.1 percent were proficient in reading.
When he spoke to reporters today, Montañez emphasized that he wants to continue listening to everyone about ways to improve the district. That will sound nice to the small number of parents, teachers, lawmakers, and advocates who have the time to complain whenever something is on their mind, but it’s his actions that will speak volumes.
What Montañez can’t allow himself to do is fall into the same trap that some of his recent predecessors have. Harrison Peters took it as a badge of honor that most of the teachers despised him, but that prevented him from accomplishing his goals. Chris Maher, the last permanent superintendent before the takeover, was loved by most teachers, but that didn’t spark a lot of change, either.
Montañez currently has a strong relationship with the teachers, and there is a way to play the good guy while Infante-Green and the state play the bad guy, but that act can get old fast. Similarly, when the Providence Teachers Union inevitably gets mad at a decision he makes, he can’t let those personal relationships paralyze him from making progress, especially when it comes to negotiating a union contract (which is right around the corner).
The best thing the state can do to support Montañez is to give him the independence he deserves. Infante-Green and the governor’s office have a tendency to micromanage the district -- especially when politics are involved -- and they must resist making Montañez the superintendent in name only. And he can help himself by reminding families and teachers that he’ll be here no matter who the next governor is.
There’s an unwritten rule in professional and college sports that teams don’t always like to hire former players because you never want to have to fire someone that fans used to look up to. In some ways, Montañez’s deep experience in Providence creates a similar problem.
But after everything he has overcome in his life, I’m betting that he’ll rise to the occasion.