When state leaders raced to take control of Providence’s failing school system in 2019, they promised to bring stability to a dysfunctional district where too many kids weren’t learning and too many adults were getting in the way.
Three years later, the city is on its third superintendent (one was an interim), Rhode Island is on its second governor, and what once seemed like broad, if begrudging, support for the intervention has faltered to a point where it’s difficult to find any politician who wants to tie themselves to the takeover as they run for whatever office they’re running for this election season.
With students back in school this week, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green once again finds herself in the unenviable position of defending a takeover that understandably has been slow to take off because of the pandemic, but has also lost momentum because of unforced errors and the inability of both her department and the city’s teachers’ union to work together on just about anything.
And yet, as Infante-Green rattles off the incremental progress the district has made – she’s confident students will make gains when standardized test scores are released later this year and most schools now have a high-quality curriculum in place – you get the feeling that she wants to channel President Biden to ask that we not compare her to the almighty, but the alternative.
“All these things could have been done,” Infante-Green told me when I asked if marginal test improvements and curriculum changes could have happened without a state intervention. “But they weren’t. There were too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Indeed, the cliché that change doesn’t happen overnight is appropriate in this case, where thousands of students now attend the same low-performing schools their parents attended a generation ago.
But it was Infante-Green and former governor Gina Raimondo who promised transformational change, who vowed to finally negotiate a teachers’ union contract that benefits students, and who assured us that students would see noticeable changes in the physical quality of their crumbling school buildings.
So how’s it going?
There has been some progress.
In a summer update on the turnaround action plan – the takeover’s guiding document that lays out its goals – Infante-Green made the case that the district is building a quality foundation by hiring reading specialists and math and literacy coaches. The district finally has a five-star prekindergarten program at one of its elementary schools. And the number of teachers with English language learning certifications continues to grow.
Infante-Green told me that she’s especially proud of the alternative programming that is being offered to students who want to become nurses, firefighters, or focus on cybersecurity. The district is thinking outside the box to engage students, and they want to find ways to identify and train kids interested in going into teaching next.
“These are real things,” Infante-Green assured me, as if she sensed my skepticism.
What about the people, especially the politicians, who expected a lot more, a lot faster, from the takeover?
“That tells me they don’t understand how education works,” Infante-Green said. “The schools have been failing for over 30 years.”
But things haven’t worked perfectly, either.
Infante-Green said she believe the district would have accomplished more if not for the pandemic, which shuttered schools in the spring of 2020 and disrupted nearly all of the 2020-2021 school year before finally beginning to get on track last school year.
But COVID-19 isn’t what forced former superintendent Harrison Peters to resign; he stepped down after an administrator he hired was charged with assaulting a teenager in Warwick. And the virus isn’t what stood in the way of more than 360 hours of negotiating a teacher’s union contract.
Governor Dan McKee eventually pushed Infante-Green to the side last summer and finalized his own deal with the teachers. Infante-Green calls it a “win” that teachers are now required to attend parent-teacher conferences, but it’s hardly the kind of radically different contract that she was seeking before Raimondo left for Washington, D.C.
For example, there were no changes to seniority hiring preferences or the length of the school day, two issues she would have liked to address. One of the reasons Mayor Jorge Elorza maintains he supported the takeover was because he believed the state had the power to force those kinds of changes, with or without a contract.
“This time around, this one has to be a lot more aggressive,” Infante-Green said, referring to contract negotiations that will likely begin in early 2023.
Aside from the union contract, Infante-Green said that she wants to begin formulating a plan to return control of the district to Providence – which will likely come at some point in 2027. Even then, she acknowledged, “There are going to have to be guardrails. We don’t want to fall back.”
In a column later this week, I’ll explore what the candidates for governor and mayor are saying (or not saying) about the future of the takeover. It’s the largest school system in Rhode Island, after all. You would hope that all of them have a plan.
As for the current situation, it would be wrong to declare the takeover a failure. There has been enough progress, and still too many unknowns, to write it off. But to use more education jargon as the school year begins, it looks a lot like too many of the city’s students:
Only partially meeting expectations.