Rhode Island weighs intervening in troubled Providence schools

Providence mayor Jorge Elorza.
Providence mayor Jorge Elorza. (Stew Milne/Associated Press)

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PROVIDENCE — Aides to Governor Gina Raimondo and Providence’s mayor, Jorge Elorza, have begun discussing intervention strategies for the city’s struggling public school system, a district that has been plagued for decades by poor test scores and low graduation rates.

Raimondo and Elorza confirmed last week they have asked the Rhode Island Department of Education to conduct a comprehensive review of Providence’s schools and release a report outlining potential improvement plans by June.


The timeline for the evaluation of the state’s largest school district is aggressive, considering incoming Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green doesn’t start her job until this week. But Raimondo called it a “necessary first step in working to improve outcomes and deliver high-quality education” for city students.

“The hardworking students, teachers and staff who work tirelessly every day in Providence schools have been let down by the system,” Raimondo said in a prepared statement. “For Providence schools to see sustainable improvement, there must be a new approach.”

Policymakers across the state have long discussed the need for the city to dramatically improve outcomes for its 24,000 students. But troubling results on last year’s Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam has created a new sense of urgency for the stake to take action.

The test scores showed just 14 percent of Providence students in grades 3 through 8 were proficient in English language arts and 10 percent were proficient in math. At the high school level, the graduation rate for the class of 2018 was 75 percent, well below the state average.


“The status quo is failing our kids and we must do better,” Elorza said in a prepared statement. “We are in a unique moment for our Providence schools and in order to capitalize on this opportunity, we need to work together. Urban core cities across the country have been hindered by processes and systems that are outdated and stand in the way of progress. We need to act now because our students have waited too long and they cannot wait any longer.”

Providence is currently searching for a new head of schools after current Superintendent Christopher Maher’s surprising announcement in February that he would not return to the district for another year. Elorza also is preparing for contract negotiations with the Providence Teachers Union, whose pact with the city expires next year.

Elorza was involved in a prolonged standoff with the city’s teachers over their last contract, but the two sides reached an agreement shortly after he was reelected to another four-year term last year. He has remained critical of the high rate of teacher absenteeism in the city, in part because more than 20 percent of teachers at eight schools missed at least 18 days of school last year, according to city attendance records.

But Raimondo and Elorza appear to be seeking to partner with the city’s teachers on an intervention plan, even though the state has sweeping authority to take control of the district.

Infante-Green, the new commissioner, has contacted Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro to discuss “working together collaboratively rather than adversarially,” Calabro confirmed in an e-mail.


Infante-Green has vowed to take a “hands on approach” with the capital city, but she said she wants to talk with all stakeholders before making a decision on how to address Providence. In a statement, she said a “holistic review of the district is the right first step.”

“My top priority is ensuring that the voices of educators, students, and families are heard throughout this process,” she said. “Improving Providence schools in a meaningful way is going to take all of us working together with the best interests of students at the center of everything we do.”

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