PROVIDENCE — The Gilbert Stuart Middle School Dragons, hundreds of mostly Latino and black children from the city’s poorest neighborhoods, filled the school auditorium the Friday before Memorial Day for a surprise announcement. Cheerleaders with green and white pompoms performed on stage. Even one of the television stations sent a camera.
Before long the students would burst into applause when Mayor Jorge Elorza named Elizabeth Amadio, a veteran English teacher, the city’s 2019 Teacher of the Year. Some used their iPhone cameras to capture the celebration. Others just screamed in excitement.
The Dragons love Ms. Amadio, and Ms. Amadio loves them back. But despite all her efforts these past 18 years, all those homework assignments, all the ice cream socials, and all the after-school support, Gilbert Stuart is not making the grade — and neither is nearly every other school in Providence.
Woeful test scores, the surprise resignation of a popular superintendent earlier this year, and decades of running in place have led Governor Gina Raimondo to begin planning an intervention that has left some city officials fearing the state could take control of Rhode Island’s largest school district.
“I’m not sure everybody realizes the magnitude of the problem, how big the problem is, and how difficult it’ll be to fix and how long it will take,” Raimondo told the Globe in an interview.
Raimondo and Elorza agreed to bring in a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University to conduct a comprehensive audit of Providence’s schools, and a report is expected to be released by the end of the month.
The review, funded by a nonprofit business group called the Partnership for Rhode Island, appears to be zeroing in on both the Elorza administration and the City Council, particularly around the mayor’s role in hiring new employees and council’s handling of the contract procurement process, according to interviews with 11 individuals who have met with the research team.
Those issues may sound like minor bureaucratic challenges for a district that educates 24,000 students and employs more than 2,000 teachers, but they have been identified by current and former administrators as significant barriers to raising achievement levels.
Elorza has faced public criticism from members of the council and the Providence Teachers Union for insisting that he interview most people coming to work for the school department, from principals down to crossing guards. A spokesperson for Elorza acknowledged the mayor does like to meet with applicants before they are hired but argued he does not interfere with school department decisions.
When it comes to signing off on contracts with vendors, the council has come under fire for a requirement that it approve all agreements worth more than $5,000. The process has led school department employees to joke that it can cost more than $5,000 in man hours just to prepare a small contract to go before the council. Council leadership has defended the practice, arguing city government needs checks and balances.
While the review team has been tight-lipped about what it might recommend for Providence, both Raimondo and Elorza have said they may look to Lawrence, Mass., as a model for their reform plans. State leaders gave a receiver day-to-day control over Lawrence’s schools in 2011, resulting in modest gains in test scores in the years that followed.
But Elorza has indicated he would not be supportive of a district takeover if Providence officials are removed from the oversight process. Staffers have also been scolded for referring to the intervention process as a takeover.
“If it’s a state takeover that is sort of top-down imposed on the city, absolutely not,” Elorza said during an April press conference. “But if it’s a partnership, where we’re working together, and the entire time we’ve been aligned in agreement of the steps that we want to take, then absolutely. We can’t do it alone, and we welcome the state’s help.”
Whatever the report recommends, it will probably kick off a lengthy process to determine who will make decisions for city schools. The state already has sweeping powers to make changes in struggling school systems, but it does not currently have the infrastructure in place to manage a district the size of Providence.
Ultimately, a state-appointed overseer could report directly to new Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green or the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.
Infante-Green has said she prefers a state and district partnership, rather than a complete state takeover.
But the challenges Providence is facing go far beyond who controls the district.
Only 14 percent of students in grades three through eight were considered proficient in English language arts, or ELA, based on the results of the 2018 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, exam. Just 10 percent of the students were doing math at grade level.
At some schools, the results are even worse.
When the state released the RICAS scores last year, it was forced to insert asterisks next to the outcomes for four city middle schools. The reason: So few students were considered proficient in ELA and math that they would have been personally identifiable if they were included in the data.
Gilbert Stuart, where the city’s Teacher of the Year works, had only 4 percent of its 850 students considered proficient in ELA. Even fewer were proficient in math.
More than 80 percent of the city’s 24,000 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Nearly one in three are English language learners, coming from 91 different countries and speaking more than 50 languages. But district leaders say few educators are certified to teach English learners.
Some critics have pointed to a teachers’ union contract that includes only one mandatory day of professional development each year as an example of what needs to change in the district.
Ken Wagner, the state’s former education commissioner, said he urged Elorza to focus to “tackle work rules” during a contentious negotiation process with the Providence Teachers Union in 2018, but the city ultimately approved modest raises with few concessions.
“Contracts are like scar tissue,” Wagner said. “They build up like scar tissue because leaders try to do stupid things and then it makes its way into the contract on page 84 and page 120 and the contract becomes heavier and heavier. And any time you get rid of something in a contract, there’s a giveback.”
Teacher point to a more obvious problem: the condition of the city’s school buildings.
There are just as many buildings in Providence that are at least 75 years old as there are ones under the age of 20. A report released by the state in 2017 found Providence’s 40 school buildings needed between $372 million and $530 million in repairs. The renovation process is already underway, but city leaders say it could take more than 10 years to bring the buildings into good condition.
The crumbling buildings lead to the district’s high absenteeism problem, teachers say. Gilbert Stuart, where the city’s teacher of the year works, was one of 20 schools in Providence where at least 30 percent of students missed at least 18 days of school last year.
The overall state of the Providence schools has left parents with few options. Some can afford to send their children to private schools. Others opt for public charter schools, which can have waiting lists in the thousands.
Those who have chosen to keep their kids in the district say they struggle to get basic answers from officials about plans for raising student outcomes.
“It’s not clear to us that they are all working to solve the right problems because it’s not clear they are hearing enough from families,” said Sarah Anderson, the cofounder of a new parent advocacy group known as ProvParents.
Now, as the Johns Hopkins researchers finalize their report, city leaders can’t help but be skeptical.
Only seven years ago, Gilbert Stuart was part of group of schools taken over by United Providence!, a management organization created by the Providence School Department and the teachers’ union that was tasked with reforming the city’s lowest-performing schools.
UP! was hailed by the Obama administration as a first-of-its-kind partnership between management and its union, but it blew through millions of dollars in grants with little change in outcomes. The program was scrapped completely by 2015.
Nicholas Hemond, the president of the Providence School Board, said he fears a takeover would not solve many of the district’s problems. He said the state has run Central Falls public schools for more than 20 years with little success.
“They run a school district that is one-tenth our size that struggles just as much, if not more, than we do,” Hemond said.
For her part, Raimondo said she understands taking on Providence’s schools is a monumental challenge.
“What we’re trying to do here I believe has never been done. I don’t know of another inner city, capital city, school district of this size, diversity, complexity and depth of problem, that has ever been successfully turned around,” she said.
Back at Gilbert Stuart, the three green banners attached to the front of the school may serve as a message from the Dragons to the adults.
They read: “Believe. Believe. Believe.”