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The condition of Providence’s schools had a review team in tears

The Providence School Department headquarters.
The Providence School Department headquarters.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2019)

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has been on the job for less than two months, but she already has a startling response to a litmus test question about Providence schools: Would you send your children to any of them?

“No. Not one” of the schools, she said bluntly during an interview Tuesday morning.

A scathing new report, issued hours later by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, demonstrated why even the state’s top education official would avoid Providence schools.

The report outlines a series of recurring, disturbing issues plaguing the district, including arranged fights between female students that are promoted on social media, rodent traps stuck to students’ shoes, and ceilings collapsing in classrooms. The conditions were so concerning that members of the review team said they were left in tears.

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The review also paints the city’s school system as rife with low expectations for students but also crippled by a governance structure that leaves educators questioning who is in charge and a stifling union contract that makes it nearly impossible to terminate poor-performing teachers.

The findings leave no facet of the city’s schools untouched, suggesting there are “unusually deep, systemic dysfunctions in PPSD’s education system that clearly, and very negatively, impact the opportunities of children in Providence.”

But while the review is deeply diagnostic, it fails to offer a prescription for Providence’s struggling schools, leaving many of the same bureaucrats who are blamed in the report to come up with a solution.

“I think there’s going to have to be a massive change,” said Infante-Green, who became Rhode Island’s education chief in May after serving as a deputy commissioner in the New York State Education Department. “Things cannot stay as they are.”

The report was paid for by the Partnership for Rhode Island, a nonprofit business group that is supportive of Governor Gina Raimondo.

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The review appears to lay the groundwork for a state intervention in Providence schools, but Infante-Green said she plans to spend the next three weeks meeting with parents and community stakeholders to discuss the findings before she offers a set of recommendations to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education at the end of July.

When it comes to teachers and students, the researchers conducting the report said they witnessed “inappropriate behavior on the part of adults and bullying and physical fighting on the part of students.” In one example, students told the team that fights between girls are arranged and promoted on social media.

As for city leaders, the report criticizes Mayor Jorge Elorza for allegedly micromanaging most district decisions as well as finding fault with an ordinance that requires all school contracts worth more than $5,000 to be approved by the City Council.

“The resulting structures paralyze action, stifle innovation, and create dysfunction and inconsistency across the district,” the report states. “In the face of the current governance structure, stakeholders understandably expressed little to no hope for serious reform.”

And then there are the test scores.

Only 14 percent of Providence students in grades three through eight were considered proficient in English language arts, or ELA, on the 2018 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, exam, and 10 percent were doing math at grade level.

The report suggests proficiency rates “start low and decline in middle and high school.” It also draws a comparison with school districts in Newark, N.J., and Worcester, claiming students in Providence perform significantly worse than their peers in those communities.

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“At the school level, there’s got to be a reset of academic expectations,” David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, which conducted the review, said in a separate interview. “Right now, we’re just seeing a bar that’s so low that the students aren’t learning.”

When asked to compare Providence to other school systems that are considered low-performing, Steiner said the city is seeing student outcomes around the same level as Baltimore, which is widely considered one of the worst-performing districts in the country.

Steiner said the physical condition of Providence’s schools was also deeply concerning. The report describes students having rodent traps stuck to their shoes and ceilings crumbling near children. He said two of individuals on the review team began to cry when they discussed the school buildings.

“I’ve never seen them as impacted by anything,” Steiner said.

City officials and school administrators acknowledged that the existing collective bargaining agreement with Providence’s teachers has also been problematic when it comes to improving student outcomes.

Teachers are required to participate in just one day of professional development each school year. By comparison, Achievement First, a high-performing charter school in Providence, requires its teachers to participate in more than 20 days of professional development each year.

Principals told the reviewers the contract has a provision that allows criterion-based hiring for teachers, but rules around seniority make it difficult for them to hire stronger educators. One school administrator said they feel “powerless to intervene if a teacher is performing poorly.”

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Another principal added: “Bad teachers in the district are reshuffled . . . They just make the rounds every year. It’s a toxic dynamic.”

Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an interview with the researchers, Calabro said her members are still suffering from a “mass firing” incident that occurred in 2011 under then-Mayor Angel Taveras. (Nearly all of the teachers were eventually hired back.) Calabro also blamed Elorza, the current mayor, for creating an “us versus them” atmosphere.

So can city and state leaders craft a solution to turn around the capital city’s schools?

David P. Driscoll, the former education commissioner in Massachusetts, said there are no easy answers.

He pointed to failed takeover efforts in Kansas City and Detroit but said Massachusetts had success when Jeff Riley was appointed receiver of the school system in Lawrence. He said Riley, who now serves as the state education commissioner, was given the “authority to do everything” in Lawrence, but he ultimately collaborated with the teachers’ union to implement reforms.

“Just because you can find the problems doesn’t mean you can fix them,” Driscoll said.

Although Driscoll acknowledged he hadn’t read the Providence report, he said he was aware that the findings are “devastating.”

“It sounds to me, from a distance, that the problems are systemic enough and historic enough that some kind of intervention is required,” he said.

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Even Elorza, who is known for offering a rosy view of his city’s schools, came across as defeated in the report. He told reviewers that he believes that there are “too many cooks in the kitchen” overseeing the district, but he also defended the practice of interviewing or meeting with most nonunion employees before they start their job.

When the researchers asked him whether he would send his children to the city’s schools, his response was only slightly more optimistic than Infante-Green’s.

“I would be comfortable sending my child to any one of our elementary schools, except one,” he said. “It is middle school where things go off the rails.”

His grade for the entire school district: “C.”


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