PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is offering few hints about how she plans to tackle Providence’s struggling schools as she embarks on a citywide listening tour to discuss a disturbing report released this week that detailed widespread dysfunction and deplorable conditions throughout the district.
But as she spends the next two weeks talking with parents, educators and community stakeholders, she appears to be following a playbook that has led to successful turnarounds in several cities, including Lawrence and Camden, New Jersey: listen first, and then take action.
By building credibility with families, experts say, Infante-Green will be well positioned to propose the sweeping reforms that may be needed to improve outcomes in a district now being described as one of the lowest-performing in the country.
“I think it’s very hard to be successful when you don’t get buy-in from the local community,” said Ron Zimmer, the director of the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Kentucky.
Infante-Green, who became Rhode Island’s top education official in May after serving as a deputy commissioner in the New York State Education Department, has promised there will be “massive change” in Providence, but she has stopped short of saying whether the state will take over the district.
The state Board of Education has asked Infante-Green to offer a series of school improvement recommendations next month.
The report, released this week by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, described the district that serves 25,000 students as chronically underperforming, with proficiency rates in English and math in the single digits at some schools. It also said some school buildings are rodent-infested and ceilings are crumbling in classrooms across the city.
The researchers did not prescribe any solutions for Providence, but city and state leaders have agreed many of the challenges outlined in the report can be traced to a flawed governance structure that leaves school administrators questioning who is in charge and an elaborate teachers’ contract that mandates only one day of professional development each school year and makes it difficult to fire low-performing educators.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Mayor Jorge Elorza was quick to describe the report as “accurate,” a sign, he believes, that changes need to be made. Behind the scenes, he has begun exploring what it might mean if the state took advantage of an existing law that allows for a failing school district to be “reconstituted.”
The law is vague about how much power the state has to take over a school system – especially when it comes to altering a union contract – but Elorza’s aides say giving the state more power may create leverage against the teachers.
“I’ve been very vocal that one thing that makes it very difficult is we have a very thick contract, and that’s spelled out very clearly in the report,” the second-term Democrat said. “And the legal environment, the rules of contract arbitration, are such that it’s very difficult to move from the status quo.”
Elorza attended the first public forum hosted by Infante-Green Wednesday night, but he left the state to attend a conference in Hawaii Thursday. A spokesperson for the mayor said city leaders expect to continue meeting with the commissioner in July.
But for any changes to be successful, the community needs to be front and center, researchers say.
Zimmer, who has researched Tennessee’s efforts to overhaul its struggling schools, said one of the mistakes he has seen is when a principal and most of the teachers at a school are terminated, leaving parents without familiar faces to turn to.
While more charter schools can be part of the solution, Zimmer said the state should be careful not to force students into those schools. In Providence’s case, state leaders have asked Elorza to allow the high-performing Achievement First Mayoral Academy to expand, but he has been reluctant, citing concerns about funding being shifted away from the district.
“The flavor of what this looks like really matters,” Zimmer said.
Robin Lake, the director of the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education, said the common theme among cities that have had successful turnarounds are authentically engaging parents and establishing a concrete plan.
In Camden, Lake said officials set up listening tours and focused on making improving facilities, sending a message to families that they were committed to investing in the school system. Lake said Lawrence had a strong, thoughtful leader at the helm — current state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley — which helped build support in the community.
Both Lake and Zimmer said nothing happens overnight.
“Know where this is going long-term,” Lake said. “If the state comes in, it cannot hold the responsibility forever.”
For now, the questions about what actions will be taken in Providence have created uncertainty in the district, according to School Board President Nicholas Hemond.
He said his board is still searching for a permanent superintendent to replace outgoing schools chief Christopher Maher, whose last day on the job is Friday. Maher’s decision earlier this year to announce his resignation is what prompted state leaders to consider an intervention in the district.
“I feel paralyzed by the whole thing because we have to wait and see what’s going to happen,” he said.