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Rhode Islanders are no fans of being told they don’t measure up. But this time they’re listening

The Providence School Department headquarters in Providence, RI.
The Providence School Department headquarters in Providence, RI. (The Boston Globe)

PROVIDENCE – No matter who she’s addressing, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has been unusually candid, if not downright stinging in her assessment of Providence’s low-performing school system.

When discussing violence against students and teachers, she compared Providence to “the South Bronx in the ‘80s.” Talking about a student who preferred her education experience in the Dominican Republic over that in Rhode Island, Infante-Green reminded a crowd of parents, “That’s a third-world country.”

“This isn’t normal,” she tells every audience meets.

Such sharply critical comments, from an outsider who has only been on the job for two months, would ordinarily draw a harsh rebuke from Providence residents. They’re a notoriously loyal constituency, willing to admit their faults, but not exactly appreciative when it’s someone from New York or Boston telling them what’s wrong.

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Yet Infante-Green’s truth-telling tour over the last week — following the release of a troubling report on Providence schools — appears to be resonating with students, parents and teachers. Each are showing up in droves to talk about their problems with the district and offer support.

Now Infante-Green, a Dominican-American woman who attended New York City public schools and rose to be a top official within the New York State Education Department before being named Rhode Island’s education commissioner, says she hopes to mobilize families as she crafts her strategy for overhauling one of New England’s largest school districts.

“People are ready for change,” Infante-Green told the Globe on Wednesday. “I’m talking from the heart.”

The state Department of Education scheduled eight meetings in Providence between June 26 and July 13 to discuss the report issued by researchers from Johns Hopkins University that detailed a culture of low expectations for the district’s 24,000 students, a burdensome teachers’ union contract and a chaotic classroom experience that leaves kids and teachers in fear of violence.

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The public forums try to reach a different audience each time. Monday’s meeting at the Providence Career and Technical Academy focused on students. Early the following morning, parents were asked to attend. Next week, two meetings will be conducted in Spanish, a reflection of the heavily Latino student population in the city.

Infante-Green has her pitch down pat. She spends about 20 minutes on a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the most egregious findings in the report. She talks about the mother who told her that her son had 11 different English teachers in the last school year, and the student who hadn’t taken math in two years.

Then she steps back, takes a seat next to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and listens to feedback without interruption.

At the student forum this week, Frederick Santos, a teenager who attends high school in Providence, said teachers do not set the right example.

“Teachers will tell students – and I’m one of them – that they’ll do nothing with their lives,” Santos said. “Just because students aren’t one of those kids who grew up with everything handed to them doesn’t mean we’re not capable of learning.”

Pamela Hughes, a mother who spoke at the parents’ forum, said some students aren’t allowed to bring textbooks home, a sign of the district’s scant resources.

“How can a child really learn anything on worksheets?” she asked.

Dozens of Providence teachers have also attended the forums, explaining the challenges they face while usually admitting they can do better. One teacher said he would support randomized classroom evaluations, typically a third-rail issue for educators.

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Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, has spoken at every meeting. She accepts responsibility for some of the district’s failings and has said she is willing to work with Infante-Green, although she acknowledged she doesn’t know what the new commissioner is planning.

Elorza, who has admitted he nearly failed to graduate from high school in Providence before excelling in college, said Infante-Green is providing the “jolt” many families need to become engaged. He said believes the commissioner has struck the right tone in her meetings with the public.

“I think, potentially, some folks may be concerned that calling it a crisis does a disservice to people who have been working hard, but this isn’t a reflection on individuals in the system,” Elorza said. “This is a system, a structure, that is absolutely broken and it is in crisis.”

Not every attendee at the meetings has been pleased with Infante-Green’s comments.

Sam Zurier, a former Providence councilman and school board member, said he was alarmed by the commissioner’s claim that she wouldn’t send her children to any of the city’s schools. He fears that kind of rhetoric might prompt middle-class families to leave the district in favor of options.

“While the Hopkins report identifies significant problems that need to be addressed on an urgent basis, I believe that her unrelentingly critical narrative that all schools are failing will be demoralizing for those parents who believe in their schools (and whose children are succeeding) and those teachers and principals who are overcoming challenges to make their schools succeed,” Zurier said in an email.

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For now, Infante-Green said she wants to capitalize on the moment, but she understands the challenges she will face.

Her rhetoric so far is not unlike what former Education Commissioner Deborah Gist told Rhode Island residents when she came to the state in 2009 from a job in Washington, D.C. But while Gist was initially welcomed with open by business leaders and lawmakers, her reform efforts largely fell flat when she faced opposition from the teachers’ unions. She left in 2015 to become superintendent of schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, her hometown.

Infante-Green said she plans to begin proposing significant changes to the district later this month, although she still hasn’t said whether she will recommend that the state take over Providence schools.

“I think I won’t be popular in a few months, but I’m okay with that,” she said.


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