PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday granted Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green the authority to take control of Providence schools, an unprecedented intervention effort designed to turn around the struggling district.
The details of Infante-Green’s plan for Providence remain scarce, as the commissioner said she plans to return to the council next month to outline a strategy that will include hiring a superintendent to report directly to her, rather than to the Providence School Board.
But Tuesday’s vote is significant because it marks the first time the state Department of Education has sought to reconstitute a school system based largely on poor student outcomes. The state has overseen the Central Falls school department for nearly 30 years, but that decision was made because that small city has long faced financial problems.
In this case, Infante-Green is taking control of the state’s largest school district, a system of 24,000 kids, more than 2,000 teachers, and a $394 million budget. Nearly 90 percent of students in grades three through eight aren’t doing math at grade level, and schools across the city have been plagued by crumbling ceilings, walls filled with asbestos, and rodent problems.
Infante-Green’s intervention has the support of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and City Council President Sabina Matos, as well as the School Board president, Nicholas Hemond.
In a presentation shortly before the vote, Infante-Green said state leaders failed to act when a report was released in 1993 that outlined many of the same struggles the district faces today. She promised this time would be different.
“We failed an entire generation,” she said.
In an interview shortly before the vote, Infante-Green said the decision to take over the district has kept her awake at night for several weeks. She only started as commissioner in May, but she said she has already seen a change in attitude when it comes to how the students, families, and teachers are thinking about Providence schools.
“What I see is hope, which I didn’t see when I first got here,” she said.
The commissioner won control of the district less than a month after researchers from Johns Hopkins University released a blistering report that detailed a culture of low expectations for kids, fears of violence from students and teachers, and deplorable building conditions.
The report identified a series of factors that contributed what the researchers called one of the worst school systems they had ever seen, including a teachers union contract that makes it difficult to hire and fire educators and a dysfunctional governance structure that leaves administrators questioning who they report to.
Infante-Green and Elorza held eight public forums after the release of the report, listening to hundreds of community members tell horror stories about the district. Parents repeatedly urged the state to take over the school system.
“At the city level, we just don’t have the powers to bring about the wholesale, transformational change that our kids deserve,” Elorza said prior to Tuesday’s vote.
Nearly 200 students, parents, and teachers filled the Paff Auditorium on the University of Rhode Island Providence campus for the council meeting. Some were turned away at the door after all 188 seats were occupied.
Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, said her members want to work with the state during the takeover process, but warned that “we’re looking forward to being at the table rather than on the menu.”
A coalition of more than 15 community organizations also released a statement calling on the state to give youth and their families the ability to evaluate district leaders. The group also said it wants to assist with the development and implementation of the intervention plan.
“We see a critical need for action,” the group stated. “Our schools fall heartbreakingly short of the schools we deserve.”
So what will change for students when they return to school Sept. 3?
Infante-Green said interim Superintendent Fran Gallo will oversee the district at the beginning of the school year, but she acknowledged she intends to hire her own superintendent in the coming months.
She said the district plans to keep close track of student and teacher absenteeism at the beginning of the year, a challenge that has repeatedly been identified as a contributor to low student performance. She also said school leaders will focus on improving the culture and climate of each building, while also implementing a clear cellphone policy for students.
Infante-Green said she will return to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education in the coming weeks with a preliminary decision and order that will explain all of the intervention strategies the state has already used in Providence schools over the years.
There is no time limit on how long the state will oversee Providence schools, according to Infante-Green. She said she expects to lay out a series of goals to hold all stakeholders accountable.
Before she can fully take over the district, the council is required to hold a show-cause hearing where only four parties can object to the plan: Elorza, the council, the school board, and the interim superintendent. Infante-Green said she’s hopeful she’ll have the support of everyone involved.
Infante-Green said she wants to work with all stakeholders to improve the city’s schools, but she warned that she will not tolerate obstruction from adults.
“I don’t care about contracts. I don’t care about vendors. I care about children,” she said.