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We fact-checked the worst rumors about the Providence schools

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

PROVIDENCE — From unsanitary conditions to a lack of teacher training, a lot of harsh criticism has been directed at the Providence school system over the last two months.

Many of those claims appeared in a blistering report released by researchers from Johns Hopkins University as well as in Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s order that the state take over the struggling district. Others were made during public forums and repeated in media coverage.

So is everything the detractors are saying about Providence true?

With controversial decisions now hanging in the balance, facts matter. So the Globe checked out eight of the most widely cited accusations with on-the-record statements from Mayor Jorge Elorza’s office, the school department, the Providence School Board, and the Providence Teachers Union. We’ve assigned grades to each claim, with an “A” being fully accurate and an “F” for completely false.


Feces “dripped on the heads of the children.”

Grade: F

This is a claim that has been repeated frequently since the report was released, especially on talk radio. According to the researchers, a staff member at one school claimed that there was a “leaking raw sewer pipe” in the gymnasium’s ceiling and students had to “dodge the drips and the puddle” that was left. School board president Nicholas Hemond said he personally investigated the claim and determined that a water pipe was broken, but that it had no connection to raw sewage. A spokesperson for the city also confirmed the pipe was a water pipe.

A student had at least 10 English teachers in the same school year.

Grade: B

This claim did not appear in the report, but it’s one that Commissioner Infante-Green has made repeatedly to highlight the challenges the district faces with teacher absenteeism and retention. State Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Democrat from the city’s East Side, confirmed she is the mother who told Infante-Green about turnover in her child’s classroom. Kislak acknowledges that many of the teachers were substitutes, but she said she doesn’t believe all of them were certified to teach English. A spokesperson for the city declined to comment, citing the privacy concerns of the student.


Asbestos was falling onto students.

Grade: D

The 93-page report relied on anecdotal evidence about the state of the schools. Given that methodology, it’s not surprising that some stories appeared to blur together. In one section, the researchers claimed multiple teachers at one school “told us that there was lead paint falling from the ceiling on the third floor, and that kindergarteners were not allowed up there but that the fourth grade was housed on that same contaminated floor.” In another section, a teacher referenced “broken asbestos tiles” and paint chips that were reportedly falling. But the school department hired Gilbane Inc. to test the chips and the company determined there wasn’t any presence of asbestos in the paint.

The mayor interviews many school-related hires, including crossing guards.

Grade: B

Elorza has repeatedly been accused of micromanaging the school department by seeking to interview or meet with new hires before their first day of work. In the report, Elorza admitted that he tried to interview “key school department personnel,” but he denied accusations that he has interviewed crossing guards. In a footnote, the researchers said then-Superintendent Christopher Maher and “several other individuals on the school board” claimed Elorza talked with crossing guards before they were hired. A spokesperson for the mayor said Elorza does not interview crossing guards but confirmed he has met with some of them before they started on the job.


Teachers get one day of professional development a year.

Grade: C

During a series of public forums following the release of the report, Infante-Green often asked attendees the same question: Would you go to a doctor who only received one day of training each year? While it is accurate that the current union contract only requires one professional development day during the school year, more nuance is required. Union president Maribeth Calabro and the Elorza administration maintain most teachers receive significantly more training each year. As an example, Calabro said at least half of her members have attended professional development sessions during their current summer vacation.

Schools are filled with rodents.

Grade: C

In the report, researchers said teachers “told us there were rodents in the school, and that students had sticky mousetraps stuck to their shoes.” Social media posts from Providence teachers backed up the claims, pointing out mice eating through breakfast items that were supposed to be served to a summer school class for students with special needs. At one of the public forums, a student claimed he could smell “the odor of a dead rat” in his class on a particular day. A spokesperson for the mayor said the administration agrees there are cases where there have been rodents in schools, but she pointed to the fact that teachers have filed only one grievance about rodents in the last four school years as evidence that the problem is less frequent than the report suggests.


It is “next to impossible to remove bad teachers from schools.”

Grade: B

The researchers said “administrators and some teachers” made this claim, and Elorza has cited the difficulty of removing “terrible teachers” as one the reasons he supports the state’s plan to take over the district. One example that backs up this claim is that educators receive tenure after three years on the job. But Calabro, the union president, has pushed back. “The union doesn’t hire teachers and we don’t fire teachers,” she often reminds reporters. It’s her way of pointing out that if administrators properly document the reasons why a teacher should be fired, the termination process is not as tedious. “But every time this goes to a hearing, the arbitrator asks, ‘What does their evaluation say?’ ” Calabro said. “If the answer is ‘highly effective,’ then yes, it’s hard to fire them.”

The state has provided ample support for Providence.

Grade: C

This claim was used as the basis for Infante-Green’s preliminary order to take over the district. In the 122-page document, she accurately pointed out that the state has given Providence an additional $84 million in funding since 2011, but a “number of indicators demonstrate that the district’s performance is continuing to decline despite increased interventions and funding.” Providence officials have a different view. Hemond, the school board president, argued the Rhode Island Department of Education, or RIDE, has rarely provided the assistance the district needs during his tenure on the board. “Any time you read the words ‘RIDE’ and ‘support’ in the same sentence, it’s false,” Hemond said.


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