Keith Oliveira: State was right to take over Providence schools

PThe Providence School Department headquarters. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)
PThe Providence School Department headquarters. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

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I was a young community advocate in 1993 when the Providence Blueprint for Education (PROBE) report was issued. The release of this recent Johns Hopkins University report on Providence schools brings to mind the community discussion in the early 1990s about systemic failures that resulted in low student achievement, demoralized educators, and families feeling alienated from the education of their children.

In the 26 years since PROBE, things have seemingly gotten worse.

As a former president of the Providence School Board, I can attest to the level of dysfunction surrounding the Providence school system. Such dysfunction is decades in the making and an accumulation of many factors that have little to do with effective teaching and learning but everything to do with impeding it. It is a tangled history of inconsistent leadership, lack of commitment to a long-term strategy, entrenched adult self-interests, a disjointed governance structure, and political intrusion. All of these factors have essentially disabled the system from performing its core function – to educate.

Systemic failure of this magnitude cannot simply be “reformed” – it must be reconstituted and restructured. However, systemic restructuring in Providence could not happen under local authority. That’s why state was correct to step in and remove that authority from Providence. The question going forward is what does restructuring look like? Will it be transformative and sustainable? Will it be responsive and designed around student need? Will it empower educators at the building level who best understand their student’s needs? Will families and the community be welcomed in as partners? Will it reflect the multiculturalism of its diverse population? Will it foster a culture of mutual respect and high-expectations? These are among the many questions we must ask and insist upon finding answers to as restructuring moves forward. Only then will there be shared ownership of the desired outcome.


The work of restructuring Providence won’t be easy. That responsibility primarily falls to Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. She will have the singular authority to compel change. And while she will soon have this tiger by the tail, she strikes me as a champion of children and views this work through the lens of a mother, as well as an educator. That gives me hope and confidence. However, she cannot do this work alone. All community stakeholders must work with her throughout this process. As she has said openly “everyone wants change until change happens” - and there will be those resistant to change. We must press ahead, be part of the change, and not waste this opportunity to get it right for future generations of Providence students.


Keith Oliveira is the execuitve director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools. He served as president of the Providence School Board between 2012 and 2016.

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