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When Schools get Schooled: A Look at the Providence State Takeover

Art by Klara Auerbach

Providence Public School Districts have an exceptionally low level of academic instruction, despite neighboring an elite Ivy League institution. In the first episode of Season 3, hosts Morgan Awner ‘21 and Rachel Lim ‘21 take a step off College Hill and a look into the broken Providence schools. Featuring interviews from Domingo Morel Ph.D ‘14, a scholar on state takeovers, and Paige Clausius-Parks, a senior policy analyst at RI Kids Count, this episode illustrates the overwhelming issues with the schools in Providence, an explanation of state takeovers, and questions the direction of the intervention.

Special Thanks:

Domingo Morel is a Visiting Scholar at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. He is the author of Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy (2018) and co-editor of Latino Mayors: Power and Political Change in the Postindustrial City (2018). He received his Ph.D. in political science from Brown University in 2014 and is an alum of the Providence Public School District.

Paige Clausius-Parks is a Senior Policy Analyst at RI Kids Count, an organization that provides comprehensive information on Rhode Island’s children and engages in information-based advocacy for the improvement of children’s lives. Clausius-Parks is a certified secondary grades social studies teacher and worked at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center.  She has a Masters in Education Administration from the Harvard University School of Graduation.

Special Thanks to Dan McGowan at the Boston Globe, for his continuous support of student journalism. 

If this episode dismays/ shocks/ intrigues you, please consider donating to the Providence Student Union, who do the critical work of empowering students in PVD to create change in their schools and communities. 

Hosts: Morgan Awner ’21 and Rachel Lim ’21

Script Writing and Interviews: Annika Sigfstead and Morgan Awner

Executive Producer: Emily Skahill

TRANSCRIPT:

 Morgan: In June 2019, Johns Hopkins University released a report on the state of the Providence Public Schools. Here are some of the most telling parts:

The majority of teachers and students appeared to have largely given up on education.”

“Students spent most of their time on their phones or socializing, yelling, or moving about the room.”

“There was a leaking raw sewer pipe for over a year. It dripped on the heads of the children as they passed through the threshold, and they had to dodge the drips and the puddle”.

Rachel: Beyond this scathing report, more problems have come to light. Parents and teachers attended public forums and shared harrowing stories. 

“Last year I had a ninth grader that didn’t know how to read”

Morgan: Even the new Education Commissioner did not hide the realities in Providence.

“I think the big takeaway is that things are actually worse than the report” 

Rachel: Today on BPRadio, we are going close to home, but worlds away from Brown University. We are going to see how one city, Providence, attempts to fix its broken education system. 

Morgan: This is the first episode in a series on the Providence Schools and the state takeover, and a look into the heart of the American education system.

So… Welcome to Season 3 of BPRadio. My name is Morgan Awner, [and I’m Rachel Lim. And we’re your hosts this season.] We are juniors at Brown University studying Public Policy and Economics and we’re excited for you to join us on this journey. Our first episode is on the Providence School Takeover, and we’re going to dive right in: 

Rachel: So let’s take a step back and look at what’s actually going on here. Providence is the largest school district in Rhode Island, with over 24,000 students in 41 schools. In a long standing trend, the academic outcomes of the district are way below the national average. 

Morgan: Fewer than 1 in 5 students are proficient in math or English, and these outcomes are even worse for students that are economically disadvantaged, with only 6% of these students being proficient in English by eighth grade. Besides woeful test scores; school buildings are crumbling, bad teachers are almost impossible to fire, and very little learning occurs. 

Rachel: As the new Education Commissioner Angelica Infante Greene has repeatedly pointed out, blame can be put on every adult involved. The question is not how Providence got here, but where it needs to go.

Morgan: Last spring, top officials, including the Mayor of Providence, Governor of Rhode Island, City Council and the new Education Commissioner, came together and decided to take drastic action: 

Rachel: a state takeover of the Providence school district.

Morgan: To get a better sense of Providence schools, and what led to this drastic action, we talked to people who were part of the Johns Hopkins report. Domingo Morel,

DM:  So I’m Domingo Morel. I’m an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark.

Morgan: And Paige Clausius Parke,

PC: Sure. So my name is Paige clashes parks. I’m a Senior Policy Analyst at Rhode Island Kids Count.

Rachel: Both of them conducted interviews for the Johns Hopkins Report and had different reactions to the various parts of it. Paige went into the schools to conduct her interviews,

PC: So I went in knowing that I would, you know, expecting to see some challenges, because it was not my first time at Providence schools. However, I was very shocked, I guess, at the, how pervasive the problems were that I saw, okay. I think optimistically. I thought when I had worked with individual young people, You know, it’s easy to think, like, Oh, this is one particular classroom. And this is one particular incident. But when you see that played out over and over and over again, in so many different classrooms, that’s when you start to see that this is not about one particular student or one particular teacher, one classroom, I went to school, but this is a systemic problem. Yeah, and doing the review going into so many schools and classrooms and help to really illustrate that problem, and a very large way that you can’t avoid.

Morgan: Domingo was also apart of the Johns Hopkins review, but had a different experience, as he was interviewing city officials.

DM: I was part of the Johns Hopkins review team, right. And so I was, I was I listened to part of the, you know, the people ask questions to gather these, these data, this information. And it’s very clear that there are things that need to be done differently. I think for people who have been who either attended the Providence schools have been in some ways involved with the Providence schools. these are these are long and during issues that the school district has as encountered. And so anyone who has been part of the schools in some way, can attest to, you know, some some of these challenges that have been around for a long time. So there were no surprises to me, from what we learned.

Morgan: Their differing views can be attributed a lot to their experiences in Providence. 

Rachel:  Yeah, Domingo actually attended Providence schools, while most of Paige’s experience is doing outside advocacy work or working in a local charter school.

Morgan: So before we go any further, Rachel, do you know what a school take over is?

Rachel: I’m not really sure, but it sounds like the Governor running into Providence and taking over a high school math class.

Morgan: Well, not exactly.

DM: Yeah, so it’s either the state legislature department, State Department of Education or state court, taking the governance power away from a local entity, which is usually a school board. And, and city government, which could be a combination of, you know, the mayor, Mayor and the school board or something like that. (5:04-5:33)

Rachel: So not as dramatic as I thought.

Morgan: No, but there are huge political ramifications to takeovers. Part of Domingo’s research argues that low academic performance is not the only indicator to prompt school takeovers. The majority of state takeovers have occurred in heavily minority low income cities, which Domingo does not think is a coincidence. 

DM: majority black communities that experienced the take over and they experience hostile types of interventions where the local school board is removed, local, you know, governance structures that have been had to have fought over right during the 1960s, the 1970s able to provide communities the power to have a say in their schools, that all of that gets dismantled as a result of the takeover.

Rachel: Domingo is pointing out the conventional idea that state takeovers take power away from the local school districts and place it in the hands of state leaders. 

Morgan: This was apparent in the Newark, New Jersey takeover in 1995, which is widely regarded as an example of failure in state intervention. Not only did academic performance not increase, but representation of the majority black community was completely lost after the takeover. 

Rachel: Not all state takeovers have such drastic effects on the community. A state takeover has actually already occurred in Rhode Island, in the next city over, Central Falls.

DM: So I became interested in state takeovers, because at the time when I was a student here at Brown, I became interested in some school politics. things that were happening at Central Falls, actually not too far from here…And that majority’s Latino school board was there as a result of the state takeover that happened in the 1990s. The state appoints the school board and in Central Falls, and it seemed like the community there, the Latino community in Central Falls, was able to gain political empowerment and representation as a result of the takeover, which was kind of contradicted much of what we thought we know about takeovers at the time. And so as a result of that, you know, that led me to want to study take over the political implications and causes of state takeovers as a dissertation and eventually a book.

Morgan: So basically, we could see a change in leadership in the schools, and who actually has representation

Rachel: Exactly.

Morgan: But now I’m wondering about what actually happens in the schools. How does this affect the bad test scores? Or the leaky pipes?

Rachel: That’s why we talked to Paige. She works at RI Kids Count, which is an advocacy and data organization that works to improve the health, economic well being, and education of all children in Rhode Island. But before that, Paige has actual experience inside the classroom.

PC: I did work with teachers and administrators and creating safe schools policies, and then decided, like, I should go into the classroom, like I’m telling other educators what to do, but I’ve never done it day to day. So that’s when I got certified to be a classroom teacher. So that really helped to inform and gave me some insight between where policy and practice isn’t always meet, and how and how to align that so I came back into policy work after also becoming a parent.

Morgan: Using this lens, Paige has an interesting view of what she thinks is next for the Providence schools.

PC: We are in a really interesting time period where we have both this report. We have leadership who is willing and able and very vocal about making change. We have students and youth organizations who have been working for a long time to mobilize students. We have parents and parent groups who are now also organized and mobilized. We have some really great opportunities here. We have the business community that is interested in paying attention and listening. And we have the RICAST  scores that are giving us the data behind the experiences that we’ve heard about. We’ve got all the right ingredients right now at this time to make a change. And I think that is really important. And I think that’s critical for success. I think the challenge will be keeping up the momentum. Okay, making sure we don’t get complacent, making sure we keep the urgency. We keep our eye on the goal. Many folks may have different ideas of how to get to that goal, so many as they continue to talk to each other and remind ourselves why are we doing this? And it’s for the kids, right? So everything we do needs to be for our kids. I think if we do that we will be successful.

Rachel: Paige sounds optimistic – it seems like people in Providence are really ready to do things!

Morgan: Yeah, and Domingo agrees, Providence is ready for action.

DM: Yeah, so Providence is a really interesting situation now, because for the most part, we don’t see any objection to the takeover from any of the local institutions. So the school board has not objected to the takeover, the mayor’s office has not objected to the takeover. Even the community groups who’ve been fighting for greater __, I’m not objecting to the takeover. They just want it to be a different type of takeover. And so in that case, it’s it’s not like Newark, or some other cities, where communities view the takeover as an effort to disempower them and to impose upon the community a certain type of education agenda policy. That is not welcome.

Morgan: However, Domingo doesn’t think a takeover is the right way to make change in the Providence Schools.

DM: I think that the, rather than a takeover, the state couldn’t be more Well, kind of coordinator. . the people that are responsible for these candidates for the school board, the City Council, the school administrators, and community leaders, they all recognize that things need to be different, and are, in my view, very open to having the types of conversations that lead to change. And so if we say to them, you know, you have been part of the problem, and therefore, we need to get you out of the way, which is what a takeover does, then I think it removes that goodwill that’s around the table to lead to the type of changes that I think everybody wants to make. I think that there’s possibilities here for the type of partnerships between states and local districts that, frankly, haven’t been able to see in other places.

Morgan: Both Domingo and Paige illustrate the central conflict: Can the state takeover work in Providence? Or will community members, parents, and students be shoved aside by state bureaucracy and political motives? At the heart of all this is a question: who knows what is best for our kids?

Rachel: Thank you for tuning into the first of our two-part series on the Providence school takeover. We hope you’ll join us for the rest of the season as we explore a number of topics including academic freedom, food security, and the Kashmir elections. Thanks for tuning in – and catch you next time. 

About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at emily_skahill@brown.edu

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