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Infante-Green Needs to Listen to the Voices of Providence Schools

It has been a turbulent four months in Providence after a devastating report diagnosing the epidemic dysfunction and subpar performance that plague the city’s public schools. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, with the support of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, issued a state takeover of Providence’s public schools that went into effect on November first. The state will assume control for at least five years, and Infante-Green is expected to chart a path for the district, in which 86 percent of students are not proficient in English Language Arts. Infante-Green, a Rhode Island newcomer, needs to listen to the voices of the Providence public schools if she hopes to make a successful turnaround possible.  

The move was informed by a report released by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Educational Policy that received national attention for its appalling findings. It found that extremely poor academic instruction and a lack of quality curricula have led parents to complain that students are being held to low expectations. The report also cites multiple respondents who agree that there is inconsistent discipline, that safety is a daily concern, and that complain of “chronic absenteeism.” All the while, children go to school in deficient conditions; lead pours out of their school faucets and coats the walls, rodents crawl through the halls, broken asbestos tiles hang from the ceilings, and many buildings lack heating or air conditioning. 

Infante-Green, a former member of the New York Department of Education, was tapped to lead Rhode Island’s state education department in March. Although Infante-Green has yet to publish a specific course of action, she has pointed out that the state and federal government have increased funding by $40 million since 2011, but city schools continue to underperform. 

“Buildings are just a part of it,” says Infante-Green, “this is about all academics…And it’s not just curriculum, it’s making sure the teacher can engage in the curriculum.” Indeed, Infante-Green has expressed interest in the voices of the community. In April she held nine public forums to hear from Providence parents, teachers, students, and advocates about their schools. 

Following these forums and armed with the findings of the Hopkins report, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) released a proposal that was approved on September thirteenth. The proposal shifted control of Providence public schools to the state and gave Infante-Green control over “the budget, program, and personnel of the [Providence Public School District (PPSD)] and its schools.” espite the forums, Providence community members don’t feel that their voices have been heard. 

Chanda Womack, the Founding Executive Director of Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education, expressed concern to Brown University’s College Hill Independent that the forums held by Infante-Green served more to showcase and validate the findings of the Hopkins report than to hear real concerns from members of the Providence community. Womack says attendees had no more than two minutes each with the microphone, arguing that “this whole process has been extremely disempowering.”  

The history of state takeovers in the United States is not in Rhode Island’s favor, and the negative outcomes are principally due to a lack of communication and transparency between the state and the community. Students, teachers, and parents in the Providence public school system hold the most important stake in the success of their district, and they fear that history will repeat itself at their expense if they are not heard.

Before the “show cause” hearing for the city’s cession of power over Providence public schools, parents, and students filed a legal motion to demand transparency and engagement in the takeover. They were joined by representatives of several organizations that serve Providence youth including Youth in Action, Providence Youth Student Movement, and the Providence Student Union. Citing the failures of similar takeovers in Philadelphia and Newark, their motion argues that, “No one has a greater stake in demanding improvements in the schools than parents and students, and no turnaround will succeed without a clear plan that includes the community.” They ask that RIDE put “formal, enforceable mechanisms for accountability, transparency, and community inclusion in their plan for the takeover.”  

However, RIDE’s response in opposition to the motion’s proposal, backed by Infante-Green, seems to perpetuate the department’s effort to block parental involvement. Hired by RIDE to fight the motion to intervene, attorney Marc DeSisto cites in his written opposition a list of Rhode Island court cases to affirm that a “mere interest in the problem” taken by parents, teachers, and community members is not sufficient grounds for the movants’ claim for permissive intervention. 

Rutgers political science professor Domingo Morel is unconvinced that RIDE’s takeover will address the movants’ concerns. “We have a really unhealthy disconnect between the schools and communities,” Morel says, “I don’t see how the takeover addresses this.” The responses from Infante-Green and DeSisto give Morel’s prediction an unfortunate validity.   

In fact, the issues facing Providence now are reminders of something else: the fecklessness of years of work and billions of dollars spent toward education reform that have repeatedly failed to address critical factors affecting how children learn, how they feel at school, and how teachers implement the curriculum. “We have to do big here,” says Raimondo, “We have to do better by our kids.” Raimondo is right, but a state takeover to address the problems that the state itself has created seems like yet another step in the wrong direction. 

The majority of the problems in PPSD as they are documented in the Hopkins report mirror the difficulties faced by other urban public school systems struggling to meet the needs of students in  low-income areas and marginalized groups for whom English is a second language. Years of funding and efforts to raise standardized test scores have undeniably failed to improve schools in many of these similar districts. As the Hopkins report points out, the PPSD “is overburdened with multiple, overlapping sources of governance and bureaucracy with no clear domains of authority and very little scope for transformative change.” 

Indeed, six governing bodies in the Rhode Island State Department––including the City Council and a high-handed mayor’s office––insist on putting a hand in the pockets of education policy and budgeting. How well these insistent governing bodies understand the PPSD and what needs to change is very ambiguous and very much in question, and they have consistently failed to implement systemic change or listen to community members who experience Providence’s public schools everyday.

Lawrence, a school district in Massachusetts, is a widely recognized success in a national campaign marked by failure. When the state took over the district in the fall of 2011, Lawrence looked very similar to Providence. It was Jeffrey Riley, a seasoned urban leader who headed a turnaround effort in Boston, who set the tone for Lawrence’s success. When he was appointed as the state receiver for the district, Riley spent his first five months on a listening tour before launching his plan for change during the 2012-2013 school year.  the takeover, Riley tread lightly on teacher’s contracts, he brought community groups to the table, and he refused to play a heavy hand despite the latitude to do so.

Riley himself admits that the process was by no means easy. “The receivership didn’t come with a pot of gold,” he said. Funding for central offices had to be cut by more than a third to give individual schools the funding needed to hire and incentivize teachers, reform the curriculums, and buttress student support systems. Infante-Green will face similar fiscal problems, but Riley’s success should be seen as an example to follow. Riley stepped on a lot of toes, but the payoff, as documented by Harvard researchers, benefited those who needed the turnaround most: students, parents, and teachers.

Infante-Green has only been in Rhode Island for five months. ith Infante-Green overseeing the PPSD as of November 1st, it is crucial that her next step is community-based research. Whether Infante-Green will make good on her promises of transparency and engagement is yet to be determined. However, once she releases her official “robust plan for everyone,” it should be new, community-oriented, and open to public discourse. Without the insight of those parents, students, and teachers who are affected by Providence schools everyday, Rhode Island’s takeover will be doomed to fail like many of those that came before it.

Photo: Image via dhendrix73 (Flickr)