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Four Years Later: Has RIDE Been Successful with the Providence Schools Takeover?

Image via Sandor Bodo/The Providence Journal.

The BPR High School Program invited student writers from Providence-area public schools to research, draft, and edit a college-level opinion article over the course of Fall 2023. A special thank you to the editors on this piece, Isabel Greider ‘25 and Bianca Rosen ‘25!

Tim Yean is a senior at Cranston High School East and the president of his school’s sports media club, Thunderbolt Sports Media.

When the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) decided to take over the Providence Public School District (PPSD), it sought to not only improve students’ quality of education but also the schools’ infrastructure. In its 2019 report on the state of PPSD, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy deemed the district to be in critical condition: A large majority of its students were not proficient in math or English Language Arts (ELA), and school buildings were in a state of deterioration. Some school facilities were “even dangerous to students’ and teachers’ wellbeing.”

Armed with this scathing report, and assisted by current RIDE commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, then-governor Gina Raimondo declared the state would take over Providence Public Schools in October 2019 in a large-scale attempt to improve the conditions of the district. According to the report, issues in the school system included lack of academic instruction, school culture, and poor support for teachers. The takeover planned to address each of these issues, hoping to improve academic scores and the overall quality of education in Providence. The question remains, however: Have the past four years of work been effective? 

After reviewing RIDE’s high school district report cards from the 2021–2022 school year and interviewing students from PPSD and nearby Cranston Public Schools, it is clear that the steps taken to improve PPSD have not been as effective as planned. As a result of the lack of both challenging classes and extracurricular, educational, or security help, educational outcomes in PPSD have remained consistently low.

In 2019, the Johns Hopkins report stated that “a full 90 percent of students are not proficient in math, and a full 86 percent are not proficient in English Language Arts.” Since then, there have been only slight improvements. In RIDE’s 2021–2022 report card, which assesses the educational quality of public schools, 14.9 percent of Providence students were proficient in ELA, 10.2 percent were proficient in math, and 12.2 percent were proficient in science. With a student population of approximately 21,000, this equates to roughly 3,000 students proficient in ELA and 2,000 students proficient in math. Relative to 2019, that is only an additional 195 students proficient in ELA and just an 43 additional in math. By comparison, about a third of students in Rhode Island are proficient in ELA, 26.6 percent in math, and 30.7 percent in science. Cranston, an adjacent school district, has proficiency scores of at least 10 points higher in every subject.

Graduation rates are also disparate. While Cranston’s average graduation rate is on par with Rhode Island’s at roughly 83 percent, just 77.6 percent of Providence students graduate from high school. Providence also has a higher dropout rate than the state as a whole, with 12.3 percent of high school students dropping out (compared to 8.8 percent of Cranston students). 

Some argue that the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic stunted the state’s ability to rebuild PPSD. Yet, Providence spends over $22,000 per student$2,000 more than the mean budget per pupil in Rhode Island. For reference, Cranston’s public schools spend $5,000 less per student than Providence. 

Getting student opinions is vital to truly understanding the efficacy of the RIDE takeover—or lack thereof. After all, no group is more directly impacted by state control than the pupils of PPSD. I interviewed students from three Providence high schools: Hope, Mount Pleasant, and Classical. Further interviews with students from Cranston High School East provided critical opportunities for comparison. In my interviews, Providence students shared a mix of negative and positive experiences, highlighting disparities in school safety, college preparedness, and academic support.

Following the takeover, a student from Hope High School said that their education has grown “progressively worse in many areas.” The student also mentioned that safety was a major concern, especially mentally: The student described feeling “generally far more in jeopardy at school than I did before” the state seized control of the district. The student’s concern about safety expands beyond Hope. In September, police had to break up an enormous disturbance at Kennedy Plaza that involved over 300 PPSD students. While the Covid-19 pandemic may not have had a direct effect on the number of student-versus-student fights, the lack of in-school learning may have potentially affected social skills and the ability to resolve situations in a peaceful manner. Safety doesn’t necessarily look better in middle schools either; at DelSesto Middle School, a “ghost gun” was found in the backpack of a student.

Classical, on the other hand, has an elite reputation as the top-ranking public high school in the state, where safety may be prioritized. Similarly, the students I spoke to from Mount Pleasant believed their safety, as well as their high school careers, had become progressively safer and better. “I have always felt safe while in school. There is usually staff everywhere who are always patrolling,” the student from Mount Pleasant said. All students from Cranston East also said they felt safe at school, citing the police officers around the building. 

It is deeply troublesome that there is a disparity in student security throughout PPSD, with some schools prioritizing safety to a greater extent than others. RIDE seems to focus its attention more on the schools that are on track to be academically successful, while ignoring the schools that are falling behind, putting them into a worse position than they were before the takeover. In this sense, RIDE has a kind of “survivorship bias.” Administration plays a part too. In April 2022, there were calls for a middle school principal to resign after he waited over an hour to call the police following the report of a weapon on school grounds. 

In addition to safety, college preparedness is another important metric for understanding the efficacy of the state takeover. Of the students I spoke to, only the Classical student and the students from Cranston expressed feeling ready for life after high school, whereas the Hope and Mount Pleasant students felt prepared, but not due to their schools themselves. “Classical is meant to be a college-prep school, and, for those who want to, there are many resources at their fingertips to find colleges, from college fairs and visits to the incredibly helpful guidance counselors. For anyone willing to look, there’s lots to take advantage of,” the Classical student said. One Cranston student discussed the Medical Pathways program Cranston East offers: “I joined it and can say it has given me a solid foundation to work off of in the future… I can say I am very prepared for whatever challenge or educational hurdle comes my way in college!”

PPSD as a whole, however, does not provide a consistent effort to prepare students for college. Perhaps the topic with the most mixed opinions was whether students found their classes academically challenging: One student from Cranston East stated the classes were difficult due to “the [overwhelming] amount of work and lessons that ha[ve] piled up on top of me.” Another Cranston student cited Advanced Placement (AP) classes as difficult. However, the Mount Pleasant student pointed to the lack of AP classes at their school. “I do not feel academically challenged very often. I feel like this is mostly due to certain AP courses and honors courses not being available in school and I often feel slowed down by my peers.” PPSD’s lack of demanding courses may help explain the district’s persistently low math and ELA scores. RIDE’s state takeover failed to bring more challenging classes, which could have allowed some of the top students at underprivileged schools to compete with other schools that provide AP classes. 

As low proficiency scores continue to plague Providence schools, questions have arisen about the effectiveness of the state takeover. Report card statistics, district-to-district comparisons, and student interviews do not make a good case for the efficacy of state control. Can a situation like this be mended? Time can only tell, and it’s up to Mayor Brett Smiley and RIDE to determine the steps needed to revitalize a failing educational system.