Failing public schools in an Ivy League town: Can state turn the tide?

Why We Wrote This

Educating students in largely poor school districts can be a perennial problem. Hopes in Providence, Rhode Island, are with a new leader who promises transparency and community engagement. 

Chelsea Sheasley
Crossing guard Sandra Sibrian (right) and Gladis Magaña at Carl G. Lauro Elementary School in Providence, Rhode Island, both have children in Providence Public Schools. Ms. Sibrian wonders what will happen once the state takes control over the district on Nov. 1.

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Nine out of 10 Providence, Rhode Island, grade schoolers are underperforming in math, and 7 out of 8 do not meet standards in English language arts. In some schools, observers found things like a sewer pipe leaking into a gym and children with rodent glue traps stuck to their shoes. Among teachers and students, morale is low.

As of Nov. 1, the state is intervening, prompted by those and other findings from a John Hopkins University report released in June. But unlike some cities with tumultuous takeover histories, Providence might be different. The school board, city council, and mayor did not object to the takeover, and community groups offered support if their voices are included. Rhode Island’s education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, is a Latina who will oversee reform for a 65% Hispanic population. 

Activists say they’ve long flagged problems, but feel nothing changed until the business community paid for the report. Now they are concerned that efforts will vanish if powerful figures lose interest. Ms. Infante-Green promises to create a system that withstands political winds.

“My main goal is obviously to change the school system,” says the commissioner, “but to also ensure that parents are part of the system in a way that makes sense.”

Sandra Sibrian smiles brightly as she ushers energetic students across the street, greeting them in both English and Spanish. Despite her outward cheer, the elementary school crossing guard and mother of five harbors a host of questions about Providence Public Schools.

“For now, I haven’t seen any changes,” she says, noting that her son hasn’t had a math teacher for two months and new principals keep starting over. “But what changes will come? How soon?” 

Ms. Sibrian’s anxiety stems from the state takeover of Providence Public Schools, which officially begins Nov. 1. For at least the next five years, Rhode Island’s unelected education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, will hold authority over the budget, programs, and personnel for all 41 schools in the state’s capital and oversee a major restructuring of the district. 

The release in June of a searing report by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy prompted the takeover from the school board and local government, after the study documented academic underperformance, crumbling and sometimes unsafe school infrastructure, and low morale among teachers and students. 

As the legal mechanism for state control rolls forward, community members are grappling with how to have their voices heard. Interviews with parents, students, and community groups in Providence paint a portrait of a community dealing with raw anger and distrust, but also hope that this marks a historic chance to change systemic problems. 

“Nobody has said we don’t want changes, if they transparently involve everyone,” says Lesley Bunnell, member of a new parent group. 

Unlike other cities with histories of tumultuous school takeovers, like Baltimore, Detroit, or Newark, New Jersey, there are signs that Providence could offer a different intervention model. Neither the school board, city council, nor mayor objected to the takeover, and community groups have offered support with the condition that their voices are included. 

Ms. Infante-Green is the first Latina and first woman of color to serve as Rhode Island education commissioner; she started the job in April and will oversee a school district of 24,000 where about 60% meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch and 65% of students are Hispanic. She says she is “very committed” to including community members in the turnaround process, with plans to put parents on the transition team, to hold monthly public meetings, and to work with districtwide parent councils.

“At the end of the day, my main goal is obviously to change the school system, but to also ensure that parents are part of the system in a way that makes sense,” she says, in a phone interview. “We’re trying to work in a different way that’s more accommodating to the community.”

Some are watching to see what happens next. “If the commissioner is going to be promoting a policy that looks like other takeovers, I imagine there will be tension,” says Domingo Morel, a political science professor at Rutgers University and author of “Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy. “Essentially, not learning from other places, but teaching other places” to create a new model could make a difference, he says.

Failing schools amid cultural riches

In the heart of downtown Providence, local restaurants border performing art centers and independent bookstores. An iconic art-deco skyscraper towers over the city, but has lain vacant for six years. The city is home to prestigious universities and a lively arts and culinary scene, but struggles with a sputtering economy and racial divides.

The Johns Hopkins report said the physical structures of some school buildings are so poor they “reduced seasoned members of the review team to tears,” including: a leaking raw sewer pipe in a gym ceiling for over a year, rodents in the schools and students with mouse traps stuck to their shoes, lead paint falling from the ceiling, and brown water coming out of a tap.

Ninety percent of students in grades 3 to 8 have not been performing at or above grade level in math, and 86% of students in those same grades are not at or above grade level in English language arts. The report was jointly requested by the Rhode Island Department of Education, Governor Gina Raimondo, and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and was funded by The Partnership for Rhode Island, a group of state business leaders.  

Parents prep for change

Once news broke of the Johns Hopkins report and commissioner’s takeover plan, many parents and community groups in Providence sprang into action to argue their right to a role. 

“We’re entering into a new structure where money, contracts, and curriculum are controlled by a single party,” says Zack Mezera, executive director of the Providence Student Union, one group pressing for more inclusion in decision-making. “It’s important at the front end that students can ensure a meaningful say in what’s going on.”

Chelsea Sheasley
Maggie Mian (left) and Lesley Bunnell are parents who joined the Providence Public School Advocates, organizing on behalf of students during the state takeover of public schools that begins Nov. 1.

The commissioner has work to do to prove community engagement isn’t a “dog and pony show,” says Maggie Mian, a mother of four. She’d like the district to be more welcoming of different races, cultures, and religions. 

Ms. Mian attended multiple public meetings run by the Rhode Island Department of Education this summer and was disappointed not to hear more details from the state about their intentions. 

“You sat in a room, you talked with people, and they wrote some things down,” she says. “You don’t know if what’s being written is just going to be hidden away in a drawer so you can say that there was community engagement, or if there was some type of plan to actually use them.” 

Ms. Mian joined about 40 other parents to form the Providence Public School Advocates. The group meets weekly and started an online newsletter, social media, and flyer brigades to inform parents. 

A major priority for community groups is recruiting more teachers of color. Overall, 91% of students enrolled in the district are students of color, but 77% of its teacher workforce is white. Many front office staff don’t speak Spanish.

“The real issue is that the systems that our young people live in, breathe in, in our schools is extremely inequitable,” says Chanda Womack, founding executive director of the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education. 

Ms. Womack and other activists are especially upset that they flagged problems in the district for years, but feel nothing changed until the business community paid for the Johns Hopkins report. Now they suspect efforts to improve schools will vanish as soon as powerful figures lose interest. For her part, Ms. Infante-Green promises to create a system for school change that withstands political winds, with elections for governor and mayor occurring in three years. 

Takeovers in other places

Professor Morel of Rutgers graduated from Central High School in Providence. He says that the early signs of unity between the commissioner and the community could be quick to fade. 

“On the one hand, I think there are some promising signs that [the commissioner is] genuinely looking to work with the community,” he says. “However, based on research, these things usually don’t last. ... The state will come in at some point and make tough decisions that the community rejects.”

Beth Schueler, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, studies the impact of state takeovers on student academic achievement. The results so far are drawn from case studies and are mixed, she says.  

In a case study she co-authored on the 2012 state takeover of schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Professor Schueler found dramatic increases early on in student math achievement as well as gains in English language arts. Officials in Lawrence smoothed community relations by holding a prolonged listening tour, keeping most of the teaching staff, and introducing an intramural sports league as one of the first changes. “That resonated with parents, feeling that these people care about kids as whole people and the community more broadly, not just about test scores,” Ms. Schueler says. 

In a recent study, Ms. Schueler and a colleague found that 70% of the American public supports state takeovers of a school district due to academic failures, and 77% support a takeover in the case of financial mismanagement. But support for an academic takeover fell to 53% among those living in the poorest performing districts in their state.

And students wait

An early morning stream of high school students flows in and out of the White Electric Coffee shop in Providence’s West End. Isabela Ribeiro, a senior at Classical High School, a high-performing public magnet school, grips her cup as she heads across the street. She says she hears about the takeover from the news and her mom, who is a special education teacher at another city high school. She knows teachers are worried about jobs, but doesn’t hear about the takeover at Classical High. 

“The school hasn’t told us much about it and I wish they would,” she says. “I think it’s going to have a big impact on how the system works and I wish we had the information to know how to deal with it and be prepared.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the new parent group.

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