In July 2019, the state announced its takeover of Providence schools. The takeover gives broad (but not unlimited) powers to the state’s education commissioner, Angelica Infante-Green, and gives the state control over the budget, curriculum and operations of the district’s 41 schools. Commissioner Infante-Green extended the takeover from a planned three years to at least five years. On Jan. 24, she announced the hiring of a new “turnaround superintendent,” Harrison Peters.
What prompted the takeover?
It followed a June 2019 report by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy on the serious challenges our schools face: high class sizes,, most students not learning on/near grade level and teacher shortages., The report spotlighted shortages of social workers, counselors, support specialists in reading and math, and properly certified teachers/specialists for English language learners and special education students. It stressed the cultural gap between teachers and their students and families.
Was the teacher contract criticized in the Hopkins report?
The Hopkins report had two criticisms: First, the report blamed the contract for the lack of professional development days. The truth is, the district has been unwilling to fund high-quality professional development similar to theamount and quality of PD in previous contracts. Second, the report claimed the contract makes it “impossible to remove bad teachers.” The truth is, there’s a process for managers to recognize, monitor and, if necessary, fire struggling teachers. The authors of the Hopkins report did not review this process and missed many of the ways that administrators have available to deal with poor performance. The contract also set up a joint labor-management committee that lets both sides propose improvements to that process at any time. Years before the report was done, the Providence Teachers Union demonstrated its commitment to high-quality teaching by creating teacher coaching, peer assistance programs and an induction program based on the best in the country. Sadly, the new superintendent cut all of those positions.
What’s the best way for the commissioner, the superintendent and educators to handle this takeover?
We believe the best approach is: Think big and work cooperatively. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research studied school turnarounds extensively and found that collaborative leadership is “essential” for success. Educators and our union want to be part of the solution—and the solution must involve programs that have a successful track record and will help all our students. As the old saying goes, you can go fast alone, but you go far together. Our community has an opportunity now to come together and go far.
Did the Providence Teachers Union oppose the takeover?
No. We don’t normally support state takeovers because of their very troubling track record in other districts—but we did not actively oppose this one because it could mean Rhode Island may finally step up with much-needed funds and the support necessary to improve student outcomes. Over the years, our union has sounded the alarm about the urgent problems our schools face, from infrastructure to safety. Over the years, we have made specific proposals at the bargaining table to address those problems, but have been told on more than one occasion that we “don’t represent students” and that we should “stick to what you know: benefits, salary and working conditions.” Therefore, we see this state takeover as an opportunity to get these changes made.
Does the union have a plan?
This past October, the union drafted and shared its overview of big ideas we believed could be part of the state’s overall plan to change our schools. That overview was only the beginning. We have already met with hundreds of community members and are developing a plan using extensive community feedback and proven research to provide a road map for creating the schools Providence students deserve. In the coming months, we will bring solutions to the negotiating table that could help turn that vision into a reality. It’s called “bargaining for the public good” and it has been used successfully in school districts in Minnesota, New York and Ohio. Some of the ideas we hope to bargain for in our next contract include:
- Smaller class sizes.
- More counselors, school psychologists, paraprofessionals and school nurses.
- More social and emotional learning training and supports.
- After-school and summer tutoring programs.
- A high-quality professional development program led by teachers.
- Co-teaching teams for special education and ELL classrooms.
- A districtwide curriculum that includes the arts, science, social science and physical education.
- Partnerships with local organizations and businesses to increase field trip offerings, school clubs, after-school programs and other enrichment activities year-round.
- Guaranteed transportation to ensure that children can get to school safely and efficiently.
- Better and more systematic connections between teachers and parents/families, including language translation services for families for all school-based meetings.
How can we eliminate overt and systemic racism in providence public schools?
There are some proven ways to accomplish this and ensure that the district is making a genuine commitment to making every child feel nurtured, valued and respected. They include:
- Creating a culturally responsive curriculum.
- Promoting diversity in the teaching force.
- Offering space for parents to voice concerns and ideas.
- Hiring more high-quality bilingual teachers/staff and more certified ELL teachers, coordinators and staff.
- Providing more high-quality bilingual education.
- Developing programs to recruit and keep teachers of color.
- Reducing punitive discipline and embracing an anti-racism approach.
Do state takeovers work?
Since the 1980s, takeovers have been sold as an educational quick fix across the country, from New Orleans and Detroit to Newark, N.J., and Lawrence, Mass. The record of success is very mixed. Takeovers literally “take over” the democratic rights of local communities, almost always African American and Latino districts—the same places where public schools have been starved for funding for decades. Do takeovers help? The research shows top-down approaches create more problems than they solve. What works: All stakeholders working together, with the state listening and giving the right support and help. That’s what’s gotten real results in New Haven, Conn.; Cerritos, Calif.; and New York City. There’s no reason that the successes these places have achieved can’t happen here in Providence.
 Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, Providence Public School District in Review, June 2019, https://edpolicy.education.jhu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/PPSD-REVISED-FINAL.pdf
 EdCounts, Education Week Research Center, https://www.edweek.org/info/about/education-counts.html
 Hopkins, 38
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 Hopkins, 39, 44
 Hopkins, 39
 Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities through School Takeovers, August 2015, 3
 Center for Popular Democracy, State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement & Student Harm, https://populardemocracy.org/news/publications/state-takeovers-low-performing-schools-record-academic-failure-financial
 See Domingo Morel, Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy, Oxford University Press, 2018