Ed commissioner concerned about teacher absences, school buildings


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s education commissioner says she plans to tackle teacher absenteeism when she takes over Providence public schools.

Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who is planning to invoke a state law to take over the capital city’s school system later this fall, said she first wants to find out why such a high number of Providence teachers are chronically absent.

“We cannot have such high teacher absenteeism,” Infante-Green said in an interview with WPRI 12 on Thursday. “And we are known for that.”

Data released by the city Wednesday indicated about 500 teachers were “chronically absent” last year, missing one-tenth of the school year. The data covered all reasons for absences, from sick days to professional development and maternity leave.

RIDE’s own data on absences is slated to be released at the end of the year. That data will not include long-term leaves, according to a spokesperson.

Regardless of the reason, Infante-Green said it’s a problem for learning when teachers are out of the classroom for a large portion of the school year.

“If you don’t have your consistent teacher that knows you, knows the plan and you have constantly different substitutes, yes, it makes a difference,” she said.

Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro has said the absentee data should not include professional development days, bereavement days or long-term leaves like maternity leave.

But Calabro acknowledges there are still a subset of teachers who are abusing their sick time, in part because of school culture and burnout.

Infante-Green also criticized the fact that it took a month for the city to provide the data to Target 12. She said she plans to require all cities and towns to track absence data so it can be posted online publicly.

“Providence is a broken system,” Infante-Green said. “If they’re having trouble just tracking numbers, that tells you a lot about what’s happening in the district.”

Also on Thursday, Providence City Councilor Nicholas Narducci warned that he does not believe city schools will be ready for the first day of classes next month, despite what school officials have said.

“The city is now deploying employees from the Department of Public Works to help finish projects that will barely make the schools functional,” Narducci said in a statement. “Time and time again, we listen to this administration and take them at their word, and then to only find out that it is only lip service on their end, and it is disheartening.”

“I want answers, and I believe my colleagues do as well. Our students, teachers, staff, and parents deserve answers,” he added. “They deserve to know that the city is doing what they say they are, and I’m not sure that’s the case.”

Infante-Green said she is also concerned about the Providence school buildings ahead of the new year. She said her team has been inspecting every school over the past several days, with “mixed” results.

“I’m disappointed so far in what I’ve seen,” she said.

Asked if she would consider closing school buildings once the state takes over, Infante-Green said, “We might have to look at that. If the buildings are in such terrible condition, I mean, would we want our kids there? I think we need to make some tough decisions.”

The state is currently going through the legal process of taking control of the school district. An order has been drafted, and a group of city leaders will have the opportunity to “show cause” that it shouldn’t happen at a hearing on Sept. 13.

Infante-Green plans to hire a “turnaround superintendent” to run the district. She said Thursday she has interviewed multiple people, both from Rhode Island and out of state, though no names have been released.

RIDE is also holding a series of focus groups to discuss ideas for specific policies that should change.

“The plan that’s going to go forward is going to be generated with the community,” Infante-Green said.

She said charter schools will be part of the turnaround plan, but brushed aside a suggestion made by Mayor Jorge Elorza earlier this week that perhaps a lower-performing charter could close in order to open make room for an expansion of Achievement First, which has higher-performing test scores.

“We’re not horsetrading seats, that’s not what this is about,” Infante-Green said.

RIDE recently received five new applications for charter schools, four of which would be in Providence. One of the applications is for a charter high school run by Roger Williams University.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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