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K-12 council votes to authorize state takeover of Providence schools

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s education commissioner says she will install her own superintendent to lead the Providence Public School Department when she takes over the school district.

The state’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education voted in favor of Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s plan to take state control on Tuesday night.

Infante-Green plans to reconstitute the struggling school district by invoking a 1997 law called the Crowley Act. The process of actually taking over is expected to take about 90 days, which means the state won’t have control prior to the start of school on Sept. 3.

Infante-Green said in an interview with WPRI 12 that she anticipates appointing a person, whose exact title is still to be determined, who would act as superintendent and would report directly to her.

Her pick would replace Fran Gallo, who is expected to be appointed interim superintendent by the Providence School Board. (An initial vote on Gallo’s appointment is planned for next week.)

Infante-Green said she has a “couple of people” in mind for the new superintendent role.

“To do this work, we need to have people that have done this type of work,” she said.

Infante-Green said she made the decision to take control in Providence during a series of public forums held in the wake of a Johns Hopkins review that labeled the city’s schools as among the worst in the nation.

“The stories that were coming up were systemic issues,” Infante-Green said. “We failed a generation of students.”

At the council meeting, she said she would not be participating in politicking: “I don’t care about contracts, I don’t care about vendors,” she said. “I care about children.”

One of those children, an 11-year-old boy named Naiem who attends West Broadway School, made his own appeal to the K-12 council.

“Have you ever had to sit in a room and work when all you can smell is the odor of a dead rat somewhere? I have,” he said.

Infante-Green, who was appointed education commissioner by Gov. Gina Raimondo after working in other states, said her plan will include restructuring the district and removing “layers of bureaucracy.” The Crowley Act allows the state to take control of the budget, programs and personnel of underperforming schools.

She said the takeover would not resemble the one that happened in Central Falls in the 1990s. The struggling district is the only one with lower test scores than Providence.

“What happened in Central Falls was a financial takeover,” Infante-Green said. “Nothing else took place in Central Falls other than that. The state did not dictate curriculum, did not dictate who they had to hire, we did not dictate anything. What’s going to happen in Providence is going to be very, very different.”

While much of the plan is still a work in progress, Infante-Green said one of her immediate initiatives prior to the takeover will be to track teacher and student absenteeism statewide and post the data online.

Chronic absenteeism among both students and teachers was an issue detailed in the Hopkins report.

Infante-Green also said she plans to work with community members to improve school culture, which will be detailed in a document expected to be ready by the start of the school year.

Another immediate initiative is crafting a cell phone policy; the Hopkins report described scores of students disengaged in classrooms, watching videos on their phones or texting.

Mayor Jorge Elorza has thrown his support behind a state takeover, insisting it will allow rapid change to happen faster than the city can legally do it.

Changes to the teachers contract, for example, could be made under the state control model. Infante-Green said she doesn’t anticipate tearing up the collective bargaining agreement, but rather “working with the teachers union to figure out what works right for teachers.”

She added: “Any adult conversations that don’t lead to student outcome are problematic for me. All our conversations and work have to lead to that.”

Will she fire underperforming teachers? While Infante-Green said “nothing is off the table,” she doesn’t see that being the route she takes.

“If there are teachers, administrators, whoever, not doing what they have to do, then other conversations need to happen,” she said.

Infante-Green also said some expansion of charter schools will likely be part of the “toolkit” of a turnaround plan, but not the “end-all be-all.”

“It’s about different options,” she said.

If any city leaders including the mayor, City Council, school board or superintendent object to the takeover, they will be given a chance to show cause that the state should not take control.

Infante-Green said ultimately she wants the district to be set up to run itself, so the state can withdraw control in the future.

“We are a very proud state, and I would like to be able to lead the way in education for the entire nation,” she said.

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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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