New ‘Turnaround Plan’ aims to drastically improve Providence schools under state control

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s long-awaited plan for how to turn around the Providence Public School District was released Tuesday morning, laying out out a broad five-year “blueprint” for how to improve the academics, culture and bureaucracy in the struggling system.

The plan, dubbed the Turnaround Action Plan (TAP), has been repeatedly delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is being released almost exactly one year after the Johns Hopkins University report detailed systemic dysfunction within the district and prompted the state takeover that started in November 2019.

While the plan lays out a very specific list of goals, it is short on details for some of the actual plans, instead promising to release more detailed plans in the future for fixing school buildings, improving multilingual learning, expanding pre-K, changing or updating contracts, releasing a new budget and potentially launching new schools.

But some of the items in the plan are already in progress, including a reorganization of the district and slimming down of the central office, the selection of a new multimillion-dollar curriculum from American Reading Company, and incentives for teachers to become certified in English as a Second Language.

R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green also revealed more details about school building facilities while speaking to reporters Tuesday, saying RIDE would soon be announcing a new K-8 school in South Providence that is the result of a “gift,” and would likely be closing some school buildings.

“We will be taking some buildings offline,” she said, though she didn’t say which ones. “And we’re also looking at what we can do to rent some space in the meantime so we can update our buildings.”

Asked if the new school in South Providence is the former St. Joseph’s Hospital building, Infante-Green said it “could be,” but declined to confirm.

Former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino, who owns the vacant hospital building also declined to comment “at this time,” but added that he plans to do something “very philanthropic” for the school district.

Paolino had previously announced a plan to house the homeless in the hospital building. But he said Tuesday: “If it could become a school, that takes care of young people so they don’t later become homeless.” (The school buildings are still controlled by the city, and a spokesperson said Tuesday conversations are ongoing with Paolino regarding “using that facility as an educational space.”)

Infante-Green is also in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the Providence Teachers Union. The existing contract was criticized in the Hopkins report as making it difficult to hire good teachers and fire bad ones.

The plan says the newly negotiated contract “will include the ability to hire the best candidates for positions and dismiss the lowest performers,” setting a goal of getting more external applicants for teaching jobs.

At least seven days a year of professional development for teachers will also be included, the plan says.

RIDE spent much of last summer gathering public input for the plan, then convened three Community Design Teams in December that came up with recommendations which were shared at a community day in March. The teams were dubbed World Class Talent, Excellence in Learning and Engaged Communities, which are also the names of the three “pillars” of the new turnaround plan.

“When the transformation is complete, Providence students will attend schools that treat them with respect and dignity, educate them with rigor and depth, and prepare them to succeed in whatever path they choose after graduation,” Infante-Green said in a statement.

As part of the takeover, Infante-Green hired Harrison Peters to be the state turnaround superintendent for Providence schools. He started in February, just weeks before all Rhode Island schools began virtual learning because of the pandemic.

Year 1-3 initiatives

The turnaround plan lays out a list of new initiatives expected to go into effect in Years 1 through 3, with Year 1 beginning this fall with the 2020-21 academic year.

The plans for Years 4 and 5 will be determined in 2023.

In the first year, the plan calls for creating a “rapid response” system for families to communicate with the district, likely to include a text message system where parents report problems and get regular updates on teacher attendance.

A community council and parent academy will also be created in Year 1, the later of which is aimed as helping families advocate for their children.

The first year of the plan also includes the implementation of the new English Language Arts and math curriculum, and promises a pre-K expansion plan with the goal of 20% of 4-year-olds enrolled in “high-quality pre-K” by 2025.

Fewer than 1% of 4-year-olds in Providence are currently enrolled in pre-K deemed “high quality” by RIDE’s definition, according to the report.

Year 1 will also bring new teacher pipeline initiatives, according to the plan, which will prioritize hiring teachers of color. The Hopkins report pointed out the wide disparity between the race of Providence teachers, who are mostly white, and Providence students, who are mostly Hispanic and Black.

RIDE launched a new teacher recruitment campaign called “Almost Impossible,” producing a one-minute video that will be marketed on social media to targeted audiences. A spokesperson said the campaign is being paid for by Chiefs for Change.

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RIDE has also contracted with Teach for America for $300,000 to recruit 30 teachers to hard-to-fill areas.

The school district started this past academic year with 90 vacant teacher positions. Finding enough substitutes has also been a constant problem, with Providence only managing to fill about 50% of absences with subs, leaving the unfilled classrooms to be covered by other working teachers, as reported by Target 12 earlier this year.

The new turnaround plan sets a goal of a 75% substitute fill rate by 2025, and includes a plan for Year 3 to hire school-based substitutes and start a fellowship program. The model is currently used in Central Falls with its Warrior Fellows Program.

“I would like 100% by like, now,” said Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union. “We need substitute teachers, we need to have our classrooms filled.”

She also said the teacher attendance rates also need to be improved.

The plan for Year 2 says “several schools will be created or transformed,” and also pledges to establish an office “to support newly launched schools.” But what or where those schools will be — and whether they will replace current schools — is not spelled out in the document.

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Peters announced earlier this month the closure of Evolutions High School, a pilot school embedded inside Mount Pleasant High School, but so far no physical building closures have been announced.

And while Infante-Green said school buildings are expected to close, the turnaround plan is mostly mum on the topic, only saying that RIDE will “release a plan to upgrade the school facilities of Providence such that all public school students attend school in a facility that is safe and modern, with appropriate spaces for learned and access to 21st century technology.”

The John Hopkins team said some schools they visited were in poor shape, with one in “absolutely dire condition,” though others were in much better physical condition.

New goals set for proficiency, absenteeism

While some of the district’s plans are still in the works, the goals that state leaders want to hit are laid out in specific detail.

For example, the plan asserts that 50% of 8th grade students must meet or exceed expectations on the RICAS math test by 2025, compared to 7.4% hitting that proficiency target last year. (The test was not taken this year due to the pandemic.) Targets are also set for other grade levels and for the SAT.

The district also aims to have 89% of students graduating within four years by the end of the five-year plan.

The plan sets a fairly lofty goal for combating chronic absenteeism, aiming to have 90% of students attending at least 90% of the school year by 2025.

Currently, about a third of Providence students are considered “chronically absent,” meaning they have missed more than 10% of the school year (which is 18 days).

Another goal is to have every student enrolled in a school with two or more stars on the state’s accountability rating system, which currently rates more than a dozen Providence schools just one star out of five.

In the World Class Talent category, the list of goals includes having 33% of the teachers be educators of color, which would require hiring 260 more teachers of color over the five years.

Calabro said the union supports that initiative, along with the initiatives to certify more ESL teachers, increase graduation rates and improve student success.

“It’s the same stuff we’ve been talking about,” Calabro said of the overall plan. “I expected to see a little more detail.”

There are also metrics tied to social-emotional health, rather than academics. The plan calls for 80% of students to report in an annual survey that they “feel a sense of belonging at their school,” compared to 40% currently.

The plan promises to be a “working document,” with updates to come as initiatives are implemented and more community feedback is received.

RIDE also says it will release an annual report on the progress, in addition to providing quarterly updates to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education and Providence School Board.

Infante-Green said the plan would “live on” even if she and Peters leave the state.

“Not that we’re trying to leave, because neither one of us is leaving,” Infante-Green said. “We’re Rhode Islanders now.”

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

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