Senators grill school officials about teacher vacancies in Providence

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence schools have continued to see a large number of teacher vacancies since the start of the school year, officials told lawmakers Wednesday night at an oversight hearing about the state-controlled school district.

There were still 124 vacant teacher positions as of Oct. 22, according to materials provided to the Senate Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight Committee. Of those 124 jobs, 65 are classroom positions and 59 are non-classroom jobs. (The numbers don’t include additional staff vacancies in the district outside of the Providence Teachers Union, such as administrators.)

Just 23 of the 65 vacant classrooms have long-term subs in place, according to spokesperson Audrey Lucas.

A panel of senators grilled a cadre of school officials for more than four hours about why teachers were leaving the district and how they were working to retain and recruit more of them. The hearing was called as part of an ongoing review of the state takeover of the Providence schools.

Providence saw 188 teachers leave the school system from January through August of this year, most of them over the summer, with multiple teachers telling Target 12 they were leaving because they felt underappreciated by leadership. As of August, nearly 350 teachers had left since the start of the state takeover.

Zack Scott, the deputy superintendent of operations, told the Senate committee Wednesday only nine departing teachers had responded to exit surveys sent out by the district, prompting a teacher from the audience to shout out that the surveys had been sent to email accounts they no longer had access to.

“How many teachers have been sat down with and a discussion has been had as to why they’re leaving?” asked state Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield.

“I don’t know the answer,” Scott said.

“You should know that answer,” Archambault responded. “Is there a policy where the principal does sit down with every individual who tenders their resignation?”

“There is not a policy that requires supervisors to do exit interviews,” Scott replied.

“Why not?” Archambault asked. None of the district officials at the witness table responded.

A packed audience of teachers repeatedly laughed when Scott was unable to answer the senators’ questions, including about how many Providence teachers had left and how many applicants had been interviewed for jobs amid the shortage.

As Target 12 reported at the time, there were 93 teacher vacancies in Providence schools as of Aug. 23, a number that climbed to 124 on Sept 7. School started on Sept. 9 with 127 vacancies, according to the data provided to the senators.

State Sen. Frank Lombardo questioned the feasibility of the district’s goal to have 650 teachers of color by 2025, roughly a third of the workforce.

“If we’re having a hard time hiring any teachers, how do we plan on getting that number of teachers of color in five years?” Lombardo asked.

Scott said the district has created a pathway for Providence’s teaching assistants — described as a more diverse group — to become teachers.

A new partnership with the Rhode Island Foundation is also providing student loan reimbursements for newly hired teachers of color, up to $25,000.

The district also implemented a $2,500 signing bonus for new teachers in September, which climbs to $5,000 for educators hired to teach middle and high school math or science, dual language and special education. Plus, the daily rate for substitute teachers has been increased.

During a public comment period, Providence Career & Technical Academy teacher Shannon McCloud said her fellow teachers were leaving the district due to “toxicity.”

“My colleagues are leaving in droves,” McCloud said. “Not to stop teaching – but to teach elsewhere.”

Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green did not attend the hearing due to a pre-scheduled medical procedure, according to her office, but her deputy commissioners and senior advisor were in attendance along with Providence Superintendent Javier Montañez, several other district officials and the state’s K-12 Council chair, Barbara Cottam.

Cottam told the committee that progress was being made under the takeover, despite the setbacks of the pandemic.

“We’ve really come too far to give up,” Cottam said. “Make no mistake about it, we have a long way to go.”

In his own opening remarks, Montañez said 550 high school students dropped out of Providence schools in the 2019-20 school year.

“In the last 20 years, more students have dropped out of PPSD than can fit in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center,” Montañez said. “We’ve already lost generations of students in Providence.” (Montañez himself dropped out of Providence schools as a teenager experiencing homelessness, but managed to beat the odds and achieve numerous advanced education degrees.)

He cited the addition of guidance counselors in elementary schools, more professional development and the expansion of dual language and career & technical programs as some of the specific improvements made during the turnaround.

Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Lou DiPalma questioned why there are no annual milestones in the state’s five-year turnaround plan; dozens of metrics describe goals to reach in 2025, but it doesn’t define metrics to measure year-by-year progress.

He said the committee will continue holding hearings about the Providence schools.

“As Providence goes, so does the state of Rhode Island,” DiPalma said.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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