PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The new superintendent hired by the state to help turn around the Providence Public Schools spent his first official morning on the job touring schools and district offices Thursday, as he prepares to lead a major effort to improve the school system.
Harrison Peters, who moved to Providence this week from the Hillsborough County schools in Florida, said he plans to spend some time “learning and listening,” which will include visiting every school.
“Things need to change and need to change immediately,” Peters told reporters after meeting students and teachers at Gilbert Stuart Middle School. “The kids that I’ve seen today are waiting on us, so it’s time for the adults to act.”
He described the Johns Hopkins University report released last summer as “unsettling, to say the least.” The report was the impetus for the state to take over the school district, a move spearheaded by R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green last fall.
“It created a sense of urgency,” Peters said. “We need to act now.”
Peters said he “absolutely” plans to slim down the district’s central office, pushing more resources instead into the schools directly.
In that spirit, the district sent “displacement notices” to about three dozen teachers union members who work in the central office on Wednesday, letting them know that their jobs might be consolidated next school year as part of a reorganization.
Peters said the letters were sent for “maximum flexibility,” and that no decisions have been made about which jobs will be consolidated.
“The magic happens in the classroom,” Peters said. “Our vision is to push resources and decision-making closer to schools.”
Teachers union president Maribeth Calabro described teachers as frustrated and devastated about the letters, and said some were scrambling to prepare résumés to apply for internal job postings, which go live on Friday.
Calabro said she is also eager to begin negotiating a new union contract with the state, which is the next big item on the agenda in the state takeover.
While the current contract — which took years to negotiate with Mayor Jorge Elorza amid a lengthy battle — doesn’t expire until August, Infante-Green said Thursday she wants the new contract finished in the next two to three months.
“This is the single most important thing that we’re going to do moving forward,” Infante-Green said. “For him to be successful, he’s got to have the flexibility that currently does not exist.”
Asked which parts of the contract would be barriers for Peters, Infante-Green replied: “How much time do you have?”
She signaled that major changes will be coming on that front.
“We didn’t come here, I didn’t move my family here, he didn’t move his family here, to do status quo,” Infante-Green said.
Infante-Green moved to Rhode Island from New York with her husband and kids to take the job as state education commissioner last year, and she currently lives in Central Falls. Peters said Thursday he has moved to Olneyville in Providence, and his wife and son plan to join him at the end of the school year.