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State, city leaders react gravely, promise action after PVD schools report

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The response has been swift and sobering from local and state leaders after the release Tuesday night of an explosive report on Providence public schools.

The city’s mayor, Democrat Jorge Elorza, declined an interview request but in a statement called for “transformational change.” He plans to hold a news conference in the morning to address the findings along with Gov. Gina Raimondo and Angélica Infante-Green, the new education commissioner.

“This report paints a grim, concerning picture of our school district,” Elorza said in a statement. “The truth is that most, if not all, of the issues that were observed are challenges that we, too, have identified and experienced as barriers to progress. This report makes clear that the status quo is failing our kids and we know that nipping at the margins will not be enough.”

Raimondo was already planning to take a more active role in trying to turn around the city schools, and cited the report as evidence of why state involvement is necessary.

“This report is devastating for the generations of students who have been denied a quality education, for the teachers who haven’t been supported, and for the parents who haven’t been heard,” the governor said. “After seeing this report, there is no question that the system is broken, and Providence schools are in crisis.”

In an interview Tuesday morning, Infante-Green told WPRI 12 she was “sick” after reading the report, calling it “devastating” and “heartbreaking.”

“It was tough to read without feeling the pain,” she said.

Asked if she would send her own child to Providence schools, Infante-Green had a straightforward answer: “No. Very clearly, no.”

The report was the result of a review conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy, whose researchers described school buildings in such bad shape it brought them to tears. The report was wide-ranging, dealing with issues of safety, academics, teacher contracts, governance issues and more.

On the teachers union contract, administrators told the researchers it was nearly impossible to fire teachers based on poor performance, leading to frustration.

“This is a very thick contract compared to other places,” Infante-Green acknowledged. She also said she finds it “shocking” that teachers only get one mandated day of professional development. She suggested they start at at least five or six.

Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro pushed back on the idea that teachers can’t be fired; she said some had been fired this year. While she acknowledged the union contract provides for “due process,” she put it back on administrators to document poor performance if they want to fire a teacher.

Calabro was one of several leaders who said many elements of the report were not a surprise, though they were devastating nonetheless. She said she left a briefing on the report on Monday “feeling that I had been kicked in the chest with a steel-toed boot.”

“Those things, although it’s tough to read, it’s not like those are shocking,” Calabro said. “Because we were aware of them.”

“We as adults have failed our kids,” said Jo-Eva Gaines, a member of the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which met Tuesday night to review the report. “We have not done what we knew needed to be done.”

City Council President Sabina Matos also called the report “heartbreaking.”

“It won’t be easy, and we won’t see changes overnight, but this is a wake-up call,” Matos said. “Our school system is failing our students and we need to act – not tomorrow – but today.”

Providence School Board Chairman Nick Hemond also said there were “no surprises” for him in the report, noting these are issues city leaders have been trying to address.

“We haven’t moved the needle as a city,” Hemond said. “We’re all culpable in this … everyone involved is culpable.”

Among his suggestions moving forward: additional supports, additional interventions, smaller class sizes, a 12-month school calendar, more English language learner teachers and more special education teachers.

He also said the school governance structure needs to change, either by giving the school board more authority or abolishing it altogether.

“If you want us to help, give us the authority to do it,” he said. “If you don’t want us to help, don’t have a school board.”

Hemond emphasized that he respects and works well with Elorza and the City Council, but said he can’t do much on the school board with “one arm tied behind my back.”

He said he wants to have a partnership with state leaders, but argued a “state takeover” that replaces the mayor and local school board would be a “terrible idea.”

The report details the organizational issues with having so many governing bodies — the City Council, the school board, the state council, the state education department, the mayor’s office and the superintendent — all having a hand in crafting policy and approving spending.

Superintendent Chris Maher, who is leaving his job this week and was quoted in the report, “stressed frustration with the need for micromanagement of every initiative through endless layers, players and budget limits,” according to the researchers. He said he didn’t feel he had the “authority” to do his job under Elorza.

In a statement after the report’s release, Maher said: “The RIDE report creates a much-needed sense of urgency around the educational needs of Providence public school children and the system that strives to support them. My hope is that this sense of urgency translates into concrete actions that improve outcomes for our young people.”

He suggested looking to Massachusetts’ school improvement plans, saying they mirror the “insight and ambitious five-year plan” put forward by the Providence School Board, dubbed “Empowering Students and Schools.”

One of the governance issues detailed in the report was the procurement process. City Council approval is required for any purchase totaling more than $5,000, which the report said was mandated in response to “corrupt decision-making in the past,” but now only had “one lukewarm defender.”

Infante-Green called the requirement “ridiculous.”

“You could spend $5,000 on papers for the photocopy machine,” she said. “You’re spending your time on paperwork rather than being an instructional leader.”

Instead, she said it’s time to get to work fixing the schools. The state and city plan to hold joint public forums in English and Spanish for parents, teachers and staff in the coming weeks. No decision has been made about whether the state will take over the schools.

“Now it’s time for all of us to own it,” Infante-Green said. “And it’s time for us to say, OK, this is what it is and it’s horrifying and it’s detrimental … what are we going to do about it?”

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

Shiina LoSciuto contributed to this report.

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

Providence

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