State takeover of Providence schools set to begin Nov. 1

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s education commissioner has issued her final order to take state control of Providence Public Schools, and has set a date for it to take effect: Nov. 1.

Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s new order, released Tuesday morning, also extends the length of the state takeover from three years to five, putting it past the time when Rhode Island will have a new governor.

She said the intervention will be evaluated after five years to see if it should continue.

“We are making a commitment of not giving back the school system until the school system is in a stable place,” Infante-Green said.

Infante-Green, who was appointed by Gov. Gina Raimondo earlier this year, is planning to install a new superintendent — who will answer directly to Infante-Green — ahead of Nov. 1.

She told reporters Tuesday morning that she is in contract negotiations with the final candidate for the job, whom she would not name. Infante-Green did say the superintendent pick is from out of state.

A “turnaround plan” for the troubled district is expected to be crafted after the superintendent is hired. It will likely be completed in January, Infante-Green said.

The commissioner said she anticipates forming an “advisory board” of parents as part of the plan. The turnaround will also include having a uniform curriculum for the district.

Infante-Green said she is looking at restructuring the district, including possibly creating K-8 schools rather than dozens of elementary schools feeding into a smaller number of middle schools.

And closing school buildings that are in poor condition is on the table, Infante-Green said.

“We probably will have to close a couple of the school buildings,” she said. “Some of these buildings really should not have children in them in the present condition that they’re in. That’s the reality.”

Infante-Green’s office has been reworking the preliminary order since an emotional show-cause hearing about the document last month.

The order notes that none of the four parties that were allowed to object to state control at the hearing — the mayor, superintendent, Providence School Board or City Council — chose to do so, and it throws cold water on arguments made by three councilwomen who spoke at the show-cause hearing.

The order also lays out why Infante-Green denied Providence students and parents a formal legal role in the process. Several groups that wanted to “intervene” testified for hours at the hearing, asking to be formally included in the final order as a fifth party with legal standing.

The commissioner denied their motion at the hearing, but points out that her order requires the new superintendent to “be accessible, and be responsive to students, parents, families, educators and the public broadly.”

Infante-Green has pledged to include the public in the process of writing the turnaround plan.

The lawyer for those groups issued a statement Tuesday evening in support of the new order, pointing out that it now includes a paragraph calling for “provisions, policies and practices to ensure transparency in the implementation of the turnaround plan” and “provisions to afford students and parents sufficient opportunity to measure the progress of the turnaround plan.”

However, the same paragraph says Infante-Green herself will make the determination about whether the plan satisfies those requirements.

“It is clear that the Commissioner heard our concerns about meaningful inclusion of parents and students in school reform,” said Zack Mezera, the president of the Providence Student Union, one of the groups that moved to intervene in the original order.

“Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Providence, and I am excited to begin the work of transforming the city’s schools to serve generations of students and families,” Infante-Green said in a statement.

“We know the road ahead will be long and challenging in order to make sustainable, long-term change. We are committed to working tirelessly with educators, students, and the community to develop a plan that moves us in that direction from day one,” she said.

The state takeover process has been building all summer, after the Johns Hopkins report released in June detailed devastating academic and physical conditions in Providence schools.

The report was bolstered by a second report, released this month, written by the Council of the Great City Schools. That report focused on English learners, who the report’s authors said were basically “invisible” in Providence.

The order gives Infante-Green broad power, under the state’s Crowley Act, to control the budget, personnel and programs of the Providence schools, and potentially close schools or reorganize the school district altogether. The order says all Providence schools employees will now answer to the state turnaround superintendent and/or Infante-Green.

Infante-Green said she expects the School Board, interim Superintendent Fran Gallo, Mayor Jorge Elorza and the City Council to have “advisory” roles at this point.

“The strong collaboration we have built with the State and local stakeholders will continue to be the driving force behind what we have envisioned for PPSD,” Elorza said in a statement. “As we consider every option and engage every stakeholder, we will focus on developing sustainable changes that build bright futures for every Providence student.”

“No one person or entity can do this alone, and we are in this together,” Council President Sabina Matos said. “This process is not going to be easy, but I hope this will be an opportunity for true transformation for our school system, and that it serves all of our students. It is essential that all stakeholders, including the City Council, have a seat at the table as we navigate these changes.”

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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