PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s been more than a year since the R.I. Department of Education took over control of the Providence Public Schools, promising bold action to turn around a district that has been struggling for decades.
A new progress report on the first year of the state takeover highlights achievements including a staff reorganization, supports for multilingual learners and the adoption of a uniform curriculum, while pointing to the long road ahead to achieve a lofty set of goals set for 2025.
The 96-page report also acknowledges that one of the biggest goals of the first year of the turnaround — a new collective bargaining agreement with teachers — is yet to be achieved. State officials cite the Johns Hopkins report‘s assertion that the contract can be a barrier to change within the district, especially when it comes to hiring good teachers and firing underperforming ones.
State education officials have been negotiating with the Providence Teachers Union twice a week for months, and have yet to come to an agreement for a new contract (the old one expired in August, but continues until a new agreement is in place.)
The Education Department asserts it has the authority to make unilateral changes to the teachers’ contract because of its power under the Crowley Act — which was one of the big reasons Mayor Jorge Elorza said he supported the state takeover — and Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has implied that could happen. She declined to give a timeline while speaking to reporters Monday, after previously telling The Boston Globe something “drastic” was coming if there was no contract by the end of the year.
“I have a timeline in my mind that I do not wish to share at this point, but it’s coming up very quickly,” Infante-Green said. “We’re not going to see the traction that we need if we don’t get that teachers’ contract changed.”
Any unilateral breaking of the teachers’ contract would almost certainly result in a legal challenge from the union. The district already dipped a toe in the water in November by requiring teachers to do parent-teacher conferences this year, which the union has always said can’t be mandatory if they take place outside of the work hours laid out in the contract.
“She can’t impose a contract,” union president Maribeth Calabro said Monday. “It does not say that in the Crowley Act.”
The union didn’t fight the imposition of mandatory parents-teacher conferences, in part because this year’s virtual format makes it much easier for teachers to schedule the conferences around their home responsibilities. Plus, as Calabro pointed out at the time, the vast majority of teachers always did the conferences before — despite them not being mandatory.
She said the union has been at the bargaining table trying to come to an agreement, but said the two sides are far apart. The state’s year-one report says the negotiations have lasted 260 hours so far.
The two sides have come to some agreements over the past year, however, increasing the number of professional development days and moving up the timeline for hiring teachers from outside the district, which shrank the number of vacant positions at the start of the school year.
The new progress report cites a number of changes made in the first year of the state takeover, including a central office reorganization that included layoffs, with some employees placed in other positions in the district. The district created new positions including network superintendents and an executive director of the multilingual learners, in an effort shift resources from the administrative office to the schools.
The hiring blitz also included installing new principals in several schools.
The school system has also been ramping up its multilingual learner supports, including by offering a financial incentive to teachers to become certified in English as a Second Language and convincing more parents to sign their students up for the program. A new blueprint for multilingual learners was also released last week, as the district continues to work to comply with a 2018 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Education Department also contracted with American Reading Company and Eureka for district-wide curricula in English language arts and math for certain grades, amid a “lack of quality, coherent curriculum across the district,” according to the report.
New plans were also put in place to renovate school buildings, and build at least one new one in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital building, which businessman and former Mayor Joe Paolino is donating to the city.
The hospital building is slated to become a pre-K through 8th grade school by 2024, according to state officials. The vacant Windmill Street School is also being turned into swing space, where students from Carl Lauro Elementary will move while their school is renovated. The swing space is slated to decrease the length of construction from 27 months to 15 months.
Providence voters have twice approved multimillion dollar bonds to pay for the projects.
Remaining unclear is whether any improvements have been made in student proficiency in the past year, especially with many students learning from home. The most recent RICAS scores were released in 2019 right before the state takeover, but students didn’t take the statewide standardized assessment this year because of the pandemic and it’s not yet clear if they will take it in 2021.
Superintendent Harrison Peters said a test called the Independent Reading Level Assessment (IRLA) that came with the American Reading Company was administered to K-8 students in Providence this fall, in addition to the STAR exam.
The results have not yet been released.
On Twitter, Calabro appeared to dismiss the state’s report about its own turnaround progress, likening it to “keeping a food journal and not documenting all the junk food you ate.”
The teachers’ union has been critical of the state’s handling of the pandemic, lamenting the fact that other school districts revert to distance learning when short-staffed due to quarantines and delayed contact tracing, while Providence has kept schools open while facing similar challenges.
“We made great strides this year in building a solid foundation for lasting change,” Infante-Green said, adding: “In the midst of a pandemic.”