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What state intervention of Providence schools might look like

Target 12


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – What will state intervention of Providence schools look like?

That’s the big question swirling around the capital city, and being debated among education officials behind closed doors, as they weigh their options in the wake of a damning report that showed Providence schools are among the worst in the nation.

Mayor Jorge Elorza is holding a news conference on Friday morning with the stated purpose of “calling for state intervention in Providence schools.” State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green cancelled plans to speak to reporters Friday, and is expected to reveal an outline of her plan at a meeting of the state’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday. (An agenda item describing what the council will consider will be posted on Friday.)

Target 12 has confirmed Rhode Island is looking at using the 1997 Crowley Act that gives the state powers to control a school district’s “budget, program, and/or personnel.”

Local and state leaders insist there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to intervention, which has worked with varying levels of success in other parts of the country. 

“It’s important to note that there’s not one single solution,” Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s communications director Jennifer Bogdan wrote in an email. 

But two examples likely to influence the state’s plan moving forward are Camden, New Jersey, and Lawrence, Massachusetts, according to multiple Target 12 interviews with local, state and education officials involved in discussions.

The two cities – both with less than half the population of Providence – have similar demographics, with racial and ethnic minorities accounting for the majority of residents.

Median household incomes range from $26,105 in Camden to $39,627 in Lawrence and $40,366 in Providence. A large percentage of residents in the three cities speak a language other than English at home, compared to 21% nationwide.

And like Providence, both Camden and Lawrence faced a crisis in their schools, resulting in state intervention that expanded charter school operators, gave greater autonomy to individual schools and resulted in massive layoffs of under-performing teachers and expensive administrators. 

Camden

In 2012, Camden was home to many of the lowest-performing schools in New Jersey, with less than 2% of high school students meeting the SAT benchmark for college readiness, according to state figures.

Lawmakers including then-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, decided state intervention was necessary, and passed a law allowing it – along with the expansion of nonprofit public charter schools called “renaissance schools.”

In New Jersey, lawmakers appointed as superintendent an education reformer named Paymon Rouhanifard, who was given broad authority over decision making. He moved quickly.

Facing a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, Rouhanifard eliminated positions through attrition and fired about 200 teachers, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. (He later rehired about half of those.) He closed some schools and shifted others to renaissance operators. Within five years, more than half of Camden students learned in charter or renaissance schools, according to a report by The New York Times.

Test scores from Camden show steady gains in proficiency since the state intervention began. At Camden Prep, one of the renaissance schools, more than half of students met or exceeded expectations in English Language Arts and math last school year.

Rouhanifard has been lauded in various national reports as a successful reformist, who saved one of the country’s worst school districts. But not everyone agrees with the assessment.

The teachers union criticized him for focusing more on the charter schools compared to traditional public schools, and a state audit released this year found the Camden renaissance schools lacked oversight. The schools also had issues of noncompliance with criminal background checks and employee certifications, according to the audit.

In Providence, charter schools will likely be a focus of discussions moving forward. Achievement First — a nonprofit charter school operator with more than 600 students in Providence — has performed better on standardized tests than its traditional counterparts in the city.

Lawrence

Lawrence Public Schools had a long history of dysfunction and corruption when state leaders voted to put it into receivership in 2011.

The state appointed a receiver, Jeff Riley, who had power over the superintendent and school committee. He was tasked with developing a three-year turnaround plan for the schools that were labelled “chronically underperforming.”

The plan included firing 160 underperforming teachers and slimming down the central administrative offices, giving more power to individual schools. A similar approach was used in Camden.

Riley, who is now the state’s education commissioner, filled the vacant jobs by recruiting non-union teachers from Teach for America and “successful charter schools,” according to a 2016 Johns Hopkins research analysis on the turnaround plan.

Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, is already concerned about what might happen to her members, who she feels are being unfairly targeted for many of the issues in Providence. And she’s wary of the Lawrence model.

“I too have looked at districts who were similar in many ways and when they worked collaboratively with the union their successes were equally impressive,” she said.

Providence officials, meanwhile, like aspects of the Lawrence model, especially the heavy focus given to city involvement in the planning process.

“We know that Lawrence is an example of a successful city/state relationship where both entities worked together to create positive, lasting change in a school community,” Elorza spokesperson Emily Crowell said.

Johns Hopkins, which also penned the devastating report on Providence schools, called the Lawrence results “remarkable,” writing that it may provide a “viable policy solution in urban districts well beyond Massachusetts.”

Despite widespread recognition of improvements across the district, which included improved test scores, higher graduation rates and fewer students dropping out, Lawrence has not yet exited receivership, and is still listed as a “Level 5,” the lowest level performance metric in Massachusetts.

How much the experiences of Camden and Lawrence will play into the finalized plan for Providence will be answered in the coming weeks and months. What’s clear from the examples, however, is that the decisions could be drastic and long-lasting.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitterand on Facebook.

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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