Lincolnite at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

October 15, 2019; Boston Globe

Like children in many cities, the kids of Providence, Rhode Island are being served by a school system in trouble. After years of effort to make things better, the Rhode Island Department of Education, along with the city’s mayor, asked the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy to tell them just how bad the situation was. Last June, they finished their work, and the portrait they painted was grim:

  • The great majority of students are not learning at, or even near, grade level.
  • With rare exception, teachers are demoralized and feel unsupported.
  • Most parents feel shut out of their children’s education.
  • Principals find it very difficult to demonstrate leadership.
  • Many school buildings are deteriorating across the city, and some are even dangerous to students’ and teachers’ well-being.

The question before local and state policymakers was not if, but how to provide help. This week, Rhode Island’s Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green announced that the state would take over Providence’s schools, concluding that improvement could not be achieved by the community’s school board or elected officials.

According to the Boston Globe, local leaders concurred. As Dan McGowan writes, “None of the potentially aggrieved parties—Mayor Jorge Elorza, the City Council, the Providence School Board, or interim Superintendent Fran Gallo—objected to the state takeover.”

In announcing her decision, Infante-Green said:

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. 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.

On November 1st, when the takeover takes effect, Infante-Green “will have sweeping authority over budgetary and personnel decisions for Rhode Island’s largest school system, which serves 24,000 students, many of them minorities from low-income households.” Beyond an expected quick hiring of a new school superintendent and the creation of a parent advisory committee, little is currently known about the specific plan to resurrect the city’s schools.

Infante-Green views the way local officials managed Providence’s schools as an obstacle that can only be overcome by taking power away from the community. She explains to WJAR-TV, “What happened here is layers and layers of bureaucracy. The way I like to describe it is one Band-Aid after another. What we have to do is re-imagine what this entire system can look like. This means from the district office to parents feeling welcomed in the building.”

Outlines of what will happen next have begun to emerge, including changes to the curriculum, hiring practices for teachers, and even the buildings, some of which purportedly “shouldn’t have children in them in the present condition.”

State leaders talk commitment to local input yet are willing to deny localities power. The order taking control commits the state to giving “relevant stakeholders, including students and parents, sufficient mechanisms to express their opinion on material decisions” and “measure the progress of the plan.” Listening is one thing, but hearing and heeding the voices of those directly affected is another. The state will evaluate its own progress and decide when, if ever, Providence will retake control of its schools.

There’s no magic bullet to fix broken cities. Closing schools in bad condition that would be expensive to repair only makes sense if you have a plan for their students. Providence Teachers’ Union President Maribeth Calabro told WJAR that while she “agrees many of the schools are in terrible condition, a strategic plan must be made before any schools are closed.”

“My concern,” Calabro says, “is where do we go? We’re at 105 percent capacity, at least, right now. Teachers are sharing classrooms.”

As in other cities, like Chicago, school closures rob local neighborhoods of important anchors while still not replacing the need for significant investment.

Providence is not the first place where local control was judged to be the root of a struggling educational system or where state leaders thought they know best. There are few examples of this strategy resulting in sustained improvement. As flawed as local systems may be, they’re not what holds learning back. Rather, the critical factor is poverty. Unless area leaders recognize this hard truth and guide their plans accordingly, Providence’s children face an uncertain future.—Martin Levine