PROVIDENCE – Being called to serve has been nothing new for Harrison Peters.
A former U.S. Navy veteran, Peters has also worked in multiple, challenging school districts across the country in order to transform and revitalize those districts to improve the quality of education for children.
Starting Feb. 20, Peters’ latest challenge will be to bring the Providence Public School District up to the high standards the state is demanding of it. Peters and his new turnaround team were formerly introduced Monday as Providence’s new school superintendent at a press conference at Leviton Dual Language School.
Peters was introduced by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, R.I. Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green and R.I. Board of Education Chair Barbara Cottam after several months of searching for a new school leader in the Ocean State’s capital city. Now, Peters travels north to help revitalize Providence’s struggling school system, which is now under state control.
“I immediately felt the community and the love,” Peters said to the audience of state and local school officials in the school’s library. “We’re just so happy to be part of this. Serving kids in places where the challenges were great, and change was needed. I’m ready to start that work in Providence.”
Peters shared briefly his upbringing in which he was raised by his grandmother who only had a second-grade education, has one brother currently incarcerated in Texas and lost another brother to gun violence growing up. He started his education career as a teacher in Florida, and worked in various districts such as Charlotte Mecklenburg, Chicago Public, Houston Independent and, most recently, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida where he served as deputy superintendent and chief of schools.
Peters said education changed his life and believes genius and talent are “distributed equally across zip codes, but opportunity isn’t.”
“Our job is to unleash and unlock opportunity for all children,” Peters said. “This is a unique opportunity. Rarely do you have the state and local government align a consensus around a community to unleash hope and opportunity for young children.”
Peters also said change happens “at the speed of trust” and asks for the chance to “build your trust and earn your confidence.”
Serving alongside Peters as his turnaround team are Barbara Mullen as chief equity officer, now former College Visions Executive Director Nick Figueroa – he announced his resignation from the Providence-based nonprofit Monday – as his chief of family and community engagement, and Dottie Smith as Peters’ senior adviser.
Change in the Providence schools will not happen overnight, Peters and other state and school officials said Monday. An independent report conducted by Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy released in late June stated that students were struggling to learn in schools that are run ineffectively, as well as being staffed by demoralized teachers, among other scathing findings, that prompted the state takeover.
“[Peters has] moved his family here and he says he’ll do whatever it takes to get it done,” Raimondo said. She also noting that the state “owes it” to teachers “to do better,” saying that teachers and students have “toiled in a system that has been broken for too long.” Raimondo said Peters’ success or failure in Providence is dependent on fellow state and school administrators working together to improve the district.
Infante-Green said those around Peters can feel his “passion” and the state cannot afford “to have excuses.”
“We have to move forward, and that’s why Harrison is here,” Infante-Green said. “He’s here to chart that course for us to move us forward. When I say this is life and death for our kids, I mean that. This is not something we should have; this is something we have to have, an equitable education for our students. We will not fail our kids.”
Peters said he will start speaking with those in the school community to better understand the district, and hopefully understand the “context” of Providence’s current education condition. But, his interim focus will be to have “great teachers and great leaders” in place, he said.
James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com.
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