R.I. business groups form alliance to support education

Updated at 4 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – A collection of prominent groups representing hundreds of businesses across Rhode Island on Thursday formed a new alliance to support better education outcomes statewide.

According to its formal announcement, the new coalition, called the Rhode Island Businesses for Better Education, will focus on advocacy, accountability, and regional and national best practices on how to improve the state’s struggling education system. The coalition’s nine founding members are the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Black Business Association, Partnership for Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Business Coalition, the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association and the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Erin Donovan-Boyle, the Greater Newport Chamber’s CEO and president, told Providence Business News on Thursday that the education and business sectors are “on the same page” in making sure students are properly educated and have the skillsets to enter the workforce in any industry. But now, the associations, Donovan-Boyle said, felt that now is the time to have a “coordinated effort” from the business perspective and offer assistance to help improve education in the state.

Donovan-Boyle said the coalition hopes it can weigh in on the skillsets that businesses want to see, bringing in industry expertise to inform education officials what skillsets are still pertinent and needed to meet the businesses’ workforce needs. She also said she hopes the coalition can become more “engaging,” including hearing from teachers and other educators on ow businesses can help.

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For example, Donovan-Boyle recalled conversations between superintendents in Middletown and Newport and the local businesses how businesses can get involved, whether it’s offering internships, speaking engagement or offering students tours of business facilities. She also said businesses want to support investing in new school buildings, including the upcoming school bond measure to build a new middle-high school in town.

“That infrastructure goes a really long way in designing an area where kids can become more creative and excited to go to school and learn,” Donovan-Boyle said. “But, the curriculum also has to follow. We’re interested in seeing how we … can be part of the solution.”

Neil D. Steinberg, the former Rhode Island Foundation CEO and president and recently nominated to lead the state’s Life Sciences Hub board, will serve as RIBBE’s informal adviser and provide pro-bono support “to serve as a convenor and strategic facilitator” for the new organization, the coalition said. The new coalition is supported with seed funding from the Partnership for Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Foundation, it says.

The coalition formed not long after the R.I. Department of Education came out with its common assessment system results, which showed that student proficiency improved year to year, but state education leaders admit that a lot of work is still ahead to get education back on track statewide. Also, RIPEC in its policy brief last month proposed a 70% increase in state education spending to help districts across Rhode Island better serve multilingual learners.

Additionally, Providence Business News in the Feb. 3 print edition spotlighted R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s repeated call to the business community to help the Providence Public School District, which is currently under state control. While progress was made with business groups aiding city schools, there was no real consensus at the time as to how businesses could help turn around the state’s largest and significantly struggling school district.

With the group having a simultaneous statewide-local focus in addressing education, the new coalition at this time does not have a “formal stance” on the current situation with PPSD, spokesperson Mike Raia told PBN Thursday. But, the group is looking at the PPSD matter “very closely.” He also said business owners have family involved in all 36 school districts across the state, and going to be “as supportive” as possible for the goals that every district is setting for student achievement.

The new coalition said it will focus on five principles that put students first: equity; high standards and accountability; innovation and modernization; support; and workforce readiness. The group’s agenda will initially address the student absenteeism crisis, lingering student achievement gaps, and the need to “transform and innovate” college and career pathways.

Donovan-Boyle also said the idea of business leaders going into the classroom for special sessions or clinics with students is “not off the table.” She said business leaders “would be happy” to work with guidance counselors on how to best expose students to career opportunities.

Liz Catucci, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber’s CEO and president, said in a statement the achievement gap “creates obstacles” for students and it’s a “significant concern” for business owners statewide.

Lisa Ranglin, the Rhode Island Black Business Association’s president, said in her respective statement the state cannot build a resilient economy if it doesn’t hold education leaders and institutions accountable for achieving higher standards.

“Rhode Island students deserve better. As business leaders, we recognize that every student – and especially students from our most overlooked communities – deserves access to a high-quality education that meets the demands of our future economy,” Ranglin said.

RIBBE said it will meet with other business associations and business leaders in the coming weeks to try and bring them into the fold. Additionally, the coalition will hold events with business owners, policymakers, parent associations and other stakeholders to highlight the current situation with the state’s education system and “solicit input on specific policies the organization will support.”

Regarding the coalition possibly setting up monetary grant programs to support schools and how will the coalition hold education officials accountable for student performance, Donovan-Boyle said it is too early to tell, citing that the coalition was just formed. She said the coalition’s first focus this year will be it understanding what the schools’ needs are and “where is it a good fit” for the business community to be engaged. The coalition will also meet with state-level education officials, including the R.I. Department of Education, as well as part of its mission, she said.

(UPDATED to include comments from Erin Donovan-Boyle and Mike Raia.)

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.