Report paints bleak picture of Providence schools

PROVIDENCE – The Providence Public School District is failing miserably at nearly every aspect of its mission, with students struggling to learn in schools that are crumbling, unsafe and run ineffectively by school leaders and staffed by demoralized teachers, according to an independent report issued Tuesday.

The review, ordered by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo and Mayor Jorge O. Elorza in April, paints an incredibly bleak picture of the city’s schools, based on observations and interviews with students, parents and school officials that were conducted this spring by a team led by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

The situation was enough to drive at least one “seasoned” member of the review team to tears after observing deplorable conditions at one unnamed school.

The report added, “One team member from JHU, with deep experience of visiting the most physically run-down schools in Arkansas and Georgia, reported that ‘nothing s/he saw was like what I witnessed in Providence.’ ”

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The Johns Hopkins team concluded:

  • “The great majority of students” are not learning at even near grade level.
  • Teachers are demoralized and feel unsupported by school administrators.
  • Parents feel shut out of their children’s educational process.
  • Principals find it difficult to demonstrate leadership.
  • And many city schools are deteriorated to a point that some are dangerous to students and teachers.

The district “is overburdened with multiple, overlapping sources of governance and bureaucracy with no clear domains of authority and very little scope for transformative change,” the report said. “The resulting structures paralyze action, stifle innovation and create dysfunction and inconsistency across the district.”

The report didn’t offer any recommendations for fixes.

As the findings were being released late Tuesday night, parents of children who attend city schools were notified by recorded phone message that there will be a series of public forums to discuss the situation, beginning with a gathering at William D’Abate Elementary School, 60 Kossuth St., at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Those in attendance will have a lot to talk about.

In the report, the review team recounted observing some teachers who were openly disrespectful and loud toward young students at one school. “We overheard scornful yelling in the hallways as teachers and aides placed students into lines for extracurriculars or the bathroom,” the report said.

And, in the classrooms, the team was equally critical, saying there appeared to be a low bar for instruction and low expectations for students. “Very little visible student learning was going on in the majority of classrooms and schools we visited – most especially in the middle and high schools,” the report said.

After observing at one school, the team concluded that the majority of teachers and students “appeared to have largely giving up on an education.”

“Some rooms were utterly chaotic and unsafe,” the report continued. “Students were laughing, screaming, moving around and physically harassing one another, climbing up bookshelves.”

The reviewers said they heard from students stories of rampant bullying and “arranged fights” that were “actively promoted on social media.”

The report said many teachers expressed frustration with a lack of support and direction from the school administration, which they believed had no insight on how to improve the situation and how to implement policy and curriculum changes. “They could put the Nike symbol on the [central office building],” one school official was quoted as saying, “because everything is ‘just do it.’ ”

The report compared the proficiency of Providence students in math, reading and writing with those from Worcester, Mass., and Newark, N.J., considered comparable to Providence. “Providence schools scored lower than comparable districts in both [English Language Arts] and math in all grades across all years examined,” the report said.

Principals complained during interviews with the review team that the hiring process set forth by the teachers’ contract undermined their ability to get “strong faculty placements” in the schools. At the same time, the principals said, it was difficult to fire teachers who weren’t doing the job.

While the report noted the presence of “many devoted teachers, principals and some district leaders who go above and beyond to support student success,” the report’s authors also noted that teacher morale is low.

“In one interview with 15 teachers, some were openly crying about what their students and they had to deal with: no discipline expectations or support to maintain behavioral norms,” the report said.

Many teachers in the middle school and high school levels reported feeling unsafe. Johns Hopkins team members said they were told about a teacher being choked by a student in front of the class, but the student wasn’t disciplined.

In another school, teachers told the team that none of them lived in the district or sent their children to Providence schools. “This pattern was repeated in all the schools we visited; almost unanimously, teachers told us that they would send their children to a PPSD school ‘only if they could pick the teachers,’ ” the report said.

Raimondo, Elorza and state Department of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green issued statements following the release of the report on Tuesday.

“This report paints a grim, concerning picture of our school district. The truth is that most, if not all, of the issues that were observed are challenges that we, too, have identified and experienced as barriers to progress. This report makes clear that the status quo is failing our kids and we know that nipping at the margins will not be enough. We need wholesale, transformational change and I look forward to working with state partners, teachers, parents and students to accomplish it,” said Elorza.

“This report is devastating for the generations of students who have been denied a quality education, for the teachers who haven’t been supported, and for the parents who haven’t been heard,” Raimondo said. “After seeing this report, there is no question that the system is broken, and Providence schools are in crisis. This report calls on all of us to step up and to channel our collective outrage into action.”

The three officials were expected to comment extensively on the report’s findings at a news conference set for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Statehouse.

In the spring, the governor had called for a review of the Providence schools after the capital city had posted low standardized test scores. Elorza agreed with the review. Raimondo named Infante-Green the new commissioner of K-12 education for Rhode Island shortly thereafter.

Raimondo has said repeatedly that every option for making fixes was on the table – including as some questioned whether that would include a state takeover of the city’s public schools.

“Everything has to be on the table,” Raimondo said in an interview in late April on WPRO-AM radio. “Fifteen percent of the kids were proficient. A vast majority of schools in the Providence schools are not making the grade.”

In a related matter, the Providence School Board is expected to appoint Dorothy Smith as acting superintendent on Wednesday.

Smith, already an administrator in the district, will fill the position as the school board searches for a successor to Superintendent Christopher Maher, who is leaving this week.

William Hamilton is PBN staff writer and special projects editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at