State education commissioner requests authority to take control of Providence schools

PROVIDENCE – Angélica Infante-Green, the new state education commissioner, will request authority Tuesday from the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to intervene in the Providence public schools, including taking control of its operations.

That authority is contained in an existing state law, called the Crowley Act, which allows the R.I. Department of Education to take control of failing schools or failing school districts.

Under the act, as directed by the council, the commissioner can move ahead on a range of actions, including restructuring the system governance, budget, academic programs, personnel decisions and other decisions relating to school operations.

In a news release Friday, Infante-Green said she is seeking authority to take “strong action to fundamentally transform a broken Providence Public School District.”

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With 24,000 students, the city district is the largest public system in Rhode Island. It operates 41 schools and employs 3,200 people. For Providence, the school system accounts for more than half of the annual city budget.

The council is expected to take up the commissioner’s request in its meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The agenda item, posted Friday, cited findings in a recent Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy report that analyzed the district, as well as parent, student and educator meetings, and widely attended community forums.

The Johns Hopkins report, released in June, followed a series of visits to elementary, middle and high schools in Providence by teams of educators and education experts, who found evidence that the “great majority” of students are not learning on grade level or being challenged academically, that teachers are demoralized and parents feel marginalized, shut out of their children’s education.

The report also found the system of school governance leaves principals and other administrators feeling powerless to make needed changes.

The Providence schools came under the review of Johns Hopkins at the invitation of Infante-Green. This followed the release of standardized test scores this year that found poor performance throughout the tested grade levels, but particularly in eighth grade, and in English and mathematics.

The test changed this year in Providence to the RICAS – modeled after the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. The first-year experience was dismal, with scores indicating 90 percent of the Providence students tested were not proficient in math, and 86 percent weren’t proficient in English language arts.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Gina M. Raimondo described the state of the schools as a crisis, and said the stories shared by parents, teachers and students have made the need to address the school system failure immediate.

“Community engagement is critical and as we move forward we need every voice to remain at the table,” she said.

On Friday, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza held a press conference at Hope High School, one of the schools visited by the Johns Hopkins teams, and said he welcomed and invited state intervention.

In a statement, Council President Sabina Matos and the council leadership said they too wanted to work in partnership with the state to help improve student education, and looked forward to continued discussions with Infante-Green and the governor’s senior staff.

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.