Are Providence Schools Better Off After Five Years of State Management?

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On November 1, 2019, RI Department of Education (RIDE) used the authority granted in the 2006 Crowley Act, to take sole control over the Providence Public School Department (PPSD) and its 41 schools. Today, five eventful years later, can we say that our schools are in better shape than they were in 2019?

PPSD gives itself high marks and points to 3 areas of improvement.  Says Jay  Wegimont, PPSD spokesperson, “Yes, Providence Public Schools are in better shape than they were five years ago. Through PPSD’s Turnaround Action Plan, Providence has a $600+ million school construction plan that will increase the percentage of students in high-quality learning spaces from 5% to 50%. That’s not a typo. PPSD has also, after opening just PCTA as a new school in the last 13 years, this year PPSD opened 3 new and like-new schools. Spaziano Elementary, D’Abate Elementary, and Windmill Elementary – now the Narducci Learning Center.

“In partnership with the Providence Teacher’s Union, PPSD was the only district in the state that invested federal relief funds to extend the school day by 30-minutes every day which accounts for nearly 15 additional learning days. We’ve improved instruction and provided continuity for students by introducing a high-quality, K-12 curriculum to replace a hodge-podge. We continue to engage the community with monthly D-WAC, PAC, and SAC meetings to update stakeholders on the progress we’re making. We expanded opportunities for our youngest learners and announced PPSD’s FIRST 5-start PreK Program at Young Woods and second at Kazarian Elementary.

“Here’s another point, we’ve expanded CTE Programs across the district – not just at PCTA.  E-Cubed Academy has CTE programs for: Computer support specialists, Computer science (programming & web development) and networking (cybersecurity & cloud computing)

“We offered summer school to elementary school students focusing not just credit recovery but to accelerate learning and held spring break programming. We have added school counselors, assistant principals and school culture coordinators to better support our students.”

Test scores stagnant

On the other hand, from outside the School District, It’s harder to say “yes,” using the standards set in RIDE’s own Turnaround Action Plan (TAP) developed in 2020.

The takeover occurred in the wake of a comprehensive review of PPSD by Johns Hopkins University that documented in damning detail the city’s inability or unwillingness to solve deep and persistent problems that prevented its children from receiving the educations they deserved.  RIDE’s Turnaround Action Plan set ambitious goals for improvement to be achieved by the 2024-2025 school year that begins this September.

But by the end of the last academic year, the key academic metrics for Math and English Language Arts test scores in 3rd, 8th and 11th grade had barely budged since the 2018-19 school year, the year used as the TAP’s baseline for improvements. In fact, the scores are more down than up.

RIDE’s turnaround record on key test scores

Percentage of Providence students “meeting” or “exceeding” test score expectations

(ELA = English Language Arts, RICAS = RI Comprensive Asessement System, SAT = Scholastic Aptitude Test)

TESTBaseline Score

(2018-19)

TAP Goal

(2024-25)

Actual Score

(2022-23)

3rd Grade ELA  RICAS26.4%68%19.2%
3rd Grade math RICAS17.8%55%20.8%

 

8th Grade ELA RICAS meet/exceed14.7%63%14.6%
8th Grade Math RICAS7.4%50%6%
11th Grade ELA SAT25.5%67%27.6%
11th Grade Math SAT14.6%54%13.4%

Baseline and TAP Goals taken from the TAP. Most recent scores from RIDE.

There are many reasons why test scores have stayed stubbornly low, including huge factors beyond anyone’s control, like the year-plus of schooling largely lost to the COVID pandemic during 2020 and 2021 and the continuing increase in the number of multilingual learners, students who are not yet proficient in speaking and writing English.

Providence’s test scores have been abysmal under excellent and not-so-excellent superintendents and in most schools across the system since testing began. Dr. Ellen Foley, an expert on assessment and a (now displaced) teacher at PPSD’s 360 High School points out that test scores are a “lagging indicator.”  Low scores tell us we have already failed. Schools need to use “leading data indicators,” that measure student engagement and school culture, to assess whether they are on the right track. Perhaps the obsessive focus on test scores has been the very reason they have not improved.

How has RIDE managed our schools?

A better question about the takeover is whether PPSD under RIDE is a more effective organization and whether it is now better positioned for lasting improvements than it was when it was overseen by the Providence School Board. To understand the effectiveness of RIDE’s leadership we need to look at how they have implemented the strategies clearly laid out in the Turnaround Action Plan.

The TAP’s “Excellence in Learning” section refers to the whole array of teaching policies and practices, but most importantly to instituting what is called “high quality curriculum” for math and English Language Arts across the district. The district needs “World Class Talent” to design, disseminate and deliver that curriculum to students in classrooms. And it needs “Efficient District Systems” to support that talent and ensure that innovation and supports are quickly provided where they are needed.

Curriculum improvements were clearly crucial to a turnaround. In 2019, the Hopkins reviewers discovered that Providence teachers were using many different course designs and materials to teach the same subjects, including outdated texts. They found teachers lecturing students or sitting them in front of computers rather than engaging them. And they saw many classrooms where large numbers of students were paying no attention or were simply unable to participate due to lack of English.

More than one Providence superintendent has tried to impose order over the curriculum. In fact, one reason for the chaos is that so many math, science and English “packages” have been introduced and abandoned so rapidly that teachers are justifiably skeptical that any innovation will be an improvement or last longer the methods they know and use.

Talent turnover

The World Class Talent strategy supported RIDE’s effort to break that cycle.  RIDE brought in a new “Turnaround Superintendent,” Harrison Peters, with experience in three of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, to the post in January of 2020. A former School Board member says, “Under Harrison Peters, we had a good relationship: transparent and consultative. He wanted to learn from local knowledge.”

The superintendent would be supported by a Turnaround Cabinet of highly qualified educators at PPSD’s Central Office. One star was Dr. Evonne Alvarez, a Hispanic woman with 26 years in Miami Dade County Public Schools building STEM, Advanced Placement and other rigorous academic programs for urban students. Her innovative work to develop an arts magnet schools in Miami won a national award.

A Central Office colleague describes Alvarez as “highly qualified, energetic, determined to make change. She would say ‘no.’” Alvarez came on board in January of 2022 as Redesign and Innovation Officer and was promoted to Chief Academic Officer, responsible for all curriculum, that July.

But the talented team had trouble taking root in Providence. Peters was forced to resign the in May of 2021 after an administrator he hired was charged with simple assault for fondling a boy’s feet.

Javier Montañez, the very gregarious and popular principal at the Leviton Dual Language School, stepped in as Superintendent after Peters. He graduated from Providence’s Hope High school and has had more than 20 years of teaching and leadership in PPSD.

An academic specialist in PPSD’s Central Office recalled high hopes with the appointment of the home-grown leader. “We felt Javier had such potential and heart. He came around every week with his notebook and asked, ‘What do you need?’”

But Montañez’s mandate to lead was never clear. Initially appointed as Interim Superintendent in June of 202l, he wasn’t given the official job until April of 2022.

RIDE appointed a “Senior Advisor” named Joan Jackson to bolster Montañez. On the PPSD Organization Chart, she’s at the same level of authority as the Superintendent. Jackson is widely seen as the Commissioner’s representative inside PPSD. Some PPSD staff say she is the real boss in Central Office.

Once Jackson arrived in November of 2021, the Superintendent’s weekly check-ins ended. Now “everything goes through Joan,” according to a member of the Central Office team who prefers to remain anonymous. “Javier is just the face.”

The atmosphere at PPSD Central Office soured badly over the course of 2022. In July, senior administrators anonymously leaked information about a mismanaged credit recovery program to the Providence Journal and members of the School Board. In November an email from “eight district-level leaders” at PPSD raised broad charges of dysfunction and mismanagement by Montañez and RIDE Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, as well. The email said that Joan Jackson had “created a work environment that eight district-level leaders consider intimidating, hostile and abusive.”

The world class talent didn’t stay in that environment for long. In November of 2022, the Executive Director of School Improvement, Cory McCarthy, resigned. In December, Evonne Alvarez resigned as Chief Academic Officer. Two months later the Assistant Superintendent of Providence Schools, James Boyd, quit, too. All three are educators of color, making their departures even more of a setback for district badly in need of diversifying its staff to match its student body.

Today, McCarthy is the Chief of Student Support for Boston Public Schools. Alvarez is Superintendent of Schools for Lynn, MA, a district nearly the size of PPSD. Boyd is now the Executive Director of KIPP Delta Public Schools in Arkansas.

Strong curriculum teams disbanded

Back in 2019, the Johns Hopkins report offered one ray of hope for Providence’s curriculum challenges. Community partners they interviewed cited the PPSD Office of Teaching and Learning as one bright spot in the District’s Central Office. Some representative comments:

  • “Its leadership is powerful and moving things forward” with a “clear vision – and responsive to its partners.”
  • “They have increased the metrics and high standards.”
  • “This team is causing more people to want to work in Providence.”

When Evonne Alvarez was the Chief Academic Officer, PPSD added even more subject matter specialists to the Teaching and Learning Department. The Department team was charged with leading the district’s efforts to hit the core academic goals set in the Turnaround Action Plan. They helped select curriculum, but their most important role has been to provide the professional development, coaching and support classroom teachers and principals needed to implement it.

Math and English Language Arts got the most support with six specialists for each area. Each school building also got one math and one ELA coach.

After Alvarez’s departure, her job went unfilled for a full year.  A Central Office source says the Teaching and Learning  group faced encroachment on their curriculum choices and their access to teacher training time from higher-ups who made decisions without their advice and from consulting firms like the DM Group, which is taking a bigger and bigger role in PPSD’s curriculum and professional development program. One classroom teacher described the succession of consultant-driven changes as a “hamster wheel of curriculum.”

According to the Central Office source, the math team at Teaching and Learning was particularly concerned about the DM Group which was promoting a curriculum that made no sense to them and that conflicted with their approach. They asked for a meeting with the DM Group consultants. The DM people opened the meeting by saying, “We are not educators.” Surprised to hear this, someone on the math team asked them what they were, then. The DM representatives were highly offended and refused to answer.

Despite their hard work to build district-wide curricula that responds to the needs of Providence students, we were told, the whole Teaching and Learning team has been “restructured.” A new Chief Academic Officer, Paula Dillon, formerly the Assistant Superintendent of Barrington schools, finally came on board in February of this year.

One of her first moves was to reassign the whole math team to work in schools. In early April, the entire Teaching and Learning Department was called in for their first team meeting in more than a year. It was also their last. They were told that none of their contracts would be renewed at the end of June due to the severe budget cuts affecting the entire district.

The following week, PPSD put out job announcements for a whole set of new Teaching and Learning positions. The old team had 21 positions in total. The new team will have 18. Thirteen of the 18 new positions are at the much higher-paid Director level. A comparison based on the salary ranges for the old and new positions shows the district might save about $156,000 in payroll costs by firing and re-hiring an entire department.  This in a requested budget of $428 million.

Students and teachers vote with their feet

Meanwhile out in the schools where the students are, conditions are as dire as they’ve ever been.  A general teacher shortage has been made worse by a crisis of low morale and burnout as teachers feel disrespected and disempowered.  Providence schools began the year with no teacher available for more than 100. More than 360 Providence teachers were “displaced” from their current jobs in March, and no one knows how many will find another PPSD position before September.  A full quarter of Providence’s 2,000 teachers turned out at a meeting of the RI Board of Education this February to express their misery and anger, only to have their pleas fall on deaf ears.

Students and families leaving, too: enrollment has plummeted from 24,000 to 19,000 since 2019 and is projected to fall more. Many leave for charter schools, but but charter growth and demographic changes do not account for all of the loss. Of those who did enroll, nearly half (49%)  were “chronically absent” in 2023, meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year.

The district has closed two schools and is closing two more. It will undoubtedly “consolidate” more if it completes its “Newer and Fewer” plan to replace neighborhood schools with large buildings housing kindergarten through eighth grade under one roof.

Few community leaders opposed the takeover in 2019. Some hoped RIDE would bring new funding. (It didn’t.) Others thought RIDE would impose union contract concessions that had eluded the city’s negotiators. (It couldn’t.) And all of us hoped for something, anything that would stop the bleeding and really turn our schools around at last.

The schools have not turned around under RIDE’s administration. In fact, they seem to be even farther down a bad road. Many students and teachers simply don’t want to be in the schools that RIDE now runs.

Return to city control?

The state takeover occurred with no set expiration date and no standard for giving control back to Providence.

State legislation passed in 2022 specifies a five-year initial school takeover term. But it allows the Commissioner of Education to impose three-year renewals if “the district has not improved sufficiently,” as established in regulations that it directed the Commissioner to submit to the RI Board of Education’s K-12 Council for approval.

Those regulations, approved this March, leave it to the Commissioner to decide whether the district has improved. The Commissioner also determines whether the local school board and municipal government “have the capacity and readiness” to ensure continued improvements as identified in the Turnaround Action Plan. The regulations set no specific standards for sufficient progress, capacity or readiness.

In other words, the Commissioner will return schools to Providence when she wants to and not before. If RIDE continues to miss its own academic and other plan metrics, “insufficient progress” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Commissioner may, at her discretion, determine that obstreperous Providence School Board and City Council members who object to aspects of RIDE’s plans and management “lack the capacity and readiness” to manage their own schools.

Mayor Smiley has not set a date to take back control and political responsibility over a district that, some say, is in even worse shape than it was five years ago. He wants to see specific gains before the takeover ends. But so far, there are few gains in sight.

So, RIDE’s takeover will end when the schools improve. But because RIDE hasn’t improved the schools, the takeover will continue.  It’s a perfect Catch-22.

Jonathan Howard is Co-founder of Cause & Effect, Inc., a consulting company that provides strategic planning facilitation, fund development planning and board strengthening to mission-driven organizations. He is a long- time resident of Providence.