PPSD Teachers Struggle to be Heard by the RI Board of Education

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Unable to enter the Board of Education meeting, teachers filled the hallway outside the fifth floor conference room.Photo: Jonathan Howard

It was cold and dark as hundreds of Providence Public School teachers from all over the district streamed into downtown Providence a week ago Tuesday. They came to attend and, they hoped, influence, the January 30 meeting of Rhode Island’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, also known as the K-12 Council.

The K-12 Council and the Council on Post Secondary Education jointly make up the State’s 17-member Board of Education. “The Board of Education is the chief policy-setting body overseeing K-12 education in Rhode Island,” according to the RI Department of Education. The K-12 Council has eight volunteer members. It meets monthly to oversee the work of RIDE and its Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green.

The teachers were determined to share their deep unhappiness with the way Providence Schools have been managed – they say mismanaged – since the RI Dept of Education (RIDE) assumed control of the Providence Public School District (PPSD) in November of 2019.

By a few minutes after five, an estimated 500 or more teachers were packed into the first floor hallway of the RIDE building on Westminster Street, expecting to fill the seats of the first floor Janice A. Paff Auditorium once the doors opened.

School psychologist Stephanie Pagliarini came to the RI Board of Education meeting to support her colleague, a student counselor whose job is likely to be cut next year. Photo: Jonathan Howard

The auditorium doors never opened. While teachers spoke and chanted and waved signs on the ground floor, the Council convened five floors over their heads in a small conference room with seats for fewer than 30 viewers. A fair number of those seats were taken by RIDE staff members.

The teachers rallied in the downstairs hallway anyway. Providence Teacher Union President and Maribeth Calabro, a classroom teacher herself, told the crowd, “We want a seat at the table. We’re tired of being on the menu.”

Teachers at the rally took the loudspeaker to describe dire situations at their buildings: newly arrived immigrant kids getting no useful instruction. Eight-year-old children putting their heads down and crying after 15 hours of “assessment” testing. No graph paper for a math class. No paper at all in another. Not enough glue for projects. Endless changes in curriculum and core systems without training or support in their use.

Worst of all, no teachers in many classrooms as the district hemorrhages its most qualified teachers, particularly in specialties like ESL, special education, math and science. Providence teachers are resigning much faster than they can be replaced. (There were 212 teacher resignations during the 2022-2023 school year. Providence Schools started the current school year with no assigned full time teacher in 101 district classrooms.)

This information was shared far from the ears of the K-12 Council. As teachers learned that they would not be able to sit in the auditorium for the three-hour-plus meeting, many moved up to the fifth floor hallway, at least as many as could fit. Somewhere between 70 and 100 people stood quietly outside the conference room doors. The space was so packed that some people had to step into the elevator so that new arrivals could get out. Teachers huddled around cell phones to follow the meeting via live stream.  (The meeting video is now available on RIDE’s web site.)

Inside the meeting room, Education Commissioner Infante-Green reported tremendous progress with RIDE’s work in Providence, particularly improved school buildings. She said that she had opened three new buildings in the last year and promised that 100% of Providence students will be in like-new buildings by 2030. She said they had “replaced a hodge-podge” with high quality curriculum, certified 500 Providence teachers in ESL, and introduced a first-ever workplace learning program in Providence Schools. In sum, she said, Providence was “a District on the move.” She shared a video featuring positive TV news reports and photos and footage of smiling teachers and students.

PPSD teachers got their chance to be heard during the “open forum” segment following the Commissioner’s report. One by one, the 37 people who had signed up to speak were called into the room from the packed hallway outside for their two-minute allotments. More than half of these were teachers, students or parents supporting one of the four charter schools seeking five-year renewals of their charters.

It made for a sharp contrast. Teachers from the charters spoke with enthusiasm about their school teams and the supportive environments for teaching provided by school leaders. Teachers from Providence Public Schools described barriers and obstacles placed in their way by their central administration as they struggled to provide their students with effective education.

It was a long list, including:

  • New standardized tests rolled out with little notice, training, prep time or accommodation for children with special needs.
  • Abrupt changes in building leadership in multiple schools weeks before schools opened.
  • Failure to fill teacher vacancies, leaving some students with no instruction at all for months at a time.
  • A district-wide data system rolled out without fully informing or training teachers to use it, leading to lost and inaccurate student data.
  • Time teachers used to have to plan together taken up with a revolving door of consultants and external trainers.
  • Reading and math curricula that were introduced, abandoned and replaced with new packages before the old ones could even be evaluated for effectiveness.
  • Shortages of every kind of teaching material.

The open forum format made it hard for listeners to take in and understand all the issues raised by the PPSD teachers. Each speaker was thanked and politely dismissed after two minutes. The complaints of PPSD teachers were interspersed with up-beat charter school boosters. The problems raised involved a lot of terms unfamiliar to non-educators and inscrutable brand names like “Canva,” “Lexia,” “IRLA” and “Magnetic Reading” for the packaged systems and curricula introduced by school administration.

One charter school presenter, Emily Plummer, a Segue Institute sixth-grade math teacher, came to the support of her district school peers. “I was able to wait outside with my fellow PPSD teachers and I’m hearing that we all want the same things. Teachers are noticing such a drastic need for support in the classroom. And whether it’s charter or public schools, we all need the same things, and our students need that. And the students need that now.” (Note: charter schools are public schools, The real distinction is between charter-run and district-run public schools.)

PTU President Calabro used her two minutes to say that she accepted joint responsibility with the Commissioner for poor communications and collaboration over the five years since RIDE’s takeover of PPSD. “It is on us. Both of us…. We are the reason there is a Senate Commission. We are the reason communication has been inconsistent, not open and not two way. We are the reason that collaboration has been a roller coaster of effectiveness.”

But, she went on, the result is that “our teachers feel like they no longer have a voice. They feel demoralized and disrespected because we have failed to create space for teachers to freely push back and voice their opinions without fear of retaliation.

“Decisions are being made about us without us, and that needs to change. Teachers are here out of stress, anxiety and, to a large degree, frustration. These feelings are exacerbated by the actions and behaviors of a small handful of district leaders.”

After public comment ended, the Council heard presentations from RIDE staff members on statewide curricula, assessment and regulatory issues.

One RIDE presenter, Steve Osborn, of the Office of Student Opportunities took time before his review of charter school renewal recommendations to offer what he apparently intended as a rebuttal of the PPSD teachers’ testimony.

“I want to tell a little bit of a story. We have heard stories specifically how things were better at Webster Avenue Elementary before the takeover,” he said, referring to three Webster Avenue teachers who spoke earlier in the meeting. And there’s a story that I think a lot of us at RIDE have heard.”

The story was about bats. According to Osborn, Webster Avenue Elementary had bats on its third floor when he visited the building just before the RIDE takeover in 2019. And, he said, the pre-takeover building leaders had put a special education class on the third floor as a way of limiting the number of students exposed to the bats.

Osborn had another story about the pre-takeover Spaziano School, which he also visited in 2019. There, he found a classroom floor that was open to a dirt basement and signs warning people to stay out due to asbestos.

“Meanwhile,” he continued, “a block and a half away was Achievement First,” (A charter school). “It’s no coincidence that schools who have, that are well-maintained, well-kept, well-managed have 5,000 applications to fill those seats. And schools that have bats, open floors to the basement aren’t.”

To be fair, the teachers from Webster Avenue Elementary did not defend the pre-takeover bats, nor did they compare schools now with schools before the takeover. Their statements and the statements of their colleagues were about the conditions and outcomes of classroom teaching today, four and a half years after the takeover.

With teachers and students leaving PPSD schools in droves, it’s at least reasonable to ask the K-12 Council to take a hard look at RIDE’s oversight of PPSD and the reasons why the district can’t hire and retain enough teachers to cover all its classrooms and students. When charter school teachers seem so satisfied with their teaching environments, why are so many PPSD teachers miserable?

Senator Sam Zurier’s Senate Commission on labor management relations in Providence Schools is trying to complete draft recommendations that would support teachers as professionals and take full advantage of their education and experience through collaborative planning, assessment and even collaborative school management.

That vision is far from the current lived experience of the PPSD teachers. They say they feel completely excluded, disempowered and undermined as educators by autocratic and arbitrary management practices.

The Council members gave no indication that they’d heard any of that. One of the Board members noted that they sometimes visited charter schools. She thought the Board should visit the school with the bats, too.

“The bats are gone now,” Osborn responded.

“They are gone,” confirmed Commissioner Infante-Green. Then she added her commentary on the PPSD teachers’ testimony. “It’s just interesting to hear what we’re hearing tonight when that’s what we’ve come from.”

After three hours, sixteen minutes and fifty-four seconds, the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education adjourned their meeting. The Board members had very few questions or comments over the course of the meeting. They offered no response to what they’d heard from PPSD teachers. Those issues weren’t on their agenda.
 
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. His three children all attended Providence Public Schools from kindergarten through high school.