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Mayor Elorza meets with community groups to discuss state takeover of Providence Schools



“To do something this big and this challenging, you need everyone pulling in the same direction. You need the community to embrace it. You need everyone to play a part. That just hasn’t been the case in other places,” said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. “This has never been done. That’s what’s facing us.”

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza met with representatives from more than 18 neighborhood associations and organizations[note]The Providence Coalition of Neighborhood Associations includes Blackstone Conservancy, College Hill Neighborhood Association, Downtown Neighborhood Association, Elmwood Neighborhood Association, Elmwood + South Providence Crimewatch, Fox Point Neighborhood Association, Jewelry District Association, Mile of History Neighborhood Association, Observatory Neighborhood Association, Olneyville Neighborhood Association, Providence Preservation Society, Reservoir Triangle Neighborhood Association, South Elmwood Neighborhood Association, Summit Neighborhood Association, Washington Park Neighborhood Association, Wayland Square Neighborhood Association, Wayland Merchants Association, West Broadway Neighborhood Association[/note] to discuss the state takeover of the Providence Public School District (PPSD). The meeting was well timed, as earlier in the day Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green released her final Order of Control and Reconstitution and “Decision Establishing Control Over the of the Providence Public School District and Reconstituting Providence Public Schools.”

The order says that the state takeover of Providence schools will begin on November 1, and is expected to last about five years.

This, said Mayor Elorza, might not be enough time.

“I see this as a truly long term process that we have to engage in,” said Elorza. “I don’t think five years is going to be enough. It could be ten years. It could be something else. But in terms of all our expectations – in terms of when it’s going to take, and how long it’s going to take, this is something that we need to commit to for a long, long time.”

Public Input

Mayor Elorza also said that in order for the state takeover to bring lasting change, community involvement is essential.

“The reality is that there is not a single example of a successful state intervention into an urban school district that has worked,” said Elorza. “There’s not a single example in the United States of America.

“So that’s what we’re up against. It’s a daunting task,” continued Elorza.

“One thing that we have working for is that when these things are typically done, they’re done by a Republican governor to a district that’s run by a Democratic mayor. So from the beginning there’s tension and there’s a clash. To do something this big and this challenging, you need everyone pulling in the same direction. You need the community to embrace it. You need everyone to play a part. That just hasn’t been the case in other places,” concluded Elorza. “This has never been done. That’s what’s facing us.”

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“Utilizing community input to inform school improvement, and incorporating the voices of parents, students, and communities, is essential to the successful implementation of turnaround interventions and policies that will lead to positive, tangible outcomes for our students and children,” said John Goncalves, one of the founders/organizing members of the Providence Coalition of Neighborhood Associations.

Commissioner Infante-Green’s order makes room for the kind of public input Elorza mentioned. Representing parents, students, and student organizations in the PPSD, Jennifer Wood of the Rhode Island Center for Justice applauded the “meaningful community involvement in the creation, implementation, and monitoring of the state’s Turnaround Plan for the PPSD” in the Commissioner’s order.

Wood noted that Infante-Green’s order now includes:

  1. provisions, policies, and practices to ensure transparency in the implementation of the Turnaround Plan;
  2. respect, recognition, and value for the diverse communities served by PPSD;
  3. provisions to afford students and parents sufficient opportunity to measure the progress of the Turnaround Plan; and
  4. provisions to afford relevant stakeholders, including students and parents, sufficient mechanisms to express their opinion on material decisions.

“It is clear that the Commissioner heard our concerns about meaningful inclusion of parents and students in school reform,” said Zack Mezera of Providence Student Union, one of the groups represented by Attorney Wood. “She has incorporated many of the requests that students, parents and community organizations have expressed by incorporating community voices, accountability, and transparency into the Final Order. We are ready to roll up our sleeves and work with the Commissioner over the next five years to make sure that all students receive an effective, responsive, culturally inclusive, and empowering education.”

Charter Schools

With the Commissioner’s order, “The state will be in a position to decide to expand charter schools, or not,” said Elorza, in answer to a question. “I’ve never been anti-charter. I am for what works. At the same time, it’s our responsibility to balance budgets, and I am all too aware of the fact that expansion of charter schools draws resources away from traditional public schools and makes it more difficult for us to meet the needs of our kids. So how do we strike that balance?

“There’s one thing that has been staring us in the face that we haven’t been taking advantage of,” continued Elorza. “There are high performing charter schools in our city, and the whole idea of charter schools has always been that they develop best practices because they have extra flexibility, and once we realize what works, that gets exported out to traditional public schools. That has not happened.

“The question of what’s going to happen with charter schools – That’s a question that needs to continue to be raised with RIDE. I believe them when they say they are committed to transforming the traditional public schools,” concluded Elorza. “And charter schools have been part of the equation, they’ll continue to be part of the equation, but I want to make sure that there is a commitment to preserving and improving our traditional public schools so that every one of our 25,000 kids gets the education they deserve.”

Democracy and Accountability

“When we evaluate this school takeover over time, what kind of checks will there be for voters, democratically?” I asked Elorza. “Because as far as I can see, we have a person, Angélica Infante-Green, who’s not elected, in charge. How do we hold her accountable when we go to the voting booths?”

Elorza didn’t have a perfect answer for this lack of democratic oversight, but did point out next steps in building and ensuring public accountability. Elorza explained that Commissioner Infante-Green’s first action will be choosing a new PPSD Superintendent.

“When the superintendent comes on board, whoever that is, and whenever that is, that person’s first task is going to be to put together a Turnaround Plan,” explained Elorza. “That Turnaround Plan will have community input. We will demand and we will require that there is community input. And part of that turnaround plan will have certain metrics and it is my expectation it will spell out how it is that we’re going to be measuring the success or not of this process.

“So that will give us something to hold the superintendent, RIDE and the state accountable,” concluded Elorza. “But that is to be determined… that will be the first order of business with the Turnaround Plan.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.