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Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: Brown should amplify community voices in school takeover

By
Editorial Page Board
Monday, September 30, 2019

In a scathing report released by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Educational Policy in June, researchers described major failings of the Providence Public School District. The report, which brought a reviewer to tears, detailed student performance significantly below grade level, teachers without adequate resources, parents struggling to make their priorities heard and school buildings in dangerous conditions. In response, the Rhode Island Department of Education began a state takeover of PPSD. Four parties will have a legal, formal role in that takeover: the Providence City Council, mayor, School Board and superintendent. But one group has been denied that formally equal position: the Providence community.

Considering the importance of community involvement in the success of local education, the University must harness its power to call for the state to formally include community voices in its decision-making process. This is especially important because the University plans to coordinate with RIDE and develop its own response to the takeover.

In the Hopkins report, parents expressed anguish about their inability to be effectively involved in their children’s education. Research shows that students who improve in public schooling are those whose parents are active in their education. It seems only natural, then, that RIDE should strive to increase parents’ roles in their children’s education, which it could easily begin to do by providing parents with a concrete assurance that their voices matter early in the process. But instead, on Sept. 13, R.I. Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green rejected a R.I. Center for Justice motion calling for the Providence community to have an official part in the state’s efforts. While Infante-Green has said that community members will be represented once she issues a final order describing the takeover’s official shape, we need more than her word to trust when the stakes are this high.

If RIDE wants the state takeover to succeed, it must increase accountability and transparency by formalizing a process for community involvement. Since late July, RIDE has hosted nine public forums. But why should we trust that the community’s perspective will be respected and incorporated in decision-making processes? Too frequently, forums act as public relations stunts instead of fostering engagement, allowing community members to feel as if they are being heard without any promise of follow-through.  This approach, though optically attractive for public officials who want to say they care about their constituents’ input, puts Rhode Island at risk of a failed reform.

Finding a way to formally represent community members in conversations around Providence schools has the potential to improve more than the schools. Given the dismal state of Providence schools, many parents may feel lack of trust in the government, which risks complicating the state takeover process and leading to further division. RIDE must prioritize earning the community’s trust and learn how to incorporate community members’ intimate knowledge of the very problems the state strives to solve.

The University is in a unique position to play a positive role in this process — its ethos is built around a focus on community engagement, and it has the financial resources to help create meaningful change. The University has committed to inclusion through the Swearer Center for Public Service, which requires that each student service group has a community partner — such as a nonprofit, school or business — based in Rhode Island. In June 2018, the University unveiled the Brown and the Innovation Economy Strategic Plan, further supporting entrepreneurship and economic development in the state.

At the same time, however, the University canceled the elementary track of the Masters in Teaching and has no known plans to restart that branch of the program. Moreover, in 2007, the University promised to fundraise $10 million for Providence public education, and yet has raised only $1.9 million. While Director of News and Editorial Development Brian Clark asserts that current University investments in the district exceed the potential returns the endowment would have created, it remains disheartening that the University could not deliver on its promise.

Now more than ever, the University needs to act as an advocate for the Providence community.  Fortunately, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform — which emphasizes research and helps determine how school districts can serve families better — is well-positioned to facilitate this involvement. The University’s response must harness Annenberg’s knowledge to stress the myriad benefits of community involvement and outline specifically how the University will work to bolster the voices of community members throughout the takeover process.

Providence stands out from similar cities due to the consensus from all parties that a state takeover must happen. RIDE, therefore, is in a perfect position to welcome community voices and reform the district to directly serve the needs of the people involved. In her opinion piece in the Providence Journal, President Christina Paxson P’19 states, “While many state takeovers of city schools fail, those that succeed have the support of the entire community.” Paxson, and the University at large, must ensure the takeover is supporting the Providence community so that the community will support the takeover. RIDE and the University have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of the students in Providence Public Schools. But they cannot forget the passionate and informed community members who can provide valuable feedback and catapult the takeover to success.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Dylan Tian ’21, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20, Jonathan Douglas ’20, and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

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