Metro, News

Infante-Green spearheads Providence school takeover

Angélica Infante-Green motivated by personal history, ties to community

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 18, 2019

R.I. Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green will oversee the state’s takeover of Providence schools starting on Nov. 1.

When Angélica Infante-Green’s son was diagnosed with autism, she was told not to speak to him in Spanish.

A Manhattan-raised daughter of parents who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, Infante-Green was used to speaking Spanish at home, and resolved to keep doing so. While serving as a senior administrator in the New York Department of Education, she chose to do more to help others like her son. “Instead of conforming, what I did was I created the first dual language inclusion program for kids on the spectrum in New York City,” she said in an interview with The Herald.

Now, in her position as Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education, Infante-Green will spearhead another pioneering effort: the state’s administrative takeover of the Providence Public School District.

Last April, Infante-Green decided to postpone her retirement for a few years to step into the top job of Rhode Island’s Department of Education, becoming the first Latina and the first woman of color to fill that role. One of her first moves as Commissioner was to request Johns Hopkins University to conduct a review of the Providence school district. The results, published in June, revealed PPSD’s systemic deficiencies and set the unprecedented takeover process in motion.

The state will assume control of Providence schools Nov. 1, kick-starting a process that will last at least five years and will centralize the district’s curriculum, Infante-Green said. Additionally, as part of the takeover, some underperforming schools may be closed down. She may also wish to modify the current teachers’ contract. The Commissioner’s next steps include naming a new superintendent, which she intends to do in the coming weeks.

Years before releasing Tuesday’s order, the New York local first experienced Providence by stepping into its classrooms. In 2011,  Infante-Green helped put together a report on the special education services in PPSD, including multilingual programs. The review was conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the largest urban public school systems in the U.S. The findings of the 2019 Johns Hopkins report, whose review of PPSD catalyzed the state takeover, were similar to the ones from the report she helped put together eight years before, which she described as “disheartening.” When she was offered the job of Commissioner, she decided to return to Providence to address that feeling: “This was the place where I needed to come.”

While she is not from Rhode Island, Infante-Green — who describes herself as “highly competitive by nature” — feels qualified by her professional and personal experiences to meet the needs of the PPSD. In her career as a teacher and an administrator, she has often worked in districts with underperforming schools and students who feel disempowered. The educational challenges that concern many PPSD families “are important to me because I understand.”

Infante-Green grew up in Washington Heights, a working-class neighborhood in upper Manhattan, on W. 181st St.— the setting for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, a musical about the largely Hispanic-American community in the neighborhood. “The moment you walked into my house, it was like you walked into the Dominican Republic. … When your family is of immigrant descent, you go through two worlds.” Many Providence families, she said, navigate more than one culture every day.

As a teenager, Infante-Green had the opportunity to attend a good school, where she built lasting relationships with teachers. “I feel very lucky that I had that. Kids that are in poverty or in challenging situations, they need to feel like there are more people in their corner.” She believes that a good educational experience, which includes fulfilling relationships with teachers, plays a decisive role in any child’s future: “My family valued education, they understood that that was the only way out of poverty for me. Most families do.”

The Commissioner views the “Providence challenge as an opportunity for us to really be in a better place. … People are going to be watching us, because we’re going to be doing things that people never expected.”

The guiding principle behind any of the policies her team implements is written on a poster hanging on her office wall, which she gestures to often: “Our Policy is Children First, Everything Else Second.”

Some of this “everything else,” however, seems to sometimes crowd out the Children First priority — especially politics. During the initial five-year period of the takeover, the second terms of both Governor Gina Raimondo and Mayor Jorge Elorza will end, and neither politician can run for reelection. Infante-Green, who was recommended for the job by Raimondo, knows that “the community (…) has concerns” about the takeover being interrupted or discontinued by changes in leadership after 2022. “This can’t be about me, the Governor, the Mayor, anyone. It has to be a very solid plan that will be carried on regardless of who’s here.” To ensure this continuity, the community must “have been an integral part in developing the plan,” she said. 

But Infante-Green faced criticism when she did not grant some community members a formal role in the takeover at a hearing in September, The Herald previously reported.

She said her decision was driven by the fact that their representative, the Rhode Island Center for Justice, only acted on behalf of a fraction of the community at the hearing. “Those were a subset of groups, and this has to be about everyone,” she said. For her, including the whole community means reaching out to all the places where the community goes — including faith-based organizations and supermarkets. “We want to reach out to all the community and bring them in, and make sure that they’re a part of what’s happening.”

The Commissioner intends to incorporate the community through two pathways.

First, community members will be a part of a “Design Team” that will help create the plan for the process to move forward, according to RIDE spokesperson Meg Geoghegan. The team will be made up of parents, educators, principals and “everyone that wants to work to see a better system.” It will be set up in the next few weeks.

Second, the Commissioner intends to consult committees already in existence: Community Advisory Boards and Parent Action Groups.  CABs oversee the improvement plans for the state’s lowest performing schools and are regulated by Rhode Island’s implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Separately, the Commissioner meets monthly with a Rhode Island Parent Action Group and a Providence Parent Action Group. According to Geogheghan, there is a role for all of these groups to play in “giving feedback and helping to design” the plan to move forward.

Universities in the state, including Brown, also have a responsibility in the takeover. Infante-Green has been “in conversations with Brown,” and said that some of the ways in which the University can effectively contribute to PPSD include providing professional development for schools. The University may also “adopt” a couple of schools, a reference to a new partnership program that Brown plans on launching this fall, The Herald previously reported. “I’m talking about really adopting” the schools, she said, “not just going to read a book. I’m talking about really making it an extension of Brown.” She also mentioned Brown’s $10 million endowment, which was “supposed to be raising money for Providence. That has not happened.”

In order to maximize efficiency of current efforts to support PPSD, the Commissioner has asked many Rhode Island colleges and universities to conduct an inventory of their current initiatives supporting PPSD. “Part of the problem that I see not just with Brown but with other universities is that everyone has 10 million initiatives going on, and we need to be focused on two or three.”

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