During his 2022 campaign, Mayor Brett Smiley promised to make education a key issue for his administration.
The state took over control of the Providence Public School District after a 2019 report from Johns Hopkins University found systemic underperformance. The takeover, which was extended due to the pandemic, is expected to be completed by the 2026-27 school year, The Herald previously reported. After this, PPSD will return to municipal control.
Although PPSD is primarily regulated by the Rhode Island Department of Education, Patricia Socarras, director of communications for the City of Providence, wrote in an email to The Herald that “the Mayor is in control of key parts of our local education system.”
The Mayor’s office has helped in the development of activities and summer enrichment programs dedicated to “academic and youth leadership development opportunities,” and worked with PPSD’s superintendent and the state commissioner of education on the Turnaround Action Plan, the state’s strategy to revamp Providence’s education system.
Conflict over state control
Smiley took office during a tumultuous era for PPSD, which included “contentious” School Board meetings and an investigation into toxic workplace allegations, The Providence Journal reported last December.
Victor Morente, RIDE communications director, cited the Hopkins report in an email to The Herald, detailing the challenges that PPSD faces, “including a lack of professional development and coherent, quality curriculum.”
Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, said she has not seen much improvement resulting from the state takeover.
“Under the takeover, there have been so many missteps and miscommunications,” Calabro added. “There’s been very little progress in what was promised from the commissioner. I think the sooner we get a plan together to return to local control, the better off we’re all going to be.”
According to Morente, the state’s Turnaround Action Plan was “crafted with the community” and incorporated “reports on the intervention, including information on what PPSD has done to engage and improve communication with the community.”
As the city and state look toward the future of PPSD, “it is critical that we align our priorities with what our students and families need,” Smiley wrote in an email to The Herald. In January, the Smiley administration hosted an education workshop to better understand educational priorities among teachers, parents, students and alumni.
“I truly appreciated the fact that one of the first things, if not the first thing, that Mayor Smiley did immediately following his inauguration was to bring together the community,” Calabro said of the event.
At the end of the event, the information that was gathered from each of the workshops was put into a document and sent out to participants. “Not only did they listen, but they took our information and codified it,” she added.
“Centering the voices of Providence families is critical to building a better school system and we will continue to make this process as inclusive as possible,” Smiley wrote. “I am meeting with stakeholders from every part of the education system to build those relationships and engage them in the path forward.”
Teacher shortage, curriculum development
A summer 2022 update on the Turnaround Action Plan stated that there were 213 new PPSD hires as of May 2022. But according to Calabro, PPSD has already seen 98 teacher resignations in the 2022-23 academic year.
Calabro said that PPSD administration is top-heavy and the state must move away from filling the roles of upper-level district leaders to instead address the teacher shortage.
According to Morente, teacher shortages are not just limited to Providence. “There is a nationwide education workforce challenge.”
He referenced an American Federation of Teachers report which found that, even before the pandemic, “nearly 300,000 teachers were leaving the profession each year, and schools were also facing persistent shortages among the school support staff who play such a vital role in every child’s school day.”
Calabro also wants the district to address strategies for curriculum development for students and support the improvement of reading and math programs. Additionally, Calabro believes in improving financial literacy and ethnic studies offerings for students. “By offering a wide variety of choices for (students) to investigate, explore (and) discover, they can find what their calling is,” Calabro said.
Smiley said he is also focused on improving opportunities beyond the classroom. “I want to grow out-of-school-time learning opportunities so that students have access to a well-rounded education and attain skills they will need as they enter the workforce or higher education,” Smiley said.
In addition to increasing these opportunities, another of Smiley’s goals for the district is to invest in and improve school facilities.
Hopes for collaboration
In a January letter reviewed by The Herald, State Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green and Superintendent Javier Montañez expressed that they were looking forward to working with the Smiley administration.
“There is no doubt that we have more work to do,” Infante-Green and Montañez wrote to Smiley. “We look forward to collaborating with your administration and Providence stakeholders to build on the strong foundation we have established as part of the Turnaround Action Plan and ensure Providence Public Schools continue to move forward and thrive.”
“We are working very closely with the superintendent and the commissioner of education to make sure we are making progress in the turnaround so that Providence will be prepared for a return to local control,” Smiley wrote.