Victor Mercurio, far left, associate professor of educational leadership at Johnson and Wales University, moderates a panel on teacher workforce retention and professional development at the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council’s Education Forum on Wednesday, May 17, 2023, at the Johnson and Wales University Harborview Campus in Cranston. Panelists left to right are Danielle Dennis, dean of the Feinstein College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Rhode Island; Jeanine Dingus-Eason, dean of the Feinstein School of Education and Human Development at Rhode Island College; Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals; and John Papay, interim director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
CRANSTON — Schools in Rhode Island will have to keep pace with the Ocean State’s changing demographics if the state hopes to maintain a competitive economy in the long term.
That was the takeaway as over 100 experts and political leaders gathered at the Johnson and Wales University Harborview campus Wednesday for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council’s Education Forum.
“There have been times when we’ve come together to make important policy changes when it comes to our schools,” Michael DiBiase, president and CEO of the nonpartisan fiscal analysis group, said.
The forum built upon a RIPEC report released last October describing a state where large expenditures on education failed to improve student outcomes.
2021 graduation rates in the four urban core communities of Providence, Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Pawtucket ranged between 64% and 78%, the lowest in Rhode Island. The municipalities have higher proportions of residents who are people of color and low-income households.
Much of the conversation revolved around teacher retention where several experts argued that though the state’s average teacher salary of $76,000 was among the highest in the nation, the average starting salary of $45,000 presented a barrier to teachers of color.
“What we’re seeing is teacher retention rates are going down, especially in Providence,” said John Papay, the interim director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “We want to retain talent in the classrooms.”
The Rhode Island Department of Education’s most recent three-year analysis of emergency certifications found that 564 such authorizations were issued in the 2020-21 school year, 160 more than in 2019. The certifications are temporary measures issued to alleviate shortages.
According to a recent report from Annenberg, the three-year teacher retention rate in Providence Public Schools — currently in the fourth year of a state takeover — fell from 84% to 75% between the 2016 and 2022 school years. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island average fell only three points, from 85% to 82%.
That retention rate became particularly noticeable when it came to teachers of color. According to the Annenberg Institute, almost 22% of teachers in Providence Public Schools are teachers of color. Multiple studies have shown that having a population of teachers who match their students can improve student outcomes.
More than 90% of students in Providence Public Schools were students of color in 2021, according to the RIPEC report.
“The fact that we are in this predicament is no surprise,” said Jeanine Dingus-Eason, the dean of the Feinstein School of Education and Professional Studies at Rhode Island College. “I’m always struck by how we treat this as if it’s an ahistorical event.
“Historically, there have been very particular moves and policies that kept Black teachers out of the classroom.”
The chief impediment locally, said Dingus-Eason, was a Rhode Island Department of Education policy requiring potential teachers to score a 1070 on the SAT. The department is now running a pilot program lowering the threshold to 1010.
“Here in Rhode Island, the population of teachers of color has been decimated,” she said. “If people want to look at what happened to teachers of color in the state, I’d look to that policy.”
Multilingual Language Learners and funding
Multilingual Language Learners were also a topic of discussion, particularly when it came to the state’s funding formula.
“There are demographic changes and the funding formula needs to respond to that,” Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, said while moderating a panel focused on funding.
According to recent data from Kids Count, multilingual students representing a combined total of 92 languages account for 11% of students in Rhode Island schools in the 2020 to 2021 school year, a 97% increase from the 2009 to 2010 school year. The vast majority are concentrated in the cities of Providence, Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Pawtucket where combined they make up 27% of the student body.
Disproportionately, students of color and multilingual language learners are also more likely to experience poverty and have a graduation rate of almost 70%, about 15 points behind non-multilingual language learners, according to the RIPEC report.
Multilingual language learners are not factored independently into the funding formula the state uses to determine how much state education aid should go to municipalities. Yet Newport Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain argued that should not be the case.
“Multilingual learners, whether they’re in poverty or not, it takes a good five to seven years to become proficient in English,” Jermain said.
Newport recently experienced the largest increase in multilingual language learners in the state, according to Kids Count, rising from 3% in 2016 to 16% in 2021.
Since 2012, the state has used a funding formula developed by Brown University Professor of Education Policy Kenneth Wong to determine what portion of a local school district’s operating budget will come from state coffers. It takes into account multiple factors, including poverty rates, student population, and community tax base. About 70% of Multilingual Language Learners attend high-poverty schools according to Kids Count.
Newport Public Schools projected operating expenses will surpass $46 million in fiscal year 2024.
“Right now, the formula is a great start,” Jermain said. “It’s where we were 10 years ago, not where we are now.
“I’m not saying that we need more money, I’m looking at this as an investment to make certain that all children have the opportunity to live up to their potential.”
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