Kislak report calls for Providence to think of post-takeover future

By: - July 26, 2023 2:15 pm

The main entrance of the Providence Public School District Administrative building. (Photo by Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — A new report from a state legislator on the effects of state takeovers of schools calls on people to consider their governing structure in the state capital when the state takeover ends. 

Published Monday, the report by Rep. Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, examined governing structures for a future Providence Public School District (PPSD) when the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) takeover ends in 2025. 

“The need to improve our schools in Providence is not new,” Kislak said in the report’s cover letter. “We must figure out a way forward that supports our kids and creates lasting and sustainable change for our schools.

“Whether under state or local management, successful schools are focused on and accountable to the communities they serve,” Kislak continued. “We can work to make that happen now, and as the schools transition back to local control.”

RIDE took over Providence public schools in October 2019, shortly after a damning Johns Hopkins University analysis of the district. The analysis found “unusually deep, systemic dysfunctions” including infrastructure issues, low staff morale, high levels of student disengagement, and racial inequity in test scores. 

The Kislak report, put together by the legislator and intern Alissa Simon, examined the effects of takeovers across the country in the 1990s and 2000s, when such policies were en vogue. The report concluded that takeovers seldom improved test scores and community engagement.

“I think that that report shows that, on average, the state takeover efforts aren’t so successful,” said John Papay, director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “They don’t lead to dramatic changes in student outcomes.”

Representatives from RIDE and PPSD did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I have read the report and feel it was thoughtfully prepared and highlights ongoing systems concerns that impede successes in the District as a whole,” said Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union Local 958. “With constant, consistent communication between all stakeholders have all of the components to make our district a true success story.”

Kislak’s report examined takeovers in Jackson, Mississippi; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and New Orleans to see their long-term effects.

In Lawrence, low test scores amid a population with a similar socioeconomic profile to Providence led to a state takeover in 2011. Jeffrey Riley was appointed superintendent of Lawrence Public Schools. Shortly after, he began to institute reforms, including: replacing 50% of principals, a switch from seniority to merit-based scale for raises, an additional 200 hours of school time, and a balanced focus on test scores and arts and enrichment programs. 

Though the district saw building improvements and increases in test scores, Kislak’s report questions whether that was due to the takeover.

“Many of the districts that did see initial improvements, such as Lawrence,” the report read, “have since experienced backsliding. It is also difficult to isolate which factors impact the effectiveness of a takeover because of how differently districts operate post-takeover.”

Lawrence is still under the control of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Riley is currently the state education commissioner, a post he took over in 2018.

The report also questioned takeovers’ impacts on equity and community voices, a sticking point in the case of Providence and in Central Falls, which requested a state takeover in 1991 and currently has the entirety of its budget financed by the state. 

The report pointed to a pattern of Black voices being suppressed and Latino voices being raised over the course of state takeovers.

“I think we know that community voice matters and the report articulated that there are many stakeholders in schools,” Papay said. “It’s particularly important for school boards and leadership to represent in not just numeric ways but authentic ways the diversity of communities in the schools.”

The COVID question

One weakness of the report, which it acknowledges, is the lack of understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on learning.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know about student achievement patterns during the pandemic,” Papay said. “There were these tremendous disruptions in the state public school structure in Rhode Island and across the country.”

The report also encouraged the continuation of current community bodies — such as Community Advisory Boards, the Parent Advisory Council, Student Advisory Council, and School Improvement Teams — as first steps toward community involvement in PPSD’s future. 

“While the specifics of how or where change will happen first are yet undetermined,” the report concluded, “what is clear is that reforms in governance, communication, and the distribution of power in PPSD will be the key to reforming every element of education in Providence, from kindergarten curriculum to college prep.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.