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'People Problem' Plagues Providence District, Report Says

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The Providence, R.I., school district is plagued by poor communications and "a profound lack of trust'' among its employees that inhibits decisionmaking, asserts a report that recommends 39 changes to the troubled system.

The report, released last month by an independent group called Providence Blueprint for Education, has caused a stir in the city.

Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., who was initially critical of its findings, has agreed to give up his exclusive right to pick school board members. He pledged to establish a nominating commission to provide him with candidates for vacancies on the board.

The Providence Journal, the state's largest newspaper, has been running a series of articles examining the report's findings and has put its editorial weight behind seeing the recommendations implemented.

The school district has "a people problem,'' said Edward D. Eddy, the chairman of the commission that produced the report. "There is a need for a change in attitudes and behavior patterns.''

The commission's 18-month study was sponsored by the city's Public Education Fund and supported by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Members of the panel collected 20,000 pages of data on dozens of topics and interviewed and surveyed more than 2,000 people.

"To our knowledge,'' the report says, "no other study of a school system has ever done as much listening as [this one] did.''

In contrast, commission members learned that few teachers, principals, students, board members, or administrators in the state's largest school system get a chance to talk to their colleagues or be heard themselves.

Principals, for example, estimated that they spend only 150 minutes over the course of a school year meeting with teachers in their building. School faculties "almost never set goals for their building or talk about teaching,'' the report says.

'Boring, Passive Classes'

The report found particular problems at the middle and high school level, noting that the district's dropout rate is 31.9 percent. The system serves a racially diverse population of 21,500 students.

Students complained about "boring, passive classes and the lack of opportunities for students to express their point of view,'' the report states. More than 60 percent of the high school students who responded to the survey said they could handle more challenging work than they were actually doing in school.

Although high school teachers said they were willing to have students visit community resources and work in groups, the report notes, they need professional-development opportunities that can help them realize these instructional goals.

The system now invests less than one-tenth of 1 percent of its resources on professional development, the commission found. What training is provided was given low marks by many teachers, who complained that they were not involved in planning or presenting it.

Members of the school board receive no formal orientation and do not belong to professional organizations, the report states, and 86 percent of the principals who were surveyed said their training was "ineffective.''

Teachers also do not receive adequate evaluation or coaching, according to the report. Some teachers told the commission that they had not been formally evaluated in 20 years. Almost one-third of the teachers surveyed said that no one had visited their classroom last school year to evaluate them or comment on their teaching.

"This lack of evaluation hurts morale and limits the opportunities for improvement,'' the report warns.

In addition, only teachers who have spent lengthy periods as substitutes are eligible for permanent positions in the system, the report notes, making Providence unable to compete for talented minority teachers and newcomers to bring new life into the system.

Short Work, School Years

One barrier to improved staff development and communications, the report concludes, is the relatively short work year for teachers in the district. They are required to work 181 days a year, just one day more than students attend school.

Students also receive less instruction than those in other urban school districts, the report asserts. For example, Providence elementary school students attend 3 1/2 fewer weeks of class each year than do students in Pittsburgh, the commission found.

In making comparisons with 11 other urban districts, the report notes, the commission was stymied by the Providence district's "woefully inadequate'' data-collection system.

Despite such problems, the report says Providence has "pockets of excellence'' and a reserve of both employees and community supporters who want to do better.

Among the report's 39 recommendations for improvement, only seven require extensive new funding or reallocation of existing expenditures, Mr. Eddy said.

The report recommends that the school day be lengthened by one hour and that teachers' workweek be extended by an hour to provide time to meet together. It says that teachers should not receive extra pay for this time, based on comparisons of their salaries with those of teachers in other districts who work longer hours.

Teachers should also work 186 days a year, it says, using student-free days for planning.

Phyllis Tennian, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, said the union has not yet formulated its response to the recommendations.

But Superintendent Arthur Zarrella called the report's findings "accurate.''

"I am very optimistic that these recommendations are going to help move the system forward,'' he said.

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