School & District Management

R.I. State Commissioner Imposes Plan of Action on Providence School

By Jeff Archer — February 15, 2005 4 min read
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In an unusually hands-on approach to state intervention, Rhode Island’s top education official has ordered big changes at a high school in the state’s largest district, including the re-evaluation of all teachers and administrators there to decide who should be transferred from the building.

Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters has given educators at Hope High School in Providence until the end of this week to say if they want to be considered for continued employment at the school.

The restructuring plan also details changes that will be made in Hope High’s schedule, its student advising, and the school’s efforts to create “small learning communities” within the school. Although stopping short of a state takeover, Mr. McWalters pledged to name a “special master” to oversee the Providence district’s work in carrying out his decrees.

The order comes amid a nationwide push to improve secondary education. State education departments also are being forced to weigh their own roles in fixing low-performing schools as more schools continue to miss their performance targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Colorado and Louisiana recently took struggling schools and turned them over to outside groups to run as charter schools.

Most states, though, have yet to take such action. Among those that have, Rhode Island stands out for its detailed plan, said Todd Ziebarth, an expert on school governance at Augenblick, Palaich & Associates, a Denver-based education consulting group.

“Very few states are doing anything,” Mr. Ziebarth said. And of those that are taking steps to turn around low-performing schools, he added, “Rhode Island is different … in the level of prescription about solutions.”

Lack of Progress Cited

Issued Feb. 4, Mr. McWalters’ order marks the first time he has invoked authority given to him to “reconstitute” schools by a 1997 state law. The law set up a system whereby low-performing schools first receive technical assistance from the state, then are subject to increasing levels of state control if they fail to meet improvement targets after three more years.

The oldest school in the state’s capital city, 1,200-student Hope High has long contended with low student test scores and high turnover among its leadership. The state department of education began working with the school in 2000, and in 2002 Mr. McWalters laid out a plan for dividing Hope into three smaller units to foster a more personal environment for students.

Those units were created, but the commissioner argues that the school hasn’t done enough to ensure their success. A major problem, he said, is that the school’s staff and district leaders have struggled to agree upon a detailed blueprint for making needed improvements. Although Hope met a series of test-score targets that the state set for it last year, its graduation rate is just under 50 percent.

“I don’t want to act like nothing was going on [at Hope High],” Mr. McWalters said in an interview last week. “But it certainly hadn’t been institutionalized. It wasn’t systemic and universal.”

In his order—which includes specific timetables—the commissioner said the school must institute common planning time for teachers to make sure that they have the opportunity to work together on improvement strategies. He also spelled out how the school should run “student advisories,” in which educators are assigned students to counsel throughout the students’ high school years.

Most likely to stir controversy is his review process for staff members. Those teachers and administrators who want to remain at Hope High must sign a 19-point statement in which they commit to the changes.

‘Show Me the Money’

A review team of teachers and administrators will then interview each educator who signs the form. Ultimately, the order leaves it to the district superintendent to decide who stays or goes.

Steve Smith, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, called the process “insulting and demeaning,” given the challenges faced by educators at the school. Adding that the union’s lawyer was reviewing the order, he said the plan conflicts with parts of the union’s contract.

Rather than impose a specific remedy, Mr. Smith said the state education department could have left it to a new partnership that the union has formed with the district to help low-performing schools. Many parts of the commissioner’s order are drawn from proposals discussed in recent months by union and district leaders—although many of those proposals have yet to be put in place.

“If you really are going to redesign schools, it has to be the work of the administrators and teachers in that building, with support from the union and the district,” said Mr. Smith, whose group is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “That’s what’s going to get it done.”

Melody Johnson, the superintendent of the 28,000-student Providence system, likewise takes issue with the state commissioner’s order. Reworking the schedule to provide Hope High teachers with common planning periods, for instance, would cost about $1.2 million, she said. Meanwhile, the district faces a $24 million shortfall out of an overall budget of about $300 million.

“The problem with the things that everyone thinks are good things to happen—and that the commissioner has said will happen—is that there are no additional resources for them,” she said, adding: “Show me the money.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as R.I. State Commissioner Imposes Plan of Action on Providence School

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