I haven’t been studying Rhode Island for long. I wrote a piece last month about my first impressions of the state, and I’ve been researching since then.
While most of what I’ve learned has sunk into the back of my brain as useless knowledge, likely already forgotten, one fact still astounds me: the horrible conditions of Providence schools.
I can’t get over it.
In a district of 24,000 students, a 93-page report from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy found students “completely disconnected from the environment around them,” teachers “missing with no clear reason” and principals with no “clear picture of who was where, teaching what, and when.” The buildings themselves are falling apart; running water is sometimes brown, there are no locks on bathroom stalls and floors are crumbling.
This translates to a horrible standard of education for students in the Providence system. Results from standardized tests showed that nine in ten students did not meet levels of proficiency in math, and eight in ten students were not proficient in English. The report stated that Providence represented “an exceptionally low bar for instruction and low expectations for students.”
That’s 24,000 students — 24,000 future workers — being stunted at a critical point in their development for no other reason than systemic dysfunction. It is unacceptable.
To some degree, this story — to me — is about them. I do not live in Rhode Island. But on a larger scale, this is about me. I just graduated from high school in New Hampshire, where I attended a STEM-based charter school ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the best in the state. While our resources as a charter school were limited, we did the most we could with it, and I received a high-quality education from dedicated teachers with a community that helped me succeed.
This isn’t meant to brag.
I know the region of New Hampshire that I received my education in is better off than Providence, where almost forty percent of families live below the poverty line; because of a system where nearly half of school funds come from property tax, this matters more than it should. I bring up my education to show why I, living almost one hundred miles away with little connection to Rhode Island, have a connection to the Providence school board’s dysfunction.
I know first-hand how fulfilling and valuable a strong secondary education can be, and how imperative it is to one’s success. Without an effective education, I would not be able to attend the university I do. And without a college education, what I hope to do with my life could become a pipe dream.
Eliminating the crucial launching point that is a competent primary and secondary education can have disastrous impacts that span generations. And already might have.
Today, we are talking about students. But tomorrow, we’ll talk about workers and employees. We’ll be talking about salaries and unemployment numbers, poverty levels and GDP. The students of today will drive the economy of tomorrow. I mentioned that forty percent of families in Providence live below the poverty line; that may never change without improvements in education.
What is the government doing to solve this problem?
In late July, the Rhode Island Council of Elementary and Secondary Education gave the education commissioner authority to intervene in Providence. “[Education commissioner Angélica-Infante] Green now has the power to revamp the teachers’ contract, revise how the school district is governed, even make decisions over hiring and firing,” Linda Borg of the Providence Journal wrote. Given the idle quality of Providence schools since the 1990s, when a similarly-scathing report was issued, this is a step in the right direction.
Providence has made little headway over the past 20 years; it’s time for someone else to step in.
It certainly won’t be easy.
A 2017 report found the cost of making Providence schools “safe, warm and dry” sits between $400 and $500 million, while the cost to fully modernize the schools may be up to $4 billion. Meanwhile, because of lower funding from property taxes, Providence has less money to work with. While the buildings may not be the chief concern in this debate — after all, every level of the system, from teacher to principal, is enveloped in dysfunction — it provides a picture of how much money and dedication it will take to solve the problem.
At this point, I’ll get down from my ivory tower. I’ll stop throwing stones from my glass house. I don’t know how to solve the problem; frankly, it’s above my pay grade, and I can openly admit it’s infinitely easier to complain than fix. It’s been encouraging that Rhode Island is already taking steps in the right direction, but it has yet to be seen whether the changes make any impact. But change, in any case, is the solution here.
Providence needs something different. I hope it can get it.
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