Archive for July, 2008

Thomas Brady, the incoming Superintendent of Providence Public Schools, is holding a series of public forums as he arrives in Providence. The first of these will especially interest east siders, as it happens at

All sessions are from 6 to 8 p.m.

Wednesday, July 30
Hope High School
324 Hope Street

Wednesday, August 6

Springfield Middle School

152 Springfield Street

Wednesday, August 13
Veazie Elementary School
211 Veazie Street

Wednesday, August 20
Providence Academy of International Studies (PAIS)
182 Thurbers Avenue

Take this opportunity to meet the new Superintendent, and to share your thoughts about how the District can increase student achievement, support teaching and learning, and strengthen parent and community engagement.

Translation services in Spanish, Hmong, Lao and Khmer will be available. Childcare and light refreshments will be provided. To reserve your seat, as well as to request translation or child care, please call 456-0686.


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On July 4th, the Pennsylvania state legislature enacted an education funding formula, which has now been signed by Governor Rendell. PA’s passage of a funding formula means that there is now only ONE state that does not have a funding formula. Can you guess which one? That’s right….it’s Rhode Island.

The formula uses the number of students in a district, weighted by the number of students with special needs (such as English language learners, special education, and children in poverty) to determine the district’s total need. The district’s contribution to funding is determined by the tax capacity of the district, which is based on property values. The remainder is provided by the state through its other tax mechanisms, such as income and sales taxes. The PA bill also provides a $275 million (5.5 percent ) increase in total funding over last year

Rhode Island used to have a formula back in 1993, but for the last 15 years the state allocation to each district has been based on political bargaining that has little to do with need or capacity. Some districts have done quite well. Newport has increased its share, despite a 25% loss of student population. You will probably not be surprised to learn that the former chair of the House Education Committee was from Newport.

Other districts have done much less well. According to estimates made by an independent school finance expert, Providence schools are underfunded, relative to a fair funding formula, by about $50M (yes, that’s FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS) in a budget of about $300M.

This year’s funding formula proposal (co-sponsored by East Side Representative Edie Ajello and Senator Rhoda Perry) died in committee even though, unlike PA’s formula, it provided NO increase in the total amount of funds spent on education for the coming year.

Meanwhile, RI ranks 48th in the country in its dependence on local property taxes for raising education funds. More than all states but two, we shift education costs from the state to the locality, where they are appear on your property tax bill. Other states recognize that basing education funding on property taxes is not only regressive; elderly people and others on fixed incomes, and low income renters, who pay via a pass-through by landlords, bear a disproportionate part of the burden) but also excessively burdens urban areas where property values are lower. Providence, for instance, has the highest tax effort of any district in the state, yet manages to produce only about one-third of its school budget.

Surprisingly, members of the House leadership representing Providence, have shown little interest in promoting this legislation.

2009 is another year. Perhaps it will be the one in which Rhode Island joins the other 49 states in adopting a rational and fair education funding formula. It will happen, but only with your help.

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New Superintendent Comes to Town

Incoming Superintendent of Providence Schools, Thomas Brady, came to town yesterday. He visited with

teachers, students and administrators, according to a story in today’s ProJo. There’s even a video clip on the ProJo site.

Brady also offered an abbreviated version of his agenda: increase student achievement; make business operations more efficient; improve communications with teachers, parents and taxpayers; spread the word about the district’s mission; bolster the administration’s relationship with the unions, and make sure that teacher training is aligned with the curriculum.

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New Principal at Gregorian

This month Vartan Gregorian Elementary School got a new principal, as reported in the ProJo.  Here are a couple of excerpts, with a link to the full story, which gives quite a bit of detail on Mr. Grimsey.

New principal named at Gregorian Elementary
Thursday, July 3, 2008
By Linda Borg Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Colin Grimsey, an elementary school principal from Fall River, is the new principal of Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, one of the city’s success stories.

Grimsey, who is 41, married and lives on the East Side, has had a rather unorthodox teaching career. After graduating from Connecticut College, he took a job with a tiny Catholic high school located in a youth rehabilitation center in Westchester County, N.Y. Grimsey, a history teacher, worked with 8 to 10 students and often observed the counseling sessions.


Grimsey became an elementary school principal in Fall River two years ago. He said he took the job knowing it was a temporary appointment because the school, built in 1897, was slated to be closed as part of a sweeping campaign to rebuild some of the district’s aging buildings.


Gregorian is one of the jewels in the district’s crown, a high-performing school with a deeply engaged Parent Teacher Organization and a devoted group of teachers. In 2006, Gregorian was only one of two schools in Rhode Island to receive a national award for closing achievement gaps between white students and minorities, low-income students and middle-income ones.

Between 1988 and 2002, the proportion of students who met or exceeded the state standards in reading, writing and math doubled at this Fox Point school. As the school turned the academic corner, East Siders began paying attention. Parents enthusiastically promoted Gregorian, raising money for extracurricular activities and lobbying to make sure that parents became partners in the school.

Last summer, because of public demand, Gregorian added another kindergarten class.

Gregorian also offers something that most private schools don’t: diversity. The school is evenly split among black, white and Latino parents.

Read the full story here.

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The City Council’s Finance Committee will be meeting this Wednesday, July 16 to vote on the City budget, including the schools budget.

A July 3rd ProJo article by Linda Borg sets out the situation:

Thanks to an unexpected infusion of $3.5 million in state aid, it looks like the Providence schools will not have to make draconian cuts to services and staff this year.

But the district will not be able to pay for the intervention programs and additional staff needed to improve student achievement, according to the district’s chief financial officer, Mark Dunham. Since 2004, he said that the school budget has grown less than 2 percent a year on average.

“That is outrageous,” Dunham said in an interview yesterday. “Our budget is not keeping pace with inflation. We’re running a system that’s between $15 [million] and $18 million short of what we need.”

The $319.9-million budget that was presented to the City Council’s finance committee last week eliminates 42 teaching positions, but it also includes nearly $1 million in new positions, about half of them required by state education commissioner Peter McWalters’ corrective action order.

You can read the rest of Borg’s article here

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Below is Sam’s regular column on Education for July

The Teacher Quality Crisis

I have written before about the “bumping” problem (a policy that bases teacher layoffs on seniority alone) which every year costs Providence some of its best teachers to the detriment of our children, families and also other teachers who can be demoralized by the lost of talented colleagues. During this session of the General Assembly, our local delegation (Representative Fox and Senator Perry) introduced different bills to address the issue. Neighborhood activists from the East Side Public Education Coalition, along with representatives of the Providence School Board, the School Department, the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Providence Teachers’ Union and the National Education Association attended hearings to discuss the House and Senate “bumping bills.” I also have had the opportunity to speak with a number of the key people who appeared at these hearings on an informal basis.

I wish that this effort had produced a consensus among the various constituencies to solve the “bumping” problem, but neither bill would bring about an immediate and complete resolution. The hearings and discussions have, however, presented a number of perspectives that I hope will help to advance our understanding of this critical issue.

The obvious starting point is a law on the books that requires layoffs to be made in order of seniority. We originally thought it would be relatively easy to lobby the General Assembly to repeal that law. The General Assembly heard compelling testimony from a teacher who was “bumped”, as well as parents from Classical High School who had to suffer with the loss of a prize-winning biology teacher who was “bumped” in favor of a more senior but ineffective replacement. These parents testified about hiring the talented, laid-off teacher (at $50 per hour) to tutor their students in the Advanced Placement course’s basic requirements, as his replacement was not teaching them.

We discovered, however, that the goal of simply repealing the current law failed to generate a consensus for two reasons. First, children and parents might not see any immediate changes because existing collective bargaining agreements (which would apply in the absence of a state law mandate) likely would perpetuate the seniority system in a different form. Second, teachers and union leaders opposed a simple repeal because it might permit a return to an earlier era in which management made some personnel decisions on a completely arbitrary basis, a problem the led to the passage of the current seniority-based law in 1946.

We learned from these hearings that the best response to both objections to a simple repeal is to improve dramatically the School Department’s ability to evaluate teachers and take appropriate action when a teacher fails to meet appropriate standards. If a district has a strong teacher evaluation system, then evaluations can become part of a layoff decision. Furthermore, if teacher quality increases due to a strong evaluation and accountability system, there is less of a risk of personnel changes causing a dramatic impact in the quality of the education being provided in any particular classroom.

On the subject of evaluation, there is a consensus that the current system is not working. The current evaluation regime calls for newly hired teachers to be evaluated for three years before receiving tenure, and sporadically after that point. In practice, newly-hired teachers do not receive sufficient evaluation or support, and tenured teachers are not evaluated regularly or clearly. Both the teachers’ union and the district acknowledge that a new evaluation system has been operating on a trial basis in a few schools, and is under negotiation to be expanded. There is a disagreement, however, as to why the new system has not yet been agreed upon or implemented, a delay that only postpones any realistic effort to improve teacher quality.

Both the Perry and Fox “bumping bills” direct the Rhode Island Department of Education to develop standards to form the basis of required teacher evaluation systems in every district in the state. While it is comforting to hear that Providence’s collective bargainers believe themselves to be on the brink of a breakthrough, such a state mandate would not cause any harm and ultimately could provide a valuable push in the event that the promised negotiated solution fails to materialize.

With regard to the problem of substandard teachers in the system today, the district and the union have a difference of opinion. From the district’s perspective, the impediment is the onerous set of due process requirements associated with terminating an ineffective teacher. For example, the current procedures allow teachers to demand a hearing before the entire School Board (all nine members, not just a quorum). It can be very difficult to assemble all nine members for an extraordinary hearing that can take two hours, and teachers always have the opportunity to request a schedule change at the last instant. Also, the current system calls for personnel actions to be taken by the central office; in contrast, the Massachusetts education reform law of 1993 empowered principals to initiate teacher termination proceedings.

According to the union, the problem instead lies in the hands of ineffective principals, as some highly effective principals of the past have succeeded in removing numerous ineffective teachers through existing procedures while inspiring other teachers at the school to perform at a higher level in order to avoid termination.

I have not yet been able to assess the merits of this debate, but I intend to continue my own investigation and report as I learn more. Similarly, the East Side Public Education Coalition has worked hard to advance these issues in the General Assembly and through discussions with the parties. While ESPEC’s knowledge has increased, the problem remains as urgent and serious as it did before this year’s effort began.

It is important to keep the issue of teacher quality in perspective. By all accounts, the majority of teachers in the Providence public schools serve their students well, and nobody would claim that every teacher in our private and parochial schools is perfect. With that said, any parent whose child is subjected to poor teaching has a right to feel upset, and it is clear that the current program in Providence does not do enough to promote teacher quality. The problem becomes especially apparent when layoffs based on seniority alone produce a dramatic decline in teacher quality in a classroom, directly harming the futures of innocent children who supposedly are the highest priority of our school system.

The various parties who must take responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs each have differing explanations for the source of this problem and the solutions that can address it. At the end of the day, parents and students are not able (and should not be expected) to adjudicate who is “right” or “wrong” about this question. Instead, we must demand that these parties work together to solve this longstanding problem as soon as possible.

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I missed Sam’s June article, which is posted below.

A new commissioner

In my May column, I wrote about changes in the leadership of the Providence School Department.  We recently learned that change is also coming to the leadership of the Rhode Island Department of Education (“RIDE”), as Commissioner Peter McWalters announced he will be leaving the position next year.  As was true for outgoing Superintendent Donnie Evans, Providence and Rhode Island can thank Commissioner McWalters for a record of dedicated service, in his case going back to the start of his term in 1992.  This month, I will discuss the Commissioner’s role in improving public education both statewide and in Providence, and how that role could change through the coming transition

While the job description of Providence Public Schools Superintendent has remained stable over time, the position of Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education is more dynamic.  When Commissioner McWalters came to Rhode Island in 1992, RIDE’s primary task was to supervise the certification of public school teachers.  In those days, local school districts bore almost the entire responsibility of designing and delivering a public education program to children in the district.

The Commissioner’s role has changed markedly in the past decade, as Rhode Island and the Federal government have adopted the role of supporting standards-based reform.  Standards-based reform embodies a noble concept, namely that each child has the right to receive an adequate education based not just on the inputs of hours of classroom instruction by certified teachers, but also based on the outputs of developing defined skills and knowledge based on standardized tests.  To advance this concept, the General Assembly assigned to RIDE the tasks of defining the standards that every child should meet and supervising local districts’ programs to meet those standards.

Under this new framework, the Commissioner has become the point person to hold the entire system together.  He works with the Board of Regents to develop educational standards.  He works with local districts to ensure that the standards are appropriate, and to encourage local districts to meet the standards.  In a limited number of extreme cases, he and RIDE can intervene in local districts to direct their management to improve performance against the standards.  He also works with the General Assembly and the Governor, reporting to them about the State’s overall public education program, as well as particular areas of concern that require the Commissioner’s “hands on” intervention.

The State’s recent intervention at Hope High School provides an example of how the Commissioner can play a major constructive role.  First, the Governor identified Hope High School as a demonstration project for the State’s overall program.  He requested $600,000 in additional State funds to support the effort.  Commissioner McWalters hired an expert to oversee the reform of the school.  The Commissioner then met with the Providence Superintendent (Melody Johnson) and the head of the Providence Teachers Union and directed them to form a plan to carry out the reforms, making all necessary waivers and/or adjustments to the contract to achieve the goal.  Because the District and the Union were reluctant to surrender local prerogatives, this took a large amount of jawboning by the Commissioner, ultimately backed up by the warning that he had the legal authority to take over Hope High School and run it from his own office if the School Department and the Union could not develop a satisfactory plan.  After a few months of spirited negotiations, the Union and the School Department reached a new agreement, and a series of promising reforms were introduced at Hope High School.

While Hope High School is a promising example, a number of factors limit the prospects of broader improvements.  RIDE lacks the staff to supervise future projects – instead, the General Assembly funded the Hope High School special master through the $600,000 grant.  Similarly, reforms often require additional funds for the affected schools, and the special legislative grant underwrote these reforms at Hope.  There also is a question about the full extent of the Commissioner’s legal authority – by persuading the union and the School Department to agree on a plan, the Commissioner was able to avoid a court challenge concerning the authority of the State to override existing contracts.
The Commissioner’s multiple responsibilities also place limits on his time and effectiveness.  To be effective, the Commissioner must spend a significant amount of “quality time” getting to know the Board of Regents, State elected officials (such as the Governor and the General Assembly leadership), local education authorities (selected school board leaders and superintendents) and, in the case of Hope High School, the teachers’ union and the principals for the school.  There is so much to do, and only so many hours each day to do it.  Finally, the Commissioner’s multiple responsibilities make him accountable to a broad variety of stakeholders who often have conflicting agendas – for example, what if the General Assembly and the Governor do not see eye to eye, and what if the views they share are rejected by local authorities?  The Commissioner is not in a good position to “boss around” any of these people – instead, his job is to encourage them to work together.  As a result, reform advocates often are frustrated by the gap between the ideal visions set forth in RIDE’s policy statements and the actual improvements that RIDE has been able to accomplish through the exercise of its regulatory and supervisory powers.

To conclude, the Commissioner’s job can be incredibly difficult, and Commissioner McWalters deserves credit and praise for Hope High School, as well as the creation of State standards and a credible standardized test for Rhode Island.  With that said, there is much more to do.  For example, we are in desperate need of a system to evaluate the quality of our teachers.  Such a system could improve teacher quality and also help solve the “bumping” problem by providing a credible alternative to seniority-based staffing decisions.  Commissioner McWalters has discussed RIDE’s opportunity to initiate a state-wide teacher evaluation system, but it has not yet happened.  If he dedicated his final year to solving this single problem, it would be a very productive year.  Because Providence’s challenges have made the entire district subject to State intervention, Commissioner McWalters also could leave us an enormous parting gift by directing more of his final year’s focus to using RIDE’s authority to solve our district’s issues.

As my description suggests, the State Commissioner’s job has, in theory, great authority and great responsibility.  It is difficult for one human being to make all of these pieces fit together, and Commissioner McWalters has made some valuable contributions by building up capital with various stakeholders and then expending that capital on a few, selected priorities.   In the coming year, we hope he spends down his remaining capital to help Providence, and we hope his successor continues on such a path.

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