School leaders: We’re not Providence

School leaders: We’re not Providence

PAWTUCKET – After State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green last week put the wheels in motion to assume control of Providence Public Schools, leaders in Pawtucket say they are fairly confident that a similar takeover won’t occur in their school district.

“I think we’re in a completely different situation than Providence,” Pawtucket School Committee Chairman Gerard “Jay” Charbonneau told The Breeze. “There’s no comparison to Providence. There’s no comparison to any other district in the state.”

Ron Beaupre, president of the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance, was a little more cautious, saying, “There are always concerns. One never knows what the state will do,” but added that he’s not terribly worried because “we have great things happening in (Pawtucket).”

In addition to school facility improvements, including the complete renovations of Potter-Burns Elementary School and Nathanael Greene Elementary School and the upcoming rebuild of Winters Elementary School, he said, “Academically our test scores are getting better ever year … I believe Pawtucket is in a very good place.”

When asked to comment, Interim Supt. Cheryl McWilliams deferred to Charbonneau.

In her 71-page report, Infante-Green wrote that data from the Rhode Island Department of Education shows that the Providence School District is “failing to fulfill its duty to its students” and that “the district’s performance is continuing to decline despite increased interventions and funding.”

She indicated that other school districts could also be in line for a takeover, though she didn’t mention any specifically.

More than 50 percent of Providence high schoolers and 30 percent of middle schoolers were chronically absent in the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years, according to RIDE, rates that are almost double the state average.

To compare, in Pawtucket in the 2017-2018 school year, 35.1 percent of high schoolers and 20.5 percent of middle schoolers were chronically absent, according to data from RIDE’s website.

Attendance, according to Beaupre, has been improving at most schools in the district.

Though he’s proud of the work that’s happening in Pawtucket, Charbonneau said that looking at the district globally, “Nobody is satisfied with where we are. We have a goal of getting better.”

While the district has invested money and brought on support staff, “this isn’t snap your fingers and everything is fixed,” he said.

“It’s not about one portion of our student body,” he said. “We want to raise all schools and bring all students up.”

Without providing specifics, Beaupre said that while most teachers are happy and positive about the work that they do, with 750 members of the Teachers Alliance, “you will never please all 750.”

Teachers reached by The Breeze declined to talk on the record or anonymously about how they see the district functioning.

Beaupre said the district could certainly use improvement in curriculum development, though he noted that there are programs already in place that are working toward that goal.

After launching a new $1 million reading initiative, called the American Reading Company program, for students in grades K-2 across the district this year, district leaders have reported seeing positive results.

In April, The Breeze reported that the district currently had 20 K-2 classrooms that had a year’s worth or more of reading growth and all schools were meeting or exceeding expected growth for reading. Asked about the reading program, Charbonneau said school officials and staff have taken a multi-pronged approach to improve both curriculum andschool environment as a whole and don’t want to single out one particular initiative.

He said he thinks the district ispoised to see improvements in Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System scores released in the next couple of months.

When it comes to comparing RICAS scores, he said, “We want to be better than we were last time. We want to keep showing improvement. That’s the metric that I’m going to put stock in.”

Another area for improvement, according to Beaupre, is an alternative option to suspending students as a way of discipling them.

“We need more money, more staff, and alternative locations so students can actually have an environment where they might be successful,” he said, adding that a traditional high school setting doesn’t work for all students.

Both Charbonneau and Beaupre gave credit to the positive relationship between teachers, school administrators and city leaders.

“I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in the city’s history where everybody is focused on the same goal of improving school climate,” Charbonneau said, adding that honest conversations with all stakeholders has been “how we’ve been able to show an advance in curriculum and facilities.”

Beaupre said that the Teachers Alliance and school administrators want the same things: “We’re working together to improve our student achievement.”

Charbonneau said he’d like to see more parent involvement in supporting the schools.

Overall, he added, “I think we’ve shown some great improvement … I think we’re well poised to continue to move forward.”

Editor’s note: This is part one of an ongoing series related to how Pawtucket’s schools stack up to those in Providence. We welcome thoughts from anyone who would like to offer them. Email ethan@valleybreeze.com.