Turnaround superintendent feels “fierce urgency” to act

Harrison Peters, the new turnaround superintendent for the Providence Public Schools, talks with students in a sixth grade class at the Gilbert Stuart Middle School on his first day on the job, February 20, 2020. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

By Steve Klamkin WPRO News

On his first day on the job, Harrison Peters, the new turnaround superintendent for the Providence Public Schools echoes Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, the woman who hired him, saying that the “fierce urgency of now” drives his resolve to fix the troubled city schools.

He spoke with reporters Thursday after visiting the Gilbert Stuart Middle School, and said he plans to tour all city schools.

“But there’s also a fierce urgency of now. We’ve been very clear and the Commissioner’s very loud and clear about things need to change and need to change immediately. So I think coupling that with listening and learning is very important. But, the kids that I’ve seen, they are waiting on us. So it’s time for the adults to act,” Peters said.

“Every time I walk into a school, my heart breaks,” said Infante-Green, who took charge of the Providence Schools last November. “It breaks, because he’s right, the kids are waiting for us.”

“It was unsettling,” Peters said of the report by Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy which offered a critical and unvarnished assessment of Providence schools, that found serious shortcomings in curriculum, physical conditions and overall chaos.

“It was unsettling to say the least to know that children are in learning conditions that the Johns Hopkins report described. But it also created a sense of urgency like no other, like we don’t have a lot of time to sit around and talk. We’ve got to begin to act now.”

Peters, most recently the Deputy Superintendent and Chief of Schools for Hillsborough County near Tampa, Florida indicated that the Providence schools already have some of the tools needed to turn things around.

“We’ve got three critical levers that we believe is going to set our school district on a positive trajectory, and that’s world class talent, that’s engaging communities and that’s effective learning. Those things are critical and must happen in a school district in tandem for us to get the results that we know we need.”

On other school issues, Infante-Green said notices were issued Wednesday to front-office school personnel that their assignments may change in the next school year to provide flexibility to administrators, that there are scores of unfilled positions in the Providence schools and layoffs are not anticipated.

She said she hopes to negotiate a new contract with the Providence Teachers Union in a matter of months, before the current agreement expires on August 31.