On Wednesday, State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green asked PPSD Superintendent Harrison Peters to resign. This was seen as the natural end to a scandal surrounding network superintendent of secondary schools Dr. Olayinka Alege, who was recently charged with assaulting a minor. Infante-Green was joined by Mayor Jorge Elorza (‘94) who said the decision was also in part a result of Peters’ failure to adequately turn around Providence Schools.
This news comes after days of legislative hearings and calls for the resignation of both the Superintendent and the Commissioner over an allegation that Dr. Alege fondled a teenager’s foot in a Warwick gym at the end of April. While Dr. Alege was an assistant principal in Hillsborough County, Florida, where Harrison Peters was the Chief of Schools, he was accused of “toe popping” students as a form of punishment. At a Rhode Island Senate Ethics Committee hearing this past Monday, Infante-Green claimed that she did not know about Dr. Alege’s past incidents until after he had already come to PPSD, despite coverage by prominent local news sources in Providence and Florida before he was hired. Peters, with a lawyer by his side, took responsibility for hiring Dr. Alege, but claimed that he had asked Dr. Alege about the toe popping before hiring him, and that Dr. Alege had promised that it would never happen again. This controversy was very predictable: Peters had faced a similar scandal of covering up sex abuse at Hillsborough County Schools in Florida. Angelica Infante-Green, who unilaterally hired Peters independent of the Providence School Board, should face the same pressure to resign.
Instead of taking action to restore the trust of parents, teachers, and students after this unsettling incident, Commissioner Infante-Green is refusing to take responsibility. She has not admitted it was a mistake to hire Peters, or resolved to radically reform the district now that he’s gone. The top beaurocrat seems to prefer anything to facing issues head on and rebuilding trust with the community. Teachers are still subject to the same dismissive treatment, parents are still frustrated by top officials’ apparent apathy to the district’s needs as they salvage their own careers, and students are still being left behind.
Peters is a solid example of Infante-Green’s bad decision making. When Peters was Chief of Schools in Hillsborough County, he faced controversy over another coverup of a sex incident under his watch. Peters failed to notify the parents when a substitute teacher masturbated during classtime, causing many to call for his resignation. The incident was not officially made public until months later, after the community learned about it through the local news. Infante-Green admitted that she knew this when she hired him. Meg Geoshegan, a spokesperson for Infante-Green, said Peters “had been very candid about this experience,” and that he “recognizes that the process and communication should have been much better, and made public statements to that effect at the time.” These two scandals have now broken the already crumbling trust between the school district and the community, and Infante-Green needs to take responsibility.
Harrison Peters’s nomination came with opposition: parents said he made bad communication with the community a trend. Blana Goolsby, an educational activist from Florida, told the Providence Journal he was “talking a good game, but not someone who executes.” Harrison Peters was defended as someone who could improve the one aspect of the Johns Hopkins report the district cared about: low test scores. In Florida, he lowered the number of “F” schools in the district, decreased the student suspension rate, added ten “A” schools, and helped fifteen schools improve from “D” to “C.” Speaking of the changes he hoped to make in Providence, Peters said, “I really feel I can make a difference for these kids…”
The RIDE’s Communications Director said the district was looking for someone who “had previous experience in turnaround work in a diverse urban district.” The state takeover was about improving a toxic district’s test scores, and Peters was the man for the job. The only problem is that Providence Schools teaches students, not test machines, and he was not out to help them learn.
One of his major efforts as Superintendent, covered by the Chronicle last year, was reorganizing the bureaucracy. He cut culture coordinators, reading and math specialists, and the director of career and technical education. Instead of funding these services, Peters decided to hire scandal-ridden Dr. Alege. Angelica Infante-Green was in part brought in to raise test scores as well. In March, Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, condemned the state takeover as “an abject failure.”
It is important that Infante-Green also resign, because while it’s easy to blame Providence School’s failures on Peters, his resignation represents a deeper issue with PPSD: Providence superintendents aren’t meant to last. He is the 12th Providence Superintendent to depart in the past 20 years. Peters himself told the Providence Journal when he started the job that he would stay “as long as you will have me,” despite his contract being only for three years.1 The position of Superintendent, meant to provide Providence Schools with an executive in charge of day to day operations, has instead served to give high level bureaucrats a steady source of scapegoats.
This incident raises broader concerns about the efficacy of the state takeover in general, now in its second year. After a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins released a report about PPSD’s abysmal condition back in 2019, the Rhode Island’s Department of Education (RIDE) decided to take control over Providence’s public school system in order to bring them up to par. Rhode Island state takeovers have a track record of failure. Take a look at Central Falls: after two decades of state control, only ten percent of Central Falls students meet or exceed standards for English and Language Arts (ELA) and just seven percent meet or exceed standards for Math. Instead of paying unelected bureaucrats like Peters more than $200,000 a year to continue to fail us, we need to put power back in the hands of the community.
Rather than focusing on empowering the community or giving teachers the tools they need in order to help their students, RIDE has opted to drag out difficult contract negotiations with the teachers’ union. What’s best for teachers is ultimately best for students; creating an unhealthy environment for educators is no way to turn our schools around.
For the past two years, the state turnaround has alienated teachers, antagonized the teachers union, hired expensive consultants with public money, and put an alleged pedophile in charge of administering Providence’s middle and high schools. If we want to make our schools better, we need leaders who can meaningfully engage parents and teachers, who have a track record of fighting for our students, who are invested in our schools and in our city, and who are from Providence. Out-of-state bureaucrats need to stop their virulent, decades-long crusade against knowledge. Infante-Green must resign.