RI education commissioner defends charter school’s move to Fortes Elementary – The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — It’s been anything but a slow summer for state education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green.  

Her hand-picked superintendent, Harrison Peters, was pressured to resign in May after an administrator he hired was charged with fondling a minor’s toes at a Warwick gym.  

More: RIDE reaches agreement on termination of Providence schools Supt. Harrison Peters

Last week, Gov. Dan McKee and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza sparred over a decision to open a charter elementary school, Achievement First, in a district elementary school, with Elorza defending the move and McKee siding with the teachers union against it. 

More: Governor McKee, Providence Mayor Elorza clash over location of Achievement First charter

The Journal on Tuesday asked Infante-Green about several issues that have been top of mind for families and teachers.   

Q: The movement of Achievement First to Fortes Elementary School has become a political football. Why do you think it should be located there? Why wasn’t the public, especially the parents, notified sooner?  

Infante-Green: “Since I arrived here, I’ve heard everyone say that charters, which were designed to be hubs of innovation, should be sharing [their practices] with traditional public schools. Early on, we brought superintendents and charter school leaders together. We’re one state and we should be able to share. … They are both public schools.”  

Q: Why weren’t teachers and families notified about the decision earlier? Mayor Elorza said he was told about the impending move by state education officials in February.  

Infante-Green: “Lima is the lowest-performing elementary school in the district. One of the challenges that we had is it is two separate schools [Lima and Fortes]. We combined them into one school. The building was underutilized.”

According to the commissioner, the Fortes students will remain in their building and share space with Achievement First elementary students.

Only the entering kindergarten students will move to the adjacent building, Lima Elementary School.

A state Department of Education spokesman said a decision was made in March to combine the two schools under one principal. Previously, Fortes enrolled students in the early elementary grades, who then moved to Lima.      

“When the mayor originally approved the expansion of charter seats [for Achievement First], that was an opportunity for us to work together. … It’s what needs to happen. The impacted families were notified in March that it would become one school. 

“No one is being impacted,” Infante-Green said. “The rising kindergarten kids will be next door.”  

Q: How are contract talks going?  Mckee says they are moving forward but Elorza claims they are stalled. 

Infante-Green: “I think there is progress being made. We are in the last leg of negotiations. We will see that being finalized pretty soon.” 

More: McKee weighs in on teachers’ contract talks, pension obligation bond

Infante-Green declined to say if a contract would be signed by the start of school, but she did say, “That’s what we are anticipating.” 

Q: Do you feel caught between McKee’s and Elorza’s competing narratives about whether the teachers’ contract should be blown up or settled collaboratively?    

Infante-Green: “I work for families and kids. I’m making sure the teachers get what they need. I’m focused on my work.” 

Q: Are you close to hiring a new superintendent? Have you narrowed the search to a few finalists? 

Infante-Green: “I think that we are still finalizing the process. We are focused on summer school and the reopening of schools. I can’t give you a definitive answer [about the timing of a new superintendent]. What I don’t want to happen is that we lose progress.” 

“We are looking at the parameters [for the hiring process]. We haven’t hired a search firm. I don’t want to rush the process ….” 

Infante-Green said earlier that she hoped to have a new superintendent by the beginning of school.  

Q: Rhode Island’s public schools have seen a decline in enrollment of approximately 5,000 students. What are you doing to find them? 

Infante-Green said each district, in order to receive COVID relief funding, has to develop a plan to get students back.  

“We have a whole new set of community positions [in Providence], people who will be knocking on doors and making sure these students come back. I went out and knocked on doors. We’ve heard that a lot of kids are working to help their families.” 

“Last year, we saw a decline in kindergarten and pre-K enrollments — a decrease of about 4,000 kids. What we heard is parents were afraid. They didn’t want this to be their child’s first school experience. It looks like the numbers are going up.”  

Q: Name three things that will look different in the Providence classroom this fall. 

“Parents are going to see eight counselors in every elementary school. We’ve never had that.  

“This is really exciting: in the upper grades, we have hired community specialists that will work with guidance counselors to forge real relationships with families. Parents should feel more welcome.” 

The commissioner also said there will new information online and in schools to explain commonly asked questions. 

Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.