Angelica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, will never be known for her poker face and at a time like the one we currently face in Providence, that is actually a comfort. The pain is real. The failure is real. And it’s important for parents and community members to see disgust, disbelief and determination on the face of the education commissioner as she listens to them talk about the desperation they feel over the system that promised—and failed— to educate their children. The million dollar question is what will that determination look like in terms of action moving forward and will the deeply-entrenched impediments to change finally topple over in favor of the educational needs of children?
In her opening remarks at the last of eight open community forums, Infante-Green describes feeling physically ill after reading the now notorious Johns Hopkins report about Providence Schools. She cites a 9th grade class using a 4th grade curriculum, refers to testimony of graduates who spent two full years in remedial classes after being handed a high school diploma, and reflects on the many parents who have told her that the Providence schools failed them as students and now they are watching it fail their own children.
“It turns my stomach”, she says.
And if the look on her face during the four plus hours of testimony during that final community conversation is any indication, her stomach is still turning.
“It’s painful to hear that our children are failing. I am an addict in recovery. I want my kids to be able to be educated in Providence but it’s not working,” says one mother. Standing at the microphone in the front of the room, arms wide open as her voice gets louder, she continues: “my daughter doesn’t know her times tables. How did she get passed to the 5th grade? My daughter can’t even read.”
This mother is far from alone. As the 93-page report tells us —and Infante-Green reiterates in her powerpoint at the start of each community forum—only 14 percent of Providence’s students read at grade level. And that number drops to 10 percent when we are talking about math.
Another Providence mother who teaches in the district—and has her own child enrolled in a charter school—steps to the microphone and shares that she had a 9th grader this year who didn’t know how to read. She goes on to say that it is what keeps her up at night and then asks, just like the mother before her, “how does that happen”?
Commissioner Infante-Green does not pull any punches when it comes to answering the very basic question these mothers have posed—in fact, during her opening remarks, she declares without equivocation that “social promotion” is the culprit. “It doesn’t matter if you can read, write, or do math,” she says, in an honest attempt to illustrate the ugly truth about what social promotion actually looks like. Hours later, when the session has transitioned into Spanish, she states with certainty that Providence diplomas aren’t worth la tinta used to print them. (Tinta means ink.)
Another mother who speaks—and whose anguish is on full display—reflects what the majority of people in the room seemed to want when she called for more support of the good teachers and for the bad ones to be let go. She describes her son’s elementary years as “good” before she calls what has happened to her son in middle school “an atrocity.”
Infante-Green admits during the forum that, at first, she found herself asking why parents didn’t start marching in the streets years ago to demand change but then she goes on to explain that “feeling powerless means you don’t trust the system and don’t trust that your voice will be heard.”
Well, those voices are being heard now. And while many of us who have been paying close attention to education in Providence are all too familiar with heartbreaking testimony from the city’s parents, they never had a report like the Johns Hopkins one to back up their lived experience. Some parents even admitted that they didn’t believe what their children were telling them until they saw it described almost word-for-word in the 93 page report. For decades, the powers that be could essentially ignore the parents’ pleas—and most of them did. But the arrival of Infante-Green coupled with arguably the most scathing report ever published about a capital city’s school system means that things are different now. When the Wall Street Journal runs a headline describing your capital city’s schools as a “Horror Show,” leaders must take action.
Angelica Infante-Green appears to embody a unique and reassuring combination of toughness and empathy. When folks raise the concern that she will be run out of town like past commissioners who came in with bold plans for systemic change, she is undeterred: “I commit to you, I will not be run out of town.” But unlike most elected officials in this state, she also apologizes with ease for the pain people feel, even though it preceded her arrival. Moments after she is crying with a parent or reaching out to hug them, she is also asking for the names of those who have repeatedly humiliated their children.
If you’re an adult and you humiliate a child, we’re coming for you. —Angelica Infante-Green
She is brutally honest with the public about the failures and injustices she herself has seen in Providence since her first day on the job. She sugarcoats nothing and uses words like “violence,” “mayhem” and “failure” to describe the system. She shares an anecdote about a day she walked into a school unannounced: “And I stood there, and stood there,” she tells the room, countless parents nodding along as if to say they too have had that experience. She continues, “then, when they realized who I was, they stepped over themselves to get to me. But I am not the consumer.”
Accountability has become a toxic word in education but Infante-Green doesn’t shy away from it. She concedes that she has met a lot of “good and dedicated teachers.” But she also insists—out loud—that teaching is not the right profession for those not willing to do the work. And she goes on to fire a warning shot when she says that “if you walk by substandard practice and you don’t say anything, you have set a new and lower standard.”
We won’t know until July 23rd what plans the commissioner has for Providence but the calls for a state intervention are loud and coming from all sides, including from many of the parents in the room at the last community forum. And let’s be clear—only the state has the authority to blow up the union contract and attack the dysfunction head on with the autonomy and flexibility that an emergency like this requires.
Angelica-Infante Green and the team she puts together will not be able to right the ship without the authority to wipe the slate clean and start over. And that power is only possible if Governor Raimondo musters the courage to do whatever it takes to put the needs—and rights—of students first. It will be a first for her and a hard turn away from her recent dealmaking with the NEA. Let’s hope the magnitude of this catastrophe will be enough for her to finally discover the moral clarity needed to get this right.
Infante-Green promised at Saturday’s forum that “this will be the last day we cry. After this, it’s action.”
It can only be the last day we cry if everything changes. We’ll see if she is given the tools to keep her word.