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A blistering report on the state of the Providence, R.I., schools finds many teachers and students do not feel safe in their classrooms, principals struggle to lead and deteriorating school buildings have become health hazards. Most students, the report concluded, are not learning on grade level — or even near grade level.

The picture of systemic dysfunction in the 24,000-student Providence Public Schools was painted by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, who were invited by Rhode Island officials to take a hard look at the school system.

Some conditions were so dreadful that seasoned members of the Hopkins team broke into tears while visiting crumbling school buildings, the 93-page report said. In one school, rodents and asbestos were evident, along with lead paint “peeling in sheets” from the ceiling and lead in the water, which was brown and stained the sinks. Kindergartners were not allowed on the floor with the falling paint, but fourth-graders were, the report said.

Many of the documented problems in Providence reflect difficulties faced by urban school systems struggling to meet the needs of students who live in poverty and speak English as a second language. Years of school policies that focused on raising standardized test scores and expanding charter schools have failed to help many districts improve, and in some cases, coupled with a lack of funding, have made things worse.

Providence spent millions of dollars on what is widely known as “school reform” in the past decade. But the nearly two dozen Hopkins researchers — who visited 12 schools and spoke with hundreds of students, teachers and parents in May — reported “unusually deep” problems “that clearly, and very negatively, impact the opportunities of children.”

“Providence Public School District is overburdened with multiple, overlapping sources of governance and bureaucracy with no clear domains of authority and very little scope for transformative change,” the report said.

“The resulting structures paralyze action, stifle innovation, and create dysfunction and inconsistency across the district. In the face of the current governance structure, stakeholders understandably expressed little to no hope for serious reform,” it said.

City and state leaders reacted swiftly to the report, promising action. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) called the report “devastating” and said it was time “for all of us to step up” and fix it.

But the report cites many leaders as part of the problem, with organizational overlap obstructing progress. Six governing bodies insist on playing a role in policy and budget decisions, including the City Council and the mayor’s office. The district’s superintendent, Christopher N. Maher, who is leaving the job, told the researchers he felt he had no authority and was micromanaged by the City Council, the school board and the mayor’s office.

The review was ordered by state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, with support from Raimondo and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, to chart a path for the district, in which 90 percent of students do not score in the proficient range on standardized math exams and 86 percent are not proficient on English language arts tests. Most students — about 65 percent — are Hispanic, while 16 percent are black, 9 percent white, 5 percent Asian, 4 percent multiracial and 1 percent Native American.

The Hopkins team noted one success: “the presence of many devoted teachers, principals, and some district leaders who go above and beyond to support student success.” It said “this core group of leaders and teachers” should provide the foundation for improvements.

Among the findings:

  • Extremely poor academic instruction, including a lack of quality curriculum, is found within schools and across the district.
  • Safety is a daily concern for students and teachers, who reported they did not feel safe in school. Bullying, demeaning and even physical violence were reported at high levels, particularly in middle and high schools.
  • Teachers do not feel supported by administrators, and principals are demoralized, saying “they held accountable for results that they have neither resources nor authority to influence.” Parents said they feel marginalized and demoralized.

Here’s the full report: