State visited Birch school in 2012

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said the state recommended that changes be made at the Birch Vocational school in Providence a year before a federal investigation found it was operating a so-called “sheltered workshop” for developmentally disabled students.

“We were very clear with them that this model was outdated. It’s no longer the kind of model that’s going to help students prepare for today’s workforce and it needed to begin to change,” Gist said during a taping Friday of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.

Gist went on to say the state provided “technical assistance and a full-time person to help them make adjustments.”

According to a report provided by the R.I. Department of Education, the state made a site visit to Birch in 2012.

The report noted the school “lack[s] opportunities for students to access typical peers” and “limited vocational workshops” but did not make a note of the kind of manual labor that was described in a stunning Department of Justice letter to Providence and state officials.

In response, Christina O’Reilly – spokesperson to Providence Superintendent Susan Lusi – said the report did not trigger “compliance issues” that would have led to immediate action.

“While their report touched on many of the issues that are currently being examined, it didn’t raise the alarm in terms of urgency or the severity of the problem,” O’Reilly said.

Gist said the program at Birch was the only remaining sheltered workshop left in the state, a model that at one time was an accepted practice.

“The Birch program is an anomaly,” said Gist. “It’s important for Rhode Islanders to know there are excellent transition service-type programs that are taking place in schools all across the state.”

On Thursday the state and the city of Providence settled with the Department of Justice for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Federal investigators say the Birch school and a program for developmentally disabled adults, called Training Through Placement (TTP), failed to transition individuals into real jobs. Instead they performed manual labor – like assembling jewelry or packing boxes – for little or no money. Some people remained at TTP for decades.

The investigation also found the majority of workers at TTP once attended Birch, and they described the school as a “pipeline” to TTP.

Gist said state officials’ site visit didn’t uncover the relationship between the two programs because they were focused on academic measures.

“The role of the Department of Justice and what they’re responsible for overseeing and what we’re responsible for overseeing are different,” said Gist. “When we’re going into monitoring a school, we’re looking at the academic programs.”

She went on to say the report “didn’t rise to the level of things that were inappropriate or as shocking as some of what we now know.”

Providence school officials attempted to terminate the school’s longtime principal Larry Roberti while the Department of Justice investigation was in progress but not known publicly. However, several members of the Providence School Board wavered after more than 20 elected officials, parents and students backed the embattled principal during a public hearing in an April meeting.

The city later suspended Roberti, who then resigned on Tuesday.

School officials closed the sheltered workshop but Superintendent Lusi has said they plan on keeping the Birch school running.

Gist said the 2012 report found there were positive elements to the vocational school. “They had small group sizes and they were very active, engaging parents in the community,” she said.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim

Copyright WPRI 12

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