Providence hired school supervisor with questionable degree

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Officials in Rhode Island’s largest school district are requiring a $94,000-a-year special education supervisor to return to college after discovering that she had a questionable degree from an unaccredited school.

Providence Schools Superintendent Dr. Susan Lusi said the district was not aware that Nancy Stevenin, the city’s special education supervisor of transition and community development, listed a bachelor’s degree on her resume that was purchased from an online college until after she started the job late last year.

On her resume, Stevenin said she earned a degree in business administration from Ashley University in 2009, an online college that is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The school claims it awards college degrees based on “work experience,” and for as little as $699, it will send the diploma within 10 business days.

“Our expectation was that it was a degree from an accredited university, and I want to be clear about that,” Lusi said in an interview earlier this month. “As soon as we found out that it was not, we took steps with the individual.”

But Lusi said Stevenin was not formally disciplined. Instead she was required to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program at an accredited university, but she remains employed by the school district. Stevenin has enrolled in an online program at Southern New Hampshire University, according to Lusi. She is required to periodically update the school department on the status of her degree.

Stevenin declined to be interviewed for this report.

On its website, Ashley University claims it enrolls 38,000 students each year and lists a slew of accreditation agencies that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In a statement, the department said “life experience alone [that] requires little or no work” may have “no value and [be] meaningless.”

“I think it’s regrettable and at the same time, she’s doing really highly regarded and acclaimed work for a very important population, which is the students at the Birch Academy at Mount Pleasant High School,” Lusi said.

The Birch School came under fire last year after a Department of Justice investigation found disabled students performed manual labor – including bagging and labeling items for unnamed local companies – for wages between $.50 and $2 per hour. The students were given few, if any, opportunities to learn how to integrate into the workforce, according to the Justice Department.

Under a settlement agreement, the city and the state agreed to stop enrolling new students and adults in programs that run so-called sheltered workshops for the developmentally disabled. The principal at the Birch School retired last year and the city has completely revamped the program.

Lusi said Stevenin has played a key role in turning around the Birch School.

As part of her job, Stevenin is tasked with overseeing the effort to ensure that disabled students exiting the school are prepared to transition into the workforce. Lusi said Stevenin has also worked closely with a monitor from the Justice Department this year.

“My message is that delivering for kids matters,” Lusi said. When you look at the track record here, the individual has unquestionably delivered for kids in the past and when you look at her work with our special education department, with Mount Pleasant High School and that population and with the Department of Justice monitor, she is unquestionably delivering now.”

Still, the job did require a college degree when it was posted last year. Other requirements included 10-15 years of experience working in an urban school district and at least a year working as a case manager on transition services. But Lusi said she is confident Stevenin was the best qualified candidate for the position.

Stevenin’s job does not require a state teaching certificate and Lusi said in the future, the school department will consider applicants for certain district jobs based on their work experience even if they don’t have college degree.

“Teachers go through a rigorous certification process,” Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro told WPRI.com. “I think we should all be treated in the same way.

Daniel Wall, a high school history teacher who ran for president of the union this year, also questioned how Stevenin’s unaccredited degree managed to slip by the district’s human resources department.

“It’s absolutely a concern and we must do, going forward, a better job at due diligence in making sure that people have the proper credentials and proper education,” Wall said.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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