Providence sets goal of getting 33% of students reading proficiently by 2021

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Calling their goals “ambitious” but “achievable,” Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Superintendent Christopher Maher rolled out a strategic plan Wednesday that calls for increasing proficiency rates, reducing student and teacher absenteeism and boosting the high school graduation rate past 80% by 2021.

The district wants 33% of its students to be reading proficiently and 25% of them to be doing math at grade level by 2021, a goal the mayor said “will take a lot of hard work and a lot of innovation” to reach. Only 20% of Providence students were proficient in English language arts and 14% were proficient in math during the 2015-16 school year.

“We’re not going to be satisfied with just 33% reaching proficiency, but we’re not going to produce a document that says by next year, 100% of our kids will be proficient,” Elorza said following a press conference at the Sgt. Cornel Young, Jr. & Charlotte Woods Elementary School. “I mean, just toss that document out if that’s what you’re receiving.”

Maher said the district looked at other large urban school districts – including Boston, Denver and Washington, D.C. – when setting its proficiency goals. He said it will take “growth you haven’t seen in Providence” to hit its goals.

Maher said many of the goals are meant to align with Rhode Island’s broader education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states to outline a proposal for improving student outcomes.

Aside from proficiency levels, Providence wants to reduce the percentage of students missing at least 18 days of school from 30% during the 2015-16 school year to 23% by 2021. The district wants the percentage of teachers missing at least 10 days of school per year from 58% in 2016 to 54% in 2021.

“If you ask me what is one of the biggest challenges we face as a [district], it’s chronic absenteeism,” Maher said. “It’s something we’re trying figure out how to invest more resources in. It’s one of the areas where we’re going to have to bring more partners in. We have to figure out how to engage parents better because we need students in classrooms to learn.”

On teacher absenteeism, Maher said “we’re looking everywhere for good solutions, including to our own teacher population.” Maribeth Calabro, the president the Providence Teachers Union, immediately criticized the absenteeism numbers cited by the district, warning that they don’t account for what would ordinarily be considered excused absences.

On the high school graduation rate, the district’s goal is to grow from 75% during the 2015-16 school year to 80% by 2021. The city initially thought its graduation rate by 78.5% in 2016, but 77 students were placed in the wrong cohort, reducing the rate by three percentage points.

Other district goals include reducing student suspension from 3,460 in the 2015-16 school year to 2,500 by 2021; enrolling 1,700 students in summer academic programs and achieving across-the-board improvements on district satisfaction surveys for parents, teachers and principals.

Elorza did not directly address whether the district will need more state and city funding in order to reach its goals, but Maher said the schools do need “significant increases in resources” for English language learners. The governor’s proposed budget includes for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes $2.5 million in funding for ELL students for the entire state, the same as in the current year.

Maher said Providence’s ELL student population is approaching 30% and “we know there are unidentified English language learners that are not in those classrooms as well.”

“The notion that we have an equitable funding formula that does not take into account English language learners is not one that anyone with any kind of education background could ever subscribe to,” Maher said.

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