Superintendent Harrison Peters
Phone: (401) 456-9211
Superintendent Harrison Peters
Harrison Peters was named the State Turnaround Superintendent for the Providence Public School District (PPSD) on January 27, 2020. He brings to this new role his decades of education experience, a commitment to leadership development and community engagement at all levels, and a firm belief that all students can succeed with the right support.
Superintendent Peters has worked at all levels of education. He is a former elementary school teacher, a middle and high school principal, and a senior leader in such large, diverse school districts as Chicago Public Schools and the Houston Independent School District. Most recently, Peters served as the Deputy Superintendent and Chief of Schools for Hillsborough County, a public school district in the greater Tampa area that serves more than 206,000 students.
Responding to the Chauvin Verdict
April 20, 2021
Please read my response to the three guilty verdicts reached in the Derek Chauvin trial:
Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey is a spoken-word poet based in Iowa City. He recorded “My Boy,” the particular piece I am sharing today, on Mother’s Day, honoring all mothers who are without their children.
Anyone who is a parent or a mentor knows the feeling of pride loaded in the phrase, “My boy.”
“My boy is so talented.”
“My boy has gotten so tall.”
For too many, “My boy” is also a phrase packed with pain.
Reports state that George Floyd called out for his late mother as he was dying on the sidewalk in Minneapolis. Each time we watch the video of Derek Chauvin constricting Floyd’s breathing, we all die a little inside, knowing that no verdict can bring Larcenia Floyd’s son back from the dead.
What provides some solace, however, is that a verdict justly rendered sends a message to every would-be Derek Chauvin—a message that the law is intended to apply to all people, regardless of race or creed or socioeconomic status. This message is not nearly enough to right a history of wrongful deaths, but it is a hopeful sign.
To my teachers and school leaders, I ask that you make space in your classrooms next week for any students who need to share their feelings about this historic and painful moment. The more we reflect on racially charged truths in this country, the more likely we are to change those truths for the better.
The Unwritten Playbook
April 15, 2021
Dear PPSD Community,
Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario and I are both military men and men of color. As military men, we are duty-bound by a code to respect authority and follow the rules: “We” before “I,” and the greatest honor is to serve. That’s what we do.
As men of color, we also follow an unwritten playbook (survival 101) for situations such as traffic stops. We know to pull over somewhere visible, lift our hands, summon our calmest demeanor and attempt to deescalate any latent tension. That’s what we have learned to do as Black men in America. It is the same playbook we teach our sons to keep them safe and alive.
Neither code nor playbook, however, prevented Second Lieutenant Nazario from being pepper sprayed and threatened when pulled over by police in Virginia last week. He did everything right, and it just did not matter.
At one time or another, every man of color plays out a similar scenario in his mind. I watch the unconscionable video of Nazario’s traffic stop. I see him speak respectfully and calmly raise his hands, and I think, “That is exactly what I would have done.” And I shake my head, not from disbelief, but from helplessness.
Could the code and playbook have saved Duante Wright from getting shot and killed during a traffic stop in Minnesota Sunday? Let me tell you that the answer to that question should not matter. It should not matter because there should be no need for people of color to follow a person-of-color “playbook” to avoid assault or worse. It should not matter, but it does, because this is the recent trajectory of race relations in the United States.
Many of us watching the unfolding coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd are hopeful and weary—hopeful that justice will be served, weary of the behavioral loop in which our country seems to be caught. There are too many tragedies, too many names, stuck on repeat. We are all sick and tired of it.
How do we escape this loop? The answer is complicated, but one aspect is clear: education can make a difference. And not just any education. Culturally responsive education. Anti-racist education. Education in learning environments where students’ lived experiences are acknowledged and valued. Educational environments led by role models who mirror and celebrate our students’ diversity.
While we are all responsible for our own learning journeys, the district has some resources available so you can dig deeper into this work. Our equity team hosts a regular educators of color group and a white affinity group to support allyship. They also hold a culturally responsive book group, open to all. Additionally, Dr. Mullen offers equity office hours for staff members who need a safe space to discuss their feelings and concerns.
This message today is my way of continuing what I hope are fruitful discussions among the PPSD community. The more we explore each other’s responses to events related to race relations, the more empathy we build and the more common ground we uncover. If you do one thing today, start a conversation with a colleague about equity in education and see where it leads.
As always, I appreciate hearing from you directly. Please email me at email@example.com with your thoughts.
Prioritizing Social Emotional Health
April 5, 2021
Dear PPSD Community,
Every single one of us has a COVID-19 story to share. These could be stories of professional challenge, such as how a school was able to distribute 500 Chromebooks in just 24 hours last spring. They could be stories of hardship, such as a high school student who must spend her days at work and not school so she could help support her family during the pandemic’s economic fallout. The stories could be about personal triumph, such as mastering new technologies that allow for effective remote teaching and learning. And, sadly, they could be about personal tragedy, such as watching a family member suffer from this mercurial and cruel virus.
Whether these stories inspire empathy or applause, they all have one thing in common: persistent stress. Any change, even positive change, is inherently stressful.
I work with a phenomenal team of professionals who recognized early on that our community would need additional social and emotional supports during this health crisis. They collaborated with national experts to build lessons into our curriculum that dealt specifically with managing trauma and transitioning students back to the classroom. They even launched social emotional learning assessments for students in grades 5-12 to help identify who may need more academic, social emotional or wraparound supports.
Regarding those supports, in the vast majority of our buildings we offer school-based mental health services, so when students need referrals, outside experts can serve families right at the school, removing the common barriers of access and transportation. Our two new SMART Clinics also offer physical and mental health supports to the school communities within Roger Williams Middle School and Mt. Pleasant High School.
It is not surprising that our parents and guardians often need guidance to support student wellness during the pandemic. PPSD’s wraparound supports initiative held an online event recently to connect families to mental health providers, and over 300 families attended. Our online Parent Academy, offered through the Office of Family and Community Engagement, collaborated with DCYF this month to host a trauma workshop that drew 100 participants.
Understanding that teachers are the primary contact for struggling students, the district also invested significantly in professional development to give educators valuable tools for difficult situations. Our workshops on trauma-informed teaching explored how trauma can impact the brain’s ability to create new learning pathways, and how consistent, challenging and interactive lessons can help repair some of those pathways. Our building leaders and clinicians have completed suicide prevention training, and many teachers have enrolled in “Mental Health First Aid” training to support students during an emotional crisis until a clinician can be available. Lastly, through RIDE’s Project Aware program, a social worker has been coaching problem-solving teams in five of our elementary schools in ways they can support students’ social-emotional health.
While these are all important action steps, let us not forget that each employee who helps families cope with the pandemic’s effects must also manage his or her own stress load. That’s why we have prioritized stress-management and mindfulness training for our own staff.
I wish this laundry list of programs and interventions was enough to solve the pervasive anxiety and depression so many in our community are feeling during the pandemic. Unfortunately, we know it is not enough. Maintaining social emotional health is, by its very nature, an ongoing effort. That is why next year, we are bolstering our ranks, adding 22 elementary guidance counselors to provide support to our youngest learners. We are also hiring three dozen school community specialists—drawn from the community to serve the community—who will act as familiar role models, liaise with community organizations and build positive school culture. We are implementing our five-year, $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education to recruit and retain school-based mental health clinicians. And every day, we are continuing to identify and cultivate new resources and activities to support the emotional health of our community. I am always looking for ideas to make our schools more responsive to student needs. Please feel free to send your suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In closing, I want our students, our families and our staff to know that we hear you—we really do understand how hard this year has been—and we are here to help wherever and whenever we can. If you are a student or if you know a student who is struggling emotionally, please inform your school social worker or nurse, and we will pull a problem-solving team together to help. If you are a staff member who is having trouble coping with the negative impacts of COVID-19 on your life, contact the Employee Assistance Program for support and referrals. Remember: asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength.
Equity and Our Families
March 30, 2021
Dear PPSD Community,
Last week, I was honored to participate in a national conversation about equity, where I stated publicly that everyone must call out harmful policies and attitudes when they see them. It got me thinking about some comments I’ve heard during my time here at PPSD that exemplify implicit bias and privilege. We all have an obligation to speak out against racist actions—and that includes offhand remarks.
I ask you, when you look at children living in poverty, do you define them by their circumstances or by their potential? This question is more than theoretical. This question goes to the core of who our children are.
I want you to imagine a seven-year-old child living in a historically violent, low-income neighborhood of people of color. This child’s mother has been in and out of prison. At age seven, the child frequently babysits a younger sibling while the mother goes to look for work at night.
When the child is not in school, some teachers come and knock on the door. If the mother is home, she says, “Tell them I am not here.” When the mother is not home, she says, “Don’t answer the door.” Imagine the child, looking out the window.
That child will remember the teachers who knock on his door. I know I did. I was seven, in the fifth ward in Houston, when my teachers came knocking.
I am the perfect example of how demographics do not have to determine destiny--But that only works if educators share and act on that belief.
You know that every teacher and administrator started this year with an in-depth review of the study, “The Opportunity Myth,” which explores the mismatch of expectations and achievement in urban school districts. You may remember this telling data point from the TNTP study: 82% of teachers supported the content of their state’s academic standards, but only 44% of teachers expected their students could have success with the standards.
We cannot transform the school district, elevate learning and improve student outcomes if, fundamentally, we do not believe in and do not commit to our students—who they are, how they live and what they are capable of.
I am hoping the majority of you reading this do more than say, “He is not talking about me.” I hope you take that a step further and say, “What do I need to do or change to support better outcomes for our students?” It is a fundamental truth of education that even the best of us can learn to do better.
As part of its suggested strategies, “The Opportunity Myth” recommends equity audits:
“Conduct an equity audit to identify school and district-level decisions—from the diversity of staff at all levels, to which students are enrolled in honors courses—that give some students greater access than others to key resources.”
I will be asking our Districtwide Advisory Council to undertake this initiative and to hold equity audits in our schools over the next few months to help us identify problem areas and opportunities that we may not be seeing clearly.
I will also be looking for opportunities to continue conversations about equity in decision-making, so that we, as a district, can work together to combat implicit bias and promote an anti-racist culture.
Thank you for listening.
Engagement, Achievement and Wellness in the Age of COVID-19
March 12, 2021
Dear PPSD Community,
Recently, I watched a CNN story that reminded me how PPSD is only one node in a nationwide network of urban school districts, all facing the same challenges of student engagement, achievement and wellness during the pandemic.
This particular news story focused on students in New Orleans, but they easily could be students anywhere in America. I recommend that you watch it yourself: https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/06/us/covid-pandemic-high-school-dropout/index.html.
It hurts to hear high school students talk about needing to hold down jobs during the school day to help with family finances during these tough economic times. It hurts to hear how an older teen puts her own education on the backburner so she can put the needs of her younger brothers and sisters ahead of her own. It hurts to hear how our young people struggle with physical and mental health in their own families right now.
We all know students like them right here in Providence.
In the CNN story, one young man named Anthony broke my heart when he said, “I don’t know if I’m really up to go to college. I might not, but I know I’m going to try to graduate high school.”
How many Anthonys out there are deferring dreams this year? How many Anthonys are trying hard but still need our help? This is what keeps me up at night.
I came to Providence with the idea of transforming a school district that had been underperforming—and undervalued. The work of the turnaround was, to my mind, urgently needed. Now, as we begin to emerge for a COVID-19 world, I see this work as something more than urgent. It is dire.
So many of you have gone out of your way, outside of your comfort zone or beyond your regular routine to help students this year, and I am tremendously grateful.
But I also worry. I worry that we need more strategically deployed resources, more innovative programming, more targeted outreach to make sure all the Anthonys out there never doubt that they can achieve their goals.
In a post-pandemic world, we will need to help students reconnect and recommit to their school communities. And we need to nurture a school culture that honors achievement, diversity and social emotional supports.
Most importantly, we need to do more than stop the proverbial bleeding of learning lost to the pandemic. We need to accelerate the learning of all students, whether that means tutoring, Saturday school, summer learning, non-traditional programming at non-traditional times—whatever it takes to make meaningful change.
Every action we take now—forward or backward—compounds over time. The decisions we make now have consequences for years to come. We cannot afford to lose another year, another class, another generation of students.
Thank you for helping all the Anthonys. We can do this.
p.s. As always, I look forward to hearing innovative ideas on addressing challenges of achievement, engagement and support. Don’t be shy about emailing me at email@example.com with your suggestions.
Supporting Students through Diverse Hiring
March 3, 2021
Dear PPSD Community,
As we prepare for the 2021-22 hiring cycle, I want to share with you the importance of supporting diversity in our hiring and retention processes.
When the teacher workforce is diverse, students of all races and ethnicities are more likely to graduate and pursue higher education. Rates of out-of-school suspensions, which disproportionately impact students of color, decrease, while referrals of diverse students to gifted and talented programs increase.
This recipe for academic success comes from “A Broken Pipeline: Teacher Preparation’s Diversity Program,” a recent study by the educational policy group TNTP that reviewed teacher preparation programs across the country. TNTP’s study found that the diversity gap in Rhode Island—the percentage of students of color compared to the percentage of persons of color enrolled in the state’s teacher prep program—is in excess of 25 percentage points.
The numbers get worse when you look at the teacher workforce in our district. While 91.5% of our students identify as persons of color, only 20.5% of our educators are not white.
Recruiting and retaining educators of color are priorities of PPSD’s Turnaround Action Plan, and we have a public goal to have 33% of our teaching positions filled by educators of color by 2025.
This task is more difficult than it sounds. This week, the Center for the Study of Educators at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute released a study of our teacher recruitment efforts and found an insufficient pool of diverse candidates applying for district positions, despite relatively competitive salaries. The researchers’ analysis is blunt: “Providence attracts relatively few applicants for each open position, and the teachers who apply tend to be mostly white."
Luckily, with the support of RIDE, we at the district are already collaborating with local teacher prep programs with an eye toward diversity. We are also building our own pipeline, with teacher academy pathways available to our high school students.
Focused initiatives to recruit educators of color have brought some success. One way we moved the needle was by amending our hiring timetable with the teachers union so we could recruit external candidates earlier in the year. Also impactful was a joint PPSD/RIDE teacher recruitment campaign that leveraged the power of social media and tapped new markets.
While a promising start, these efforts are not enough if the district is unable to reform policies that inhibit our ability to hire educators of color or make it harder to retain those hires. A case in point: every winter, the district projects student enrollment and corresponding teaching positions for the following year. A process called consolidation ensues, where teaching positions are identified that will not be continued into the fall. Teachers are then able to apply for or be placed in open positions for the following school year. Under our current contract, these placements are made by seniority only—in other words, last in, first out.
Teaching experience is a valuable commodity, so including seniority in the consolidation process makes complete sense. But using seniority as the only determinant means that the newly hired educators of color we have worked so hard to recruit are the most likely to lose their positions or become reassigned, despite their talents and skills.
Another area where the district could improve its recruitment process is ensuring that current teachers of color are included on hiring committees—a strategy recommended in the Annenberg report. Currently, the make-up of PPSD hiring committees is determined by union contract. Moreover, per that contract, hiring decisions must be made by committee consensus rather than by school leadership; this impacts our principal’s ability to build culture through strategic hiring.
As we continue with teacher contract negotiations, I ask that its leadership consider whether current policies, such as seniority-driven consolidations, align with our shared goals of equity and diversity. As “A Broken Pipeline” states, “Our national reckoning with racial injustice has sparked long overdue conversations about how our education and other systems have historically failed people of color … Closing the teacher diversity gap is one of the most important steps we could take to make public education more equitable.”