No disrespect to anyone else, but Harrison Peters has arguably the toughest job of anyone on this list. Last February he walked through what has been a revolving door at 797 Westminster to helm a school system in desperate need of a turnaround, and under control of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, another position of high turnover in recent years.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of a global pandemic disrupting the entire education system less than a month after he arrived from Florida, where he was deputy superintendent for Hillsborough County (Tampa).
“My team and I did what any good public servants do in a crisis: We rolled up our sleeves and went to work, often seven days a week, to make sure that families had what they needed to continue learning in a distance format,” he recalls. They distributed more than 20,000 laptops, found internet connections for low-income families, adjusted curricula, “and we practically cornered the market on hand sanitizer. We even delivered a pizza or two,” he adds.
His second year to-do list is no less daunting than his first. He and Infante-Green are trying to hammer out a new contract with the Providence Teachers Union, the district is planning $300 million in improvements to aging school buildings over five years, and he must try to make up ground lost to remote learning.
“Despite our best efforts this spring, many students did not make the kind of gains we would expect to see during a traditional school year. Research shows that students perform better, academically and socially, with in-person learning,” he notes. “In the future, our students will not get a COVID pass. The most impactful work my team can do is to keep students engaged and challenged during a public health crisis the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetime.”
Although he’s tasked with a difficult transformation against the backdrop of the greatest challenge in living memory, Peters knows he’s not alone and the solutions won’t come from the top down. “We cannot move forward if we leave the community behind,” he says. “I will work diligently alongside the commissioner, students, families, educators, and community leaders to transform this school district together.”
His Reason for Optimism: “What warms my heart are the national discussions on race and equity that, as painful as they may be, are necessary for the country to move beyond this moment in time. I look forward to being part of those conversations as we work together to embrace diversity in all its forms.”