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by Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI.com – contributing writer
Photo: Pamela McCue, CEO of the R.I. Nurses Institute Middle College Charter School, in front of a poster of the first entering class of students from 2011.[File photo from 2013 – Scott Kingsley]
The debate around charter schools in Rhode Island, as with COVID-19, gun violence, climate change, and health equity, demands that the news media be more transparent about its role in taking sides and controlling the narrative.
Narrative matters, perhaps as much as ZIP codes do in determining health and economic outcomes, it turns out.Facts matter, too. More than 567,000 U.S. residents have died from COVID-19 in the last year. Not surprisingly, deaths from COVID-19 were the third-leading cause of death in 2020 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, right behind the perennial perverse winners, heart disease at number one and cancer at number two.Equally unsurprising, the CDC found that COVID-19 related deaths for ethnic and racial minority groups were more than double the U.S. death rate of non-Hispanic white folks.However, the false narratives trumpeted by the Trump administration about COVID-19 during his last year in office were filled with misleading information and fudged CDC data reports, according to Dr. Deborah Birx, in her recent mea culpa. Birx claimed that hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved. If only…Despite the phenomenal progress in getting vaccines into arms, with more than 104.2 million having received one or both doses, and more than 56 million people in the U.S. fully vaccinated as of April 3, the news about a new surge in virus cases continues to be worrisome.“We are still in a COVID hurricane,” Dr. Celine Gunder, an infectious disease specialist, said last week. “Transmission rates are extremely high.” Even if you have been vaccinated, Grounder continued, “You really do need to continue to be careful, avoid crowds and wear masks in public.”As long as there are vulnerable people, said Dr. Peter Simon, a retired epidemiologist, in a recent tweet, “The virus will find them.”Competing narratives around COVID in RIAsk yourself: What is the dominant messaging in the news media narrative about the coronavirus pandemic here in Rhode Island?Is it that more vaccines are on the way, with new slots opening up every day for residents to get jabbed? That once vaccinated, things can open up again, including restaurants and in-person schooling? That a new cavalry led by Gov. Dan McKee is coming to the rescue? That we still need to wear masks – even if WPRO talk show host Matt Allen has questioned their efficacy?On Saturday, April 3, Gov. McKee toured a state-run mass vaccination clinic in Middletown, located at the former site of a Benny’s store. “Right now, we are focused on getting people vaccinated so we can reopen our economy, our businesses, and our schools,” the Governor told the gaggle of press who attended the show-and-tell briefing, as reported by ABC6.When asked by reporter Olivia DaRocha what he hoped summer in Rhode Island would look like, Gov. McKee responded: “I would hope there’s going to be fireworks in every community in the state of Rhode Island by the Fourth.”However, a much different message, in a much different tone of voice, was delivered last week by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, who issued an emotional warning, expressing her worries about signs of a new COVID-19 surge, looking at the data.When conflicting narratives collideThis past weekend, ConvergenceRI received a sobering text from a physician who has been on the front lines, testing and vaccinating her community for more than a year: “Vaccines are not keeping up to prevent the next surge,” she warned.Another source, a physician familiar with state-run testing data results, said that positive COVID-19 test results were up more than 400 percent, week over week, in one hard-hit urban setting.What is currently driving the biggest demand in testing in Rhode Island? The surprising answer, from a third physician: Travel, particularly international travel.The breaking news about a potential COVID-19 surge in Rhode Island emerged as a top story in The Washington Post on Saturday, April 3, where “hope is colliding with dread as coronavirus infections and vaccinations surge,” according to the headline.The story began with an interview with Dr. Laura Forman, who directs the Kent Hospital emergency department, voicing her worries. “It’s worry at this point. It’s worry about our community. It’s worry about our families, because most of us have unvaccinated kids and family at home,” Forman said, as reported by Lenny Bernstein, Lena H. Sun, Fenit Nirappil and Kayla Ruble.Dr. Forman had also been featured on an ABC6 segment on Friday, April 2, in which she said: “Today, the number of COVID-positive patients at Kent [Hospital] is 22. One week ago, that number was 13. Two weeks ago, that number was 8.” Can you spell surge?Conflicting narrativesWhat we hear and what we see on our TVs, computer screens and phones – the dominant news narrative – is often presented in a kind of “she says this, he says that” format, an interpretation of current events that blurs and distorts what we think we know.Worries about an apparent COVID-19 surge in Rhode Island, deemed worthy of major coverage in The Washington Post, did not appear to match the tone and content of “messaging” in the narrative being promoted by Gov. McKee and his team at Saturday’s event in Middletown. Why is that?
A similar conflict in narratives has emerged around efforts to enact the Act On Climate legislation, with legislation on the verge of passage in both the Senate and the House in the R.I. General Assembly. Gov. McKee, at the last moment, voiced concern about provisions in the legislation that he feared might lead to frivolous lawsuits – worries that R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha then immediately knocked down.Translated, the R.I. General Assembly is finally taking action on what is the biggest existential crisis in our lives, and apparently Gov. McKee is worried about the potential for citizen-driven lawsuits.
Charter school expansion?
Then there is the debate over charter school expansion in Rhode Island – and, once again, two very different, conflicting narratives – in which the news media is playing a critical role in shaping and defining the narrative.Legislative leaders have been pushing for a three-year moratorium on new spending on expansion of charter schools in Rhode Island, concerned about the potential financial impact on all public schools, because the funding for charters was coming from the well of public school financing by the state.Enter Gov. McKee, a fierce proponent of charter schools, who recently called arguments about the potential for charter school expansion to drain funds from existing public schools “a big lie,” promising to veto any such legislation that got to his desk. “The financial issues they are talking about, by the way, it’s a big lie, the whole premise that somehow it’s going to hurt district schools,” McKee told The Boston Globe.The expansion of charter schools in Rhode Island, it seems, is a big part of the strategy of education reform being promoted by R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who is engaged in an increasingly cantankerous dispute with the Providence Teachers Union over contract negotiations.Controlling the media narrative often has a lot to do with access – the ability to tell your story and have the news media report on it. Infante-Green has been given a twice-a-month media platform by WPRI, where she has been interviewed by anchor Kim Kalunian. It is a media platform that has not existed before for state education commissioners, in ConvergenceRI’s memory.In the most recent interview, Infante-Green said: “I will tell you I am in favor of charter schools as well. They are public schools.” Further, Infante-Green argued charter schools are places where parents want their children to go, because it’s where they will have a different opportunity. “I want to remind everyone, in Providence, [only] 17.2 percent can read [at] grade level. When students who are going to their counterpoints in the charter, it’s 36.4 percent,” Infante-Greene claimed. Did any rWPRI eporter double-check the Commissioner’s numbers?Managing the moment?Gov. McKee recently held a news briefing to oppose the proposed moratorium on charter schools; the Governor also published an op-ed in The Providence Journal to explain his opposition. At the same time, a TV news story seeming to support Gov. McKee’s narrative on charter schools was broadcast by WJAR-TV, Channel 10. The story interviewed Dr. Pamela McCue, CEO of the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle School Charter High School in Providence [who apparently makes $160,000 a year]. Was her interview part of a larger, coordinated media campaign?McCue told the TV reporter that RINI, as the charter school is known, had received a “very modest increase over the next five years to meet the health care sector needs,” claiming that students of color make up some 96 percent of the charter school’s population.McCue voiced concern that the loss of approved seats in her charter school would prevent the health care industry from receiving the boost it needs to meet workforce demands. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the critical need for more nurses and health care providers,” McCue said.The WJAR story did include, at the end of the piece, a “she-says-this, he-says-that” counter-argument regarding charter schools, which quoted Democratic Rep. Gregg Amore from East Providence, saying that the proposed moratorium was not about denying opportunity. “It’s about figuring out funding structures so we’re not drawing resources from traditional public schools,” Amore said.Fact checkingConvergenceRI was somewhat surprised to find McCue entering the political fray over charter schools, in part because in previous reporting on RINI and interviews with McCue, she had always deftly skirted saying anything remotely “political.”[See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “Building the local pipeline for nurses,” written in 2013; “Nursing charter school graduates its first class,” written in 2014; and “RINI: We are the best-kept secret in RI,” written in 2015.]As Convergence RI reported in its 2015 story, the RINI model was based on promising to build a new model of high school education: “Our model is to break down barriers for students to get into higher education and to get a [four-year] RN degree,” McCue said. “We believe that the bachelor’s degree should be the entry point into practice.” McCue continued: “I think it’s our time to really go out and let people know what’s happening in their own backyard.”Since those stories were published, ConvergenceRI had heard feedback from numerous sources involved in nursing education in Rhode Island that many of the students who graduated from RINI arrived unprepared for college courses, lacking competency in mathematics and biology, and required extensive remedial work.Further, there was an apparent gap when it came to translating the RINI education into participation in the health care workforce, and in particular, attainment of an RN license, once again, according to sources.ConvergenceRI reached out to McCue with a series of questions, curious about the story on WJAR:ConvergenceRI: Did you speak out on your own or were you asked to do so by Gov. McKee? As I recall, you had avoided discussing politics in the past.McCue never directly addressed this question in her response, saying instead: “We are speaking out for the close to 400 students that applied for enrollment at our school this year. Families have already begun applying for these new seats for next year. They are already looking forward to having the opportunity of having their child attend a high-quality school.”Further, McCue said: “Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College was approved by the R. I Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to expand to 228 new seats over the next five years.” That is, she continued, “a very modest increase to continue to meet the needs in Rhode Island. The charter moratorium bill passed by the R.I. Senate and under consideration by the R.I. House of Representatives would stop our expansion and deny students and [their] families access to high-quality education opportunities.”ConvergenceRI: Your talked about the importance of RINI in terms of future workforce development in RI; I was wondering if you could provide numbers regarding how many RINI graduates have achieved RN degrees and how many have received CNA degrees?In her response, McCue said: “We are further refining our data to provide more updated information on our graduates. I would prefer not to share outdated information.”Instead, McCue offered the following data: “On average, RINI students earn 16 college credits, with many earning much more. All credits transfer to a college or university towards a nursing degree; 85 percent of our graduates attend college in Rhode Island and close to 50 percent work in Rhode Island health care facilities while attending college.”Further, McCue continued, “RINI students and alumni have been on the frontlines during the pandemic administering COVID-19 tests and working at vaccination clinics and elderly care facilities.”[Editor’s Note: The last available data from the R.I. Department of Education Report Card is for 2018-2019; the past year’s report is apparently not available due to COVID-19 and a lack of assessment data.]One source familiar with RINI operations told ConvergenceRI that the data from the most recent RIDE Report Card from 2018-2019 told a much different story than the narrative being created by McCue.The Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College has produced only 7 registered nurses in the past 10 years. Translated, that is only 7 RNs produced out of roughly 2,700 students during the last decade, according to one source’s analysis of the data.Only some 180 students of RINI have had anything to do with entering the health care workforce, many of whom only achieved a CNA certificate, according to the data analysis. When combined with the total number of RNs, only some 6.5 percent of RINI graduates during the past 10 years have earned any credentials in the health care field.Further, there is no data on how many graduates pursued nursing certification after graduation currently remain in the workforce.ConvergenceRI: What are the biggest barriers that students at RINI face? Is it math competency? Is it biology? Is it MLL [multi-lingual learners] competency?In her response, McCue said: “We currently serve 272 students, grade 9-12. The vast majority of RINI students come from Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls and are often the first in their families to graduate from high school.”McCue continued: “Many do not see themselves as college-bound or future health professionals before entering the school. Having access to the right courses, like biology and anatomy, puts them on a pathway to college – and also provides them with the experience and confidence in the classroom when they are in college. Our classes are rigorous and structured, which is difficult for new students to adjust to, but we provide supports and guidance so they persist.”Once again, the existing data from the RIDE Report Card for 2018-2019 paints a different picture, according an analysis by sources. Out of a possible four stars, RINI earned one star when it came to student absenteeism. Some 42 percent of the school’s students were chronically absent.Further, only 4 percent of RINI students were found to be proficient in math, while only 17 percent of RINI students were proficient in English language, earning an overall rating of two out of a possible four stars.[Editor’s Note: Remember Infante-Green’s claim that in Providence public schools, only 17.2 percent of students can read at grade level, compared to 36.4 percent in charter schools? Well, according to the data from the RIDE Report Card, looking at the RINI charter school in Providence, only 17 percent were found to be proficient in English language.]Further, RINI also had a low composite graduation rate of 75 percent; while Central High School and the Providence Career & Technical Academy achieved higher graduation rates.ConvergenceRI: Where do students who graduate from RINI attend college? How many go to RIC, how many go to URI, how many go to CCRI?Once again, McCue did not directly answer this question. Instead, she answered by talking about the perceived need for a more diverse workforce in nursing. “R.I. Department of Labor and Training rates nursing as one of the fastest growing occupations this state and the need for them will continue, as this global pandemic clearly crystallized.”McCue continued: “As the state becomes more diverse in race/ethnicity, the nursing workforce has not kept pace. Only 5 percent of the state’s registered nurses are African American and only 4 percent are Latino, whereas people of racial and ethnic diversity make up 28 percent of the state’s population.”ConvergenceRI: Are you planning to move from the current campus?“We will remain at our current campus but are expanding to another floor,” McCue said. Sources told ConvergenceRI that McCue had approached a nursing school in the state in January of 2021 about possibly utilizing their campus, but has apparently changed her mind.Other factorsIn talking with sources, some of the problems that appear to be endemic to the entire Providence Public School System are also occurring at RINI. They include:• High rate of teacher turnover; some 30 teachers have left RINI in the last two years, according to sources.• Continuing problems with curriculum for English language learners [multi-lingual learners]. RINI is alleged not to have been providing the required service of three hours per day with a licensed professional, according to sources. This is in apparent violation of existing legal standards.• A lack of special education teachers, which has resulted in students with IEPs [individualized education plans] lacking service hours.Healing from trauma, lossIt is easy for consumers and voters to get stuck when confronted by conflicting, opposing narratives, like the gamblers arguing in the opening song, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” from the musical “Guys and Dolls,” each claiming to have the best horse to bet on. “I got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and here’s a guy who says if the weather’s clear…”And, when it comes to the disparate messaging around COVID-19 in Rhode Island, it sounds much like the theme song from Mel Brooks’ movie, “The Twelve Chairs”: Hope for the best, expect the worse.The contrast in ongoing, competing narratives in Rhode Island is startling: Republican legislators are pushing a bill that would outlaw the teaching of divisive issues related to race, at the same time the trial of the Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck while Floyd was handcuffed is being broadcast live.The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is lobbying against any tax increases for the wealthiest residents living in Rhode Island at the same time the economic need for Rhode Islanders living near the poverty level keeps getting worse.The difference, perhaps, is that there are now progressive legislators who are speaking out and challenging the status quo in the R.I. General Assembly, and there are alternative news outlets, such as Uprise RI and ecoRI News and BTown – and, I would like to think ConvergenceRI – that are capturing and championing voices and stories that are not often featured in the dominant narrative championed by many news media outlets.The continuing trauma from the coronavirus pandemic – the loss, the devastation of lives, the disruption of families and businesses – will take a long, long time to heal. A huge boulder has dropped on all of us – and in the midst of an emergency, in a constant crisis mode, it’s sometimes hard to admit that we have all been profoundly hurt, that we have been lied to and deceived by the former President, and that there will never be a return to what once was considered normal. We need to be able to find the time to weep openly, as a sign of strength.The lack of common ground to be found in the narratives about our lives, where divisiveness and anxiety are championed, is problematic.
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