By Joseph Nadeau
R.I. Commissioner of Education Addresses Legislators, City Leaders on State of Schools
PROVIDENCE – Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and his Central Falls counterpart Mayor James Diossa went to Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner’s State of Education address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Wednesday hoping for the best.
The two leaders of communities with distressed public school districts were looking for word that Wagner would be backing proposals to improve support for their communities both with programs and improved funding resources.
“We have not been able to get information on all his proposals but so far there is a lot of optimism for urban districts like ours,” Grebien said while waiting with Diossa for the commissioner to begin.
There are proposals from the Department of Education and Gov. Gina Raimondo pending in the state budget plan to make changes in education funding for public school districts, and in particular those impacted the most by charter schools taking students and funding resources from the districts, as well as greater support for school facility improvements. Seeing those changes finalized with the state budget later this year would be something urban districts would certainly celebrate, according to the two mayors.
“To put it into perspective, urban districts are always struggling and they would benefit from more dollars from the state,” Grebien said. “And any time there is a benefit to our community, we are willing to accept it.”
Diossa said he had already been told that the Commissioner of Education would be seeking to give districts that host state charter schools revised state aid support that would take into account the added costs public districts hold for their student populations.
Urban districts often serve a greater number of special needs students and also have to address the impact of having many students who require additional services as English language learners, he noted. Charter schools in contrast receive the same share of student support but don’t address a similar higher need in those areas, according to Diossa.
“This will address providing a balance in funding in that regard,” Diossa said.
The state will also be looking at providing school districts with some additional capital spending support and that could allow a district like Pawtucket, which has already targeted $240 million in needed renovations to its schools, to address additional needs, Grebien said.
As Wagner began his remarks on Wednesday, he highlighted Rhode Island educators who have brought change to their schools and districts and also been recognized for it.
Tracy Lafreniere, a teacher, reading specialist and literacy coach with the North Smithfield Elementary School was among the group as was Alan Tenreiro, Cumberland High School’s principal and Rhode Island and National Principal of the Year.
“Thank you for inviting me to address you on one of the most important priorities in our state: the education of our children,” Wagner told the legislators, state officers and educators in attendance.
“My standard for success is simple: I’ll support whatever helps teachers teach and helps students learn,” he said while giving a goal for his work.
While describing his contacts with Rhode Island’s educators and their school communities, Wagner said he has enjoyed “open and honest” conversations with the people “doing the hard work every day that makes learning happen.”
He also voiced praise for the state’s efforts to increase education funding when other states are cutting back and credited the state leaders in attendance for understanding “that education is an investment in our future. What’s good for our children is also good for our economy and our state,” he said.
Pointing to the state’s schools, Wagner named Lafreniere as a teacher “who knows there is nothing more amazing and empowering than teaching a child to read.”
As the 2016 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, Lafreniere is “raising awareness about the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and she’s organizing our first statewide sharing conference on teaching and learning,” the commissioner said.
Tenreiro, Wagner said, “has transformed Cumberland High School, dramatically expanded access to advanced coursework, and introduced options that allow students to move at their own pace.
“Any student at Cumberland High can enroll in advanced courses, and 70 percent of seniors take AP or honors classes,” he said of Tenreiro and his school’s successes.
The commissioner followed with other examples of top educators and also cited Pawtucket Superintendent Patti DiCenso for “providing amazing leadership to her entire community.”
Supported by Hasbro, Wagner said DiCenso “introduced a No Bully curriculum across all district schools.” And with support from the Rhode Island Foundation, he said she also formed a partnership with the International Charter School and the South Kingstown schools to introduce dual-language and world-language programs in English, Spanish, and Chinese, that start in kindergarten.
“These accomplishments are remarkable, but we also know there is more work to be done,” Wagner said.
“Too few of our students meet grade-level expectations in reading and math. We need to do an even better job for all students, but especially students of color, English Learners, students with disabilities, adult learners, and students whose families have been left behind in the economy,” he said.
“Too many of our students who enroll in college need remediation when they get there, and they end up paying college prices for what they should have learned in high school. By the year 2020, more than 70 percent of jobs in Rhode Island will require some form of postsecondary education. But less than half of Rhode Islanders meet that benchmark now,” he said.
Wagner pointed to Raimondo’s “robust plan to put people back to work and grow our economy” as a step forward and said strengthening “our neighborhood schools,” is one of the most important things the state can do to help support its economy.
“I’m confident we can do this – together – not just because it’s good for our economy, but because it’s good for our kids,” he said.
The commissioner continued to detail a plan for improving public schools that he said was “rooted in the core belief that all kids deserve to attend a neighborhood school that prepares them for success.”
Wagner said the plan is “based on confidence that we can work together to build school cultures of excellence and continuous improvement,” and offered three strategies he said would be needed to advance that work.
“First, we need to provide all students with access to advanced coursework – and we need to prepare them for success. Second, we need to re-imagine how we do schooling to better balance rigor, relevance, and student engagement. And third, we need to empower our principals and teachers, our students and families, so they can make it all happen in their neighborhood schools,” the commissioner said.
To carry out that plan, Wagner called for an end to a system of tracking students by accelerated and non-accelerated tracks, that determines which students move on to “high-level math, study world languages, persist in music and the arts, and take APclasses. And too often, we decide who will be left behind,” he said.
He said all high-school students should have access to and be prepared for advanced coursework “based on their passions and their interests. This preparation must start early – in elementary and middle school. And we must continue to support high-quality early-childhood programs,” he said.
Wagner voiced support for providing free access to the PSAT and SAT in school allowing all students to obtain feedback on college readiness and start early on college applications.
He also called for expansion of the Prepare RI program and the Advanced Coursework Network which give students free access to college and other advanced learning experiences. Wagner also called for : • Expanding high-quality career-and-technical education programs that blend academic readiness with growth-sector job skills.
• Building more dual-language and world-language programs, because being bilingual is one of the most important assets in the 21st century.
• Expansion of STEM and STEAM programs “because our children need to be able to dream and design and build out their visions for the 22nd century.
And he called for expanding computer-science programs into all schools, “because coding touches virtually every aspect of our lives and coding deserves to be in our classrooms, not just in our basements and garages.”
Wagner said “it isn’t enough to just provide access to advanced coursework. Students do not achieve in school unless they are fully engaged in their learning, and they will never be fully engaged until learning matters to them.”
He called for changes in the way public schools divide the school day and learning, and suggested that those systems contribute to the drop out rates in high school and also at other grade levels were students may attend but also “disengage.”
“We tend to focus on fixing the kids who fail in the current system rather than on fixing the system that fails too many of our kids,” Wagner said. “We need to bring all of our schools into the 21st century. Let’s expand hands-on, integrated, project-based approaches that leverage technology and are both rigorous and relevant for students and teachers,” the commissioner said.
He also pointed to the need to give schools more control in determining how they meet their student’s needs and pointed to the Governor’s budget proposal as providing support in that area.
“So this year, Governor Raimondo proposed funds to help build this leadership and empowerment work,” Wagner said.
The budget, he noted includes:
• $1 million for teacher and principal leadership pipelines;
• An additional $750,000 for expert classroom teachers to provide statewide instructional leadership.
• $1 million for school and district teams to design their empowerment plans.
“And today, we submit for your consideration a voluntary School and Family Empowerment Package: a set of opportunities for autonomy and flexibility that can help take our neighborhood schools to the next level,” he said.
“The idea is to give neighborhood schools – our teachers and principals – more authority to make decisions about things that directly affect their students – things like teaching materials, the school day, and personnel,” Wagner said.
Original story can be found in the 4/1 edition of The Pawtucket Times.