Providence Journal: Summer orientation: Incoming schools chief visits program in Central Falls

By Linda Borg


CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — The state's new education commissioner began his first school visit with a bang.

Ken Wagner, whose position as the state's K-12 leader was announced Wednesday by Governor Raimondo, visited a summer school program at Calcutt Middle School on Thursday, where he shot off a water rocket — to the amusement of a couple dozen ninth-graders.

Dressed in suit and tie, Wagner manned an air pump, pressurizing the water in a plastic bottle and sending it flying into a brief arc. As the bottle rose, it showered the new commissioner with water.

"It really works," he said.  

The summer program is a joint effort by the Central Falls schools and a private nonprofit organization called the Center for Dynamic Learning, which offers 1,600 Rhode Island youth the opportunity to explore "STEAM" subjects: science, technology, engineering, the arts and manufacturing.

This summer, the center has two programs in Central Falls that give students a chance to make up credits through hands-on learning projects, such as building solar-powered cars or air-and-water-powered rockets. Another teaches students about the science behind recycling.

When Wagner begins his new job Aug. 1, he will face many challenges, from revamping the state's school funding formula to rebuilding trust between teachers and the state Department of Education. Perhaps Thursday's adventure prepared him for the delicate balancing act that defines Rhode Island education politics.

Wagner was asked to judge five samples of salad dressing prepared by a dozen sixth-graders.

After tasting the first one, he said, "This is the best dressing I've ever had."

After trying the second and the third and the fourth sample, Wagner said the same thing.

Of the fifth sample, he said, "Perfect. Each one is a little different, just like us. We're all a little bit different."

In another classroom, Wagner talked with a little girl who spoke Spanish. Supt. Victor Capellan translated for him. Wagner peppered Capellan with questions about how many of his teachers were bilingual and how many were certified to teach English as a Second Language. He learned that this student had bounced back and forth between the United States and the Dominican Republic.

Afterward, Wagner took a few questions from the news media. While most of his answers were generic, he did respond to a question about whether parents should be permitted to opt their children out of standardized state tests.

"It's important to have a common measure," he said. "If someone refuses to take the test, [the school] is losing that information. We shouldn't test too much. I think what parents are really concerned about is test preparation. The best test prep is good teaching."

Before Wagner begins his new job, which is expected to be approved Monday by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, he and his wife are taking a two-week trip to Capri.  


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  • Terry Lothan
    Education commision should keep up with new technologies. In my opinion , online education should be widespread and accessible for schoolchildren. Taking into account all the benefits (, it surely worth attention.