Plan for city schools to focus on teacher performance

The plan will assess teacher skills and prioritizes increasing cultural awareness

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 21, 2013

Superintendent Susan Lusi presented her strategic plan to revitalize the Providence Public School District to about 50 community members, teachers and city council members Wednesday night at William D’Abate Elementary School.

The bulk of the plan, Opening Doors to Our Children’s Futures, explains structural improvements intended to better assess and develop teachers’ and administrators’ skills. New statewide teacher evaluations were implemented for the first time last school year. About 90 percent of the state’s teachers were found to be either effective or very effective, and the district will now work to “refine and improve implementation” to gain a better understanding of teacher performance.

The evaluations, which were formerly carried out once every five years, are now annual and involve both announced and unannounced classroom visits by administrators, Lusi said. Administrators are currently negotiating with the teachers union to determine whether evaluations will affect compensation when the new teachers’ contract is implemented in August 2014.

“In the outside world, you have yearly evaluations,” said Shavon Smith, parent advisory council member, adding the evaluations are an important step forward in ensuring students receive the highest quality education possible.

A school’s holistic performance is also important to consider, Lusi said. Every school currently has an improvement plan based on quantitative factors such as achievement, attendance and suspension rates. Test scores, though not a part of the formal teacher evaluation system, are used to measure achievement.

The plan aims to create a “culture of accountability” by encouraging faculty to use new data systems in evaluating and improving upon their weaknesses, Lusi said.

Teachers will also receive help from math coaches — previously cut due to a lack of funding  and brought back due to popular demand — and a teacher induction program through which senior teachers will help new teachers adjust to the job.  Lusi added that she hopes an administrator induction program will also be developed this summer.

Parents can request four schools before their children are assigned to a primary school for kindergarten, but it is not always possible to accommodate their preferences. One community member said her child was not assigned to any of the four schools she desired.

“We can … make (kindergarten registration) more transparent and easier to use,” Lusi said, but “it does not mean everyone will get their choice.”

The plan includes an administration pledge to increase cultural awareness and work with parents and the greater Providence community.

Nearly 60 percent of the district’s students come from non-English-speaking homes, which poses a variety of challenges, ranging from preventing cultural harassment to teaching students in their second language. About 19 percent of students are classified as English Language Learners, who require a specialized curriculum.

The student body’s diversity is a strength, Lusi said, but “you have to make sure that staff and students appreciate the variety of cultures from which students come.”

Because classes are primarily taught in English, “children are doing double the work,” said Andres Ramirez, assistant professor of educational studies at Rhode Island College. “We are missing an opportunity” by not educating students in both their first languages and English, Ramirez said, adding that there is inherent difficulty in learning concepts in a second language when students are not yet proficient.

“We are trying to work towards late-exit ELL programs so (students) can learn the concepts in (their) native language,” Lusi said. Administrative goals have recently shifted to a focus on proficiency in both languages because bilingual education is preferred, she added.

But instituting district-wide bilingual education would require funding to hire teachers certified in both languages and to buy dual-language materials, she said.

A translator was present during the presentation so Spanish-speaking parents, who comprised the majority of parents in attendance, could understand and pose questions to Lusi.

“My goal is to have a conversation,” Lusi said, calling for dialogue between parents and school faculty.

“It is a partnership between the schools and the families,” Smith said. Parents are not sufficiently involved, though “the schools are really eager to have parent involvement,” she added.

“I find a wall in terms of what I can do for my girl,” Ramirez said. He called for “real change” in the way parents are invited to join the educational process and said parents should “be part of the schools in a structured way.”