Summit examines future of R.I. education

Education leaders explore how to increase student achievement in urban, low-income districts

Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

At the fourth annual education summit, hosted at the State House Tuesday, panelists discussed the importance of closing the achievement gap.

Rhode Island Sens. Juan Pichardo, D- Providence, and Harold Metts, D-Providence, hosted the Ocean State’s fourth annual education summit, “The Equitable Delivery of a 21st Century Education: Closing the Achievement Gap” in the State House Senate lounge Tuesday.

The summit was divided into three sessions: one on the current state of education for students of color, one on research and new initiatives in Rhode Island schools and one on efforts to close the achievement gap.

Featuring a variety of speakers and panels, each followed by a question-and-answer session, the interactive summit emphasized the importance of dialogue among leaders in education. It “highlights great things our states are doing but also addresses the issues we face,” said Chanda Womack, supervisor of high school programs of the College Crusade of Rhode Island.

“I believe success depends on our continued collaboration,” Pichardo said, adding that 130 people registered for the event.

The first panel included Barbara Cottam, chair of the Rhode Island Board of Education, who stressed the importance of developing literacy during children’s early developmental stages. She said educators “must maintain high standards and expectations for all … not just top students” throughout secondary school and touched on the importance of faculty diversity.

It is “important that students recognize themselves in their role models and teachers,” Cottam added.

Ken Wagner, Rhode Island education commissioner, and Jim Purcell, commissioner of Rhode Island’s postsecondary education, also spoke on the first panel. All three speakers emphasized the importance of data in understanding approaches to improve education.

The second session included a panel of superintendents from Rhode Island’s urban core region — Central Falls, Pawtucket, Cranston and Providence — who discussed challenges they face within their respective districts and strategies to address those issues.

Christopher Maher, superintendent of Providence Schools, addressed the high rates of absences and suspensions, urging educators to “stop running kids out of school for minor infractions.”

Patti DiCenso, superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools, said her district has employed strategies including “flexible learning models, online learning, direct teaching and intervention.” When discussing student diversity, she noted that her district’s National Honor Society and Advanced Placement classes now represent students from all races and backgrounds that make up the school’s student population, an accomplishment that took three years to achieve.

Patrick McGee, superintendent of Woonsocket Schools, discussed his district’s implementation of a full-day kindergarten program, which has been in place for two years. McGee described recent initiatives, including a K-2 math program, and his intention to expand the program through grade eight.

Victor Capellan, superintendent of Central Falls Schools, spoke of his district’s reduced dropout rate, which dropped from 34 percent to 15 percent. He said he hopes to continue that momentum and work closely with partners in teachers’ unions. The district will launch a “seal of bi-literacy” initiative to recognize students fluent in more than one language — a particularly important initiative given the district’s largely minority student population.

During a question-and-answer session, an audience member mentioned the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon in which underrepresented students are funneled into the prison system as a result of a flawed school system. Capellan agreed that the pipeline is a problem and noted the high suspension rates of middle school students. He asked the audience to email him with input on improving middle school culture.

Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston, asked about educators’ efforts to mend the disconnect between parents and students. Parents are eager to help their children and learn English, as evidenced by high attendance rates for adult Rosetta Stone classes, Lancia said. “I still believe that family is a major concern.”

Because of the challenging urban environments in which many of these schools operate, students may become victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and often experience poverty, Lancia said.

In the last session, featuring a variety of leaders in education, Philip Less, an administrator at the Rhode Island Department of Education, continued to speak on the subject of parents’ roles. “Studies indicate the positive effect of parental involvement in achievement and success of students,” he said.

Adam Greenman, executive vice president and director of community investment for United Way, touched on summer learning loss — when students lose or forget information learned the previous school year. To address this concern, he suggested supporting summer programs within recreational centers and libraries.

Julie Nora, director of the International Charter School, spoke of the benefits of embracing bi- or multilingual education, including creation of global citizens, language resources and cognitive and social benefits.

Metts and Pichardo ended the summit with closing remarks.

“Education is one of the best ways to invest in human capital,” Metts said, emphasizing the “importance of educating people of all colors and all ages.”

“We know where we fell short in the past. … We have to ‘keep it real,’ as my students used to say,” Metts said.

Both senators encouraged attendees to complete feedback forms on the summit to evaluate aspects such as the speakers present, the food provided and the event’s location and make suggestions for future iterations.

“Next year will be bigger and better, but you’re gonna make it better,” Pichardo said.


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One Comment

  1. Suzanne Renoir says:

    I am a Rhode Island (Little Compton) resident who recently wrote a book, “Dear Young Americans, This is What You Didn’t Learn in School.” As an overeducated geek, local business owner and mother, I identified 30 separate lessons that young people need to learn. As my business caters to low income consumers, I’ve seen firsthand their lack of knowledge regarding their own thought patterns, how the credit systems works, what kinds of people to avoid, how to handle themselves in public, manners, etc is utterly lacking. The problem – well, one of them – is their parents couldn’t impart these skills because they never learned them either. And the cycle of poverty continues. It’s terribly sad, frustrating, and disgusting to see. I would be happy to provide a free copy of my book to anyone who is interested. Email me at and I’ll send you a pdf or mail you a hard copy.

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