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Local schools combat failing label

When teachers at Charles E. Shea Senior High School in Pawtucket found out their school had been placed on the Rhode Island Department of Education's list of failing schools, many were confused and frustrated.

Yashua Bhatti '10, adviser for the College Advising Corps program at the school, said teachers have not been happy about the designation, particularly because "they feel they already go above and beyond" with their students, many of whom speak English as a second language.

The Rhode Island Department of Education designated seven schools — five in Providence and two in Pawtucket — as "persistently lowest-achieving" Oct. 7. The department's leaders contend that by identifying the state's worst schools, they can target them for drastic improvements. The state has $2 million in federal grant money to turn the schools around, an amount Elliot Krieger, executive assistant for communications in the commissioner's office, said is not enough.

In the past, the University has worked directly with schools on the list. Maureen Sigler, lecturer in the Education Department and director of history and social studies education, is involved in a college access program at Central Falls High School, one of the schools named persistently low-achieving in 2010. The program is intended to boost graduation rates, Sigler said.

Teachers, students, parents and community representatives were given 30 days to discuss which of four potential school reform models — turnaround, transformation, restart or closure — they deem most appropriate for their school. Following a public input period, school district superintendents will send a decision to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist for final approval.

Turnaround and transformation models both require replacing a school's principal. Restart involves hiring a new management team or charter operator to run the school, while closure, the worst-case option, stipulates that the school shut down and relocate its students.

A variety of issues must be weighed in selecting the right plan, said Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. These considerations involve assessing the quality of a school's staff, professional development and curriculum.

Simmons also explained that because many of the schools on the list have undergone improvement and reform before, it is important to learn from past experiences. "This isn't new news," he said. "The question we should now be asking ourselves at all levels is, ‘Why did our previous efforts produce these results?'"

The Annenberg Institute does not focus on direct service in the schools but instead works to improve school district administration, community organization and policy analysis, said Michael Grady, deputy director of the institute and clinical assistant professor in the Education Department.

He said the most important contribution Brown makes to Rhode Island's public education system is through its graduates, particularly those in the Urban Education Policy and Master of Arts in Teaching programs. Many of these students go on to work in local public schools or take on leadership roles in education policy and research.

Since 2010, federal regulations have required the state's department of education to report schools that are among the lowest-achieving 5 percent in the state each year using a formula tied to state assessments and graduation rates. This year's full list includes Providence's Carl G. Lauro Elementary School, Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, Gilbert Stuart Middle School, Mount Pleasant High School and Pleasant View Elementary School, in addition to William E. Tolman Senior High School and Shea High in Pawtucket.

A slightly different list of schools was initially released this past March, but the Rhode Island Department of Education requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education for additional time to examine more recent data, Krieger said.

Three schools — including Hope Information Technology School — were removed from the original list. Two Pawtucket high schools were then added because of a federal requirement that high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent be included.

When students, parents and teachers at Hope Information Technology learned their school had been placed on the list, many were confused and frustrated, said Zack Mezera '13, an organizer for Hope United and BlogDailyHerald staff writer. The low-achieving designation was distracting in both a "mental and pragmatic way," he said, explaining that, in addition to lowering the morale of the entire school community, administrators and teachers needed to dedicate a significant amount of time to navigating the transformation process.

Roger Nozaki MAT '89, director of the Swearer Center for Public Service and associate dean of the College, gave a similar analysis. "It is very important for us to get more connected to the schools and play a more integrative role," he said. He cited the University's involvement in the William D'Abate Elementary School as an example of collaboration. Instead of simply offering a few after-school programs at the school, the Swearer Center has been able to work with administrators to design a comprehensive set of extracurricular programs and now oversees virtually all of these programs.

For Brown's engagement to be as effective as possible, it must rely on schools to identify ways that the University can help. "Being a very wealthy, elite university, it takes very little effort for Brown to make a difference in this sort of crisis," Sigler said.

In the midst of all these plans for improvement, it is important to consider the effect of these discussions on the morale of both students and adults, Simmons, of Annenberg, said. "For most of these schools, this is their third or fourth round of reform."


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