WOONSOCKET – A gathering of about 80 members of the local school community received an informal state of the district overview on local student achievement during a forum with Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist on Thursday.
The community meeting at the Hamlet Middle School included a presentation on areas where more work is needed in local schools as well as praise for some of the improvement initiatives already underway.
Gist also outlined the state Department of Education’s goals for improving student performance statewide and aired questions from members of the audience for her views on local concerns such as the reduction of all-day kindergarten to a half-day program and expected scheduling changes at the high school.
Whether to offer a full-day or half-day program is up to local school officials, Gist noted, but she advised that they study all available research on the topic to be sure their decision is the right one. She also pointed to the proposed scheduling changes at the high school -- the dropping of its block schedule for shorter class periods -- as one that must be evaluated as to its value to local students.
Gist told the group that she’s been following the local district’s progress thanks to earlier visits to the district since her appointment 18 months ago and also through contacts with school community members on projects such as construction of the city’s two middle school buildings.
“I’ve just had a lot of wonderful experiences with this community and I’m thrilled to be back here to talk about what is most important to the education of our children,” Gist said as she began her presentation.
While school issues are often looked at from a local perspective, Gist said, she believes it is also imperative to look at them in terms of how they affect children elsewhere.
“It’s really important for us as a state to keep a focus on every child in Rhode Island,” she said.
“Your focus should be on your city, your school district, but I also want to make sure every Rhode Islander is thinking about the education of every single child in our school system. Because what happens to any young person in any school all across our state affects all of us,” Gist said.
When taking on her job, Gist said she wanted to look at everything that had been done to improve education in the past before setting her goals for the future.
The review allowed the Department of Education to identify “the things we are doing well,” and also “where are we struggling,” she said.
In Woonsocket’s case, the data shows the district to be one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse districts in the state, according to Gist.
The data the state has compiled also shows that the city ranks higher than the state average for two important student factors, the number who qualify for special education services, and the number who qualify for free and reduced lunch-- a indicator of poverty.
Woonsocket’s student population ranks slightly higher than the state average in both of those factors, according to Gist.
Chronic absenteeism is another student factor that crops up in the state’s data for Woonsocket, and Gist pointed to the local district’s absenteeism rate for students as a significant concern.
“Chronic absenteeism for your community is 32 percent which is twice that of the state average, and that is really very high,” Gist said. The local student absenteeism rate is among the highest Gist has seen while making visits to local communities. While visiting another community during the week, Gist said she found that community’s absenteeism to be just 1 percent.
“The 32 percent figure is really, really high and I think that is something the community has to pay attention to and find out what that is about,” she said.
The district’s graduation rate is about 64 percent, she said, which stands about 10 percentage points below the state average. That rate represents students who complete high school in four years and does not reflect students who obtain their diploma following an additional year.
The rate of students not dropping out of school for Woonsocket is 85 percent which still represents a significant number of students not graduating, she said.
Gist pointed to state assessments as showing a significant number of local students to be performing below state average in the areas assessed and in some areas the need for improvement is “quite marked,” she said.
Areas of concern included high school reading performances, high school science and math, and writing, she said.
“You can see compared to the state average you have more students not achieving at a level of proficiency compared to students across the state,” Gist said while showing charts available in the Department of Education’s website to the gathering.
Those issues may be of concern to families, teachers and community leaders, but there are also “many things to be enthusiastic about,” in local schools, she said.
The Department came to Globe Park school to announce recently released student assessment data because of the “tremendous improvement” that occurred in a few of the district’s schools including the Globe Park and Bernon Heights elementary schools.
“We were at Globe Park in particular because the performance there had increased by a sustainable increase,” she said.
The findings, Gist said, show that while Woonsocket’s student performance remains below the state average, “you are making improvements and if you keep up this pace it will mean that you will be catching up.”
And, while student performance on the assessments should be a concern for the community, Gist said “I can tell you there is lots to be proud of, and I know the middle school and the high school are really focused on improvements this year.”
Gist also reviewed the state’s overall performance in comparison to national performance assessments and talked about the need to improve the Rhode Island’s education system to a world competitive level.
Gist said that Woonsocket should benefit from last year’s work to create a statewide school aid formula and promised to work on having it fully funding in the current session of the General Assembly. Among those listening to Gist at the Hamlet Middle School were Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, City Council President John F. Ward, state Sen. Roger Picard and local Representatives Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Robert Phillips, and a number of representatives from school parent teacher groups.