School changes ahead

Superintendent readies for new year, highlights effort to make students career-ready

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When Aug. 29 rolls around in a couple weeks and Cranston kids officially return to school, things are going to be different – especially for the students in middle and high school – as the district continues their efforts to make Cranston students workforce ready.

The new 84-minute class times at the high schools and the implementation of ‘pathways’ courses at the middle schools were among a variety of things that Superintendent Jeannine Nota and her staff across the city are preparing for as the 2018-19 school year becomes a reality.

Nota, who is going into her fourth year in the position, spoke in a wide-ranging interview Friday morning about those changes, and about buildings construction, technology in classrooms, and advice she has to parents and students entering the new school year.

High school schedule change

In a plan finalized last year by the school department, school committee, and teacher’s union, Cranston East and West will be going to a blocked semester schedule this year. Class times will be 84 minutes long, rather than the 55-minute periods in previous years, and there will only be four classes per day rather than the previous rotating six.

Nota said that there were two major reasons why they made this change at the high schools: access to internships for the students and creating more class time for the curriculum to be covered.

The internship aspect of it, Nota said, comes from RI Dept. of Education guidance saying that high schools need to make more internship/workplace programs available to students. She said that with the “bizarre” rotating schedule they previously had, it was a challenge for students to go out into the community and complete internships because employers didn’t want a student to come in at different times every day.

“Hopefully this will benefit kids and help us reach out to the community and create partnerships that right now we don’t have,” Nota said. “We have a rich community with doctors, businesses, offices, that would hopefully want to help our kids, and vice versa.”

She said that creating a schedule that allows kids to do community-based internships during school time will help them learn the “soft skills needed to work in a workplace.”

“Some kids miss those big pieces like the knowledge you need to show up, look presentable, be professional, be on time,” she said. “They learn that through these internships, and I’m looking forward to that.”

As for the 84-minute classes, Nota said the curriculum hasn’t changed yet, but this year will be experimental to see if they need to make curriculum changes at some point.

She said teachers have been doing professional development for several months to prepare for the change, meeting with other teachers from Rhode Island and Massachusetts who already teach in a similar schedule.

Nota said the increased class-time by roughly a half-hour has been met with some trepidation, but she thinks it will be beneficial for both teachers and students.

“With four periods a day to prepare for, it takes a little bit of the feeling like you’re on a hamster wheel away,” she said. “You’re preparing for four classes instead of six. You’re doing homework for fewer classes. They’ll be able to manage their time al little bit differently and ease the pressures that kids and faculty feel.”

She also said there will be more time for hands-on experiences in classrooms, such as during a science lab, and more time to work in small groups within the classes. She also said teachers can work more individually with each student because they aren’t being rushed to finish class before the bell rings.

“It’s getting more challenging for kids to complete homework with sports, jobs, family obligations,” Nota said. “Once they leave at 2:00 they have a whole other day of activities in front of them. We want to get as much bang for the buck while they’re in front of us.”

Middle school pathways

At the four middle schools in the city, Nota said there will be new ‘pathways’ courses being implemented this year in an attempt to “mirror the career and tech options we have at high schools so kids get a sense of career options and explorations.”

She said to think of STEAM when it comes to the new programs, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math. She said the goal is to teach the students at a younger age about how education applies to future careers, such as using math for “building a robot, assessing a crime scene, or doing carpentry.”

“We want to get kids to understand career opportunities they will have at an early age,” Nota said.

She said that the classes, which include a crime-scene program, a nutrition course, and a bridge-building class, are like electives for the students, and they already chose which ones they wanted to take as early as last January.

In addition, the incoming sixth-graders will all take part in a pathways course that “teaches them the ropes” about middle school, Nota said, in order to make the transition easier. The class will include time management and organization, homework preparation, and how to deal with new aspects of school like lockers and classroom changes.

Construction upgrades

Three final schools – Eden Park, Garden City and Peters – have undergone fire suppression system upgrades this summer, which Nota said finishes the multi-year effort to make all the schools “sprinklered buildings.”

She said that the new ceilings and lighting being put in at these schools is a good thing, but it also highlights how old the rest of the building is.

“Each building runs anywhere between $800,000 and $1 million,” Nota said. “All the work has to be done in the summer, and that’s what makes it hard to make impactful changes because we have so many buildings an narrow window of time, and only so many people to do the work. It seems like we’re never able to get ahead.”

Another project this summer was the floors at East that she said weren’t properly fixed last year after parts of the basement were flooded, but she said crews are in there now and she “has complete faith” that everything will be ready on time for the school year.

She said that she and Ed Collins, director of plant operations, have been assessing the schools and although she wishes everything could get done right away, she’s confident in their long-term plan to improve the school infrastructure.

Technology

“We’re always buying more,” the superintendent said about laptops in classrooms.

She said they already have a lot of laptops, but aren’t a “one-to-one” district because of how astronomically expensive that would be.

She said the district would continue to utilize laptop carts in the schools, which can be transported from classroom to classroom whenever teachers sign them out.

“They’re pretty durable, and it’s not a huge investment,” Nota said.

But her philosophy is that there should be a balance between technology and teacher-to-student interaction.

“I don’t want teachers and kids to be reliant just on a laptop,” she said. “You’re never going to replace a teacher with a laptop; their influence and interactions with kids are critical to the success of our students. Having technology available as a resource is great, but I don’t ever want to see it overtake and be the driving force of what we do.”

Advice for students/parents

The superintendent has two major pieces of advice for parents as their kids enter the upcoming school year: maintain communication with their schools and make sure their kids actually get to school every day and on time.

She said attendance, which has been an issue for the district in the past, has gotten a little better recently, but she encouraged parents to “make sure their kids are there on time and every day.”

She said tardiness is also a problem, and that schools have approached it by making an effort to reach out to families, and by offering free universal breakfast at every school in the city.

“They don’t understand that the reason we tell you to be there on time is because when you have a job, employers don’t want to hear ‘I’ll get there when I get there,” Nota said. “Employers are tearing their hair out about people coming in late.”

She said teachers have also implemented PBIS (positive behavior intervention and support) strategies, such as tickets for good attendance or a classroom celebration for perfect attendance, to “reinforce the good behavior instead of always punishing the bad.”

Overall, Nota is happy with the state of Cranston schools and how the whole city has embraced the effort to make Cranston students more ready for their future careers.

“I’m grateful that the school department is supported by a great school committee, good local leadership, all the bargaining units we work with, and our employees,” she said. “Generally, we’re on the same page – we all have the desire to make our kids successful, to give students options for when they’re eventually graduated. We’re in a really good place.”

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