The voices behind the numbers

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Author’s note: As a reporter focusing on education, I spend a great deal of time reporting out about educational issues and trends, and their correlating numbers – the number of kids absent or present in a quarter, the amount of money budgeted or not budgeted for a given program, the number of kids proficient on a test, the number of tests given in a day, week, month, quarter or school year.

As a reporter, parent and former educator, I also see the impact that these numbers and trends have on educators and students in the classrooms I visit, as well as on my own children. I know that so often it is the children whose voices are not heard, even though the impact on them is the greatest. As a community reporter, I decided to give the students’ voices a chance to be heard, because our students are so much more than numbers. They are our future, and they have hopes and dreams, worries and fears.

On Saturday, Feb. 21, I set up in a local Cranston eatery and spent five hours interviewing a random sampling of students from the Cranston Public Schools whose parents had set up interview time slots with me online. It was a small focus group of just 11 students coming in groups of four or five at a time – only a glimpse into the lives of the many thousands of students who fill our classrooms, but it included students ranging from grade two through 12, boys and girls, east side of the city and west, students who fill our elementary, middle and high schools.

I asked them all the exact same 20 questions, about both the positives and the negatives of various educational topics in order to get all sides of the story – such as “What’s your most favorite part of the school day?” and “What’s your least favorite part of the school day?” – and what I heard made me both happy and sad at the same time.

I was happy to hear how many students love school and love their teachers, as well as how many wanted to be teachers when they grow up, and that everyone wanted to go to college after high school; they all had future aspirations. That said, I was sad to hear how stressful school has become for so many of our students and disappointed to hear that as our students continue along the educational continuum, they love school less, and become more anxious, more stressed, put in more working hours, and try to manage work weeks that would rival most employees at the top of the corporate ladder.

Here is a look into some of our students’ educational experiences, as heard through their own voices – the voices behind the numbers.

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If it’s a school day for Zachary Iacobbo-Sawyer, it’s going to be a great one. His outlook on life at school was positive and cheerful.

“I don’t look forward to missing school. I don’t ever want to miss school,” said the second-grader, when asked what he does and does not look forward to on any given school day. “I look forward to my tests, I like to get all good grades.”

Each student could name at least one, if not more, favorite things about their day, and things they loved the most about school.

“English class and band,” senior Mollie Bourne said.

A fellow high school student across town loved being able to feed her passion for art.

“I’m involved in the art department. I basically spend two full periods a day in art, taking advanced art classes,” said Carley Loiselle, a junior at her school.

Austin Iacobbo-Sawyer loves music and art, but cited math as her favorite subject, as did Juliet Low, another fourth-grader in a different school, and Noella Ginolfi, a seventh-grader, who said it was her teacher’s sense of humor that made math her favorite subject this year.

Social studies was Peyton Ginolfi’s favorite class because of his teacher’s passion for the subject, showing that a great teacher truly makes all the difference.

“She’s very into social studies, it’s her best subject, the subject she teaches the best, so it’s my best subject too,” Peyton said.

Carley agreed.

“History was always hard for me, but this year it’s one of my favorite classes because of the teacher,” she said.

Both Teagan and Sebastiane Wall, sixth- and seventh-grade sisters, agreed that seeing their teachers at school was a favorite part of their day, while eighth-grader Parker Iacobbo-Coffee and fourth-grader Penelope Tremblay looked most forward to the social aspect of their day – seeing their friends.

As much as a good classroom teacher can make all the difference, so it seems can the opposite have an impact.

“[One of my] teacher’s teaching styles isn’t learner-friendly,” Carley said.

Testing of all kinds was a stressor for almost every student interviewed, no matter what grade or school they were in, and they had no problem listing off a dozen or so types of tests they take regularly. But there were some that triggered stress more than others, and for each student it was something different.

“A lot of times [one of my teachers] will teach us something new and will announce a quiz for just a day or so later,” said Noella said. “It takes me a little while to remember what we’ve learned, so learning it during the day and trying to remember it all that same night before a test is hard. It’s hard to process it all and remember it all so quickly.”

“STARR Math stresses me out,” Sebastiane said. “And, if you score high, it goes up from there and just gets harder.”

Reading for any length of time is difficult for Peyton. Sitting still for a long time without getting antsy is a challenge, as is remembering all of the vocabulary words for a reading test or remembering the definitions word-for-word for a social studies test.

It didn’t seem to matter if the tests were any number of the standardized tests they had taken (NAEP, or the upcoming PARCC and NECAP tests) or regular classroom assessments they listed off collectively – tests by subject, or progress monitoring tests such as the STARR Math or STARR Reading.

“I get nervous during NECAP and now we’re going to take the PARCC. I get nervous with social studies and science, too,” Juliet said.

Mollie worries for the students who have to take the PARCC, even though she’s not one of them.

“The PARCC is supposed to be like NECAP on steriods,” she said. “I don’t need to take it this year, but I worry for all the kids that do.”

Teagan was worried enough for NECAP testing – which is still being given to students in grades four, eight and 11 this year – without hearing that. “NECAP stresses me out,” she said.

Mollie agreed.

“It’s not even just the questions, it’s the timed aspect of it, and the idea that they seem to think that if they test us harder, we’ll try harder,” she said. “Instead, it just tramples us. Online tests are the worst. It’s literally just a screen in front of you.”

Carley often finds herself distracted during timed tests, as she panics, trying to determine how many questions there are in total, how long the testing period is, and doing the math to figure out how much time she can possibly spend on each question.

“Everything I’ve learned just completely goes out the window, all our individuality and differences are just taken away,” she said.

“I look at the tests I have to take, the ACTs or the PSATs and the SATs, and I think to myself, ‘If you did this in a different way, I could rock this thing, but this just isn’t me, the black and white, the sheet of paper, not so much.’ And that’s where the pressure is, too, because these are the things that colleges use. You know this all goes for college.”

Mollie questioned why students in America are subjected to so much standardized testing.

“In some countries, they take just one standardized test in high school,” she said, referring to what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, found in Finland, which despite the lack of chronic data collection and repeated standardized testing of its students, is one of the top scoring countries in all three academic areas consistently on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares 15-year-olds in different countries every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in reading, math and science.

As instructional time in the classroom is lost to hours and weeks of testing time, it may be being made up in the form of increased homework, especially at the upper grade levels.

“I have at least a page of homework, sometimes two, and any unfinished morning work every night,” Peyton said.

Penelope and Juliet agreed, each citing at least a page or two a night of homework, while Austin has at least three things, one for each of three subject per night.

“But, sometimes I can get all my homework done in class, because my teacher lets us do it in class. She’s just amazing,” she said. 

Her older sister, Parker, also finds creative uses of her time in order to get her homework done.

“I have homework in three or four out of five subjects each night, but I can sometimes do it on the bus or at lunch, and if not I do it as soon as I get home, at the table while I eat my snack,” she said. “I just want to get it over with.”

Both Noella and Sebastiane, students at the same school, report approximately the same amount of homework – approximately an hour to an hour and a half’s worth – with Sebastiane noting that on occasion there is homework on the weekend.

It’s at the high school level that the homework load seems to increase dramatically, according to Mollie and Carley.

“I get up at 6 in the morning for school, I go to bed between 12 and 12:30 in the morning each night, and that’s a conservative estimate,” she said. “I spend most of my time once I get home from school at 2:45, or 3:30 if I stay after for something, doing my homework. I start immediately when I get home, because there’s so much. I take a quick break to eat dinner with my family and I clear my plate to go do my homework. It’s a lot … I have homework in every subject, every night. I have math every single night. I have an essay every single night. When one essay is finished, another is immediately assigned. I have ongoing art projects for each class. And when we have vacation weeks, I get sick every time, because I’ve just pushed through so much for so long, my body just gives out.”

Mollie notes that as a senior taking electives, the workload is slightly less, often affording her a nap in the afternoon after classes.

“In previous years I’ve had two or three hours of homework or more per night. We have long-term projects over the weekends, common tasks to work on, papers and essays,” she said. “Junior year was the absolute worst, trying to juggle all of that with scholarship applications and college applications, too.”

All students interviewed were asked what they loved most about their schools.

“I like moving around from class to class, and I like that they always show you where the exits are and what to do during ALICE, a fire drill or a shelter in place drill,” Noella said. “They’re always very aware of what’s going on.”

Her brother, Peyton, agreed.

“The teachers always tell you what’s going on and what to do in a situation,” he said.

Overall, teachers and principals got gold stars from their students, ranking top on the list of what they loved best about their school.

“I like that they treat us all equally,” Parker said.

“My teacher, I love her,” Teagan said.

“My principal and teacher,” said both Juliet and Austin.

“The teachers,” Sebastiane said.

Penelope likes attending a neighborhood school with her neighborhood friends.

“I like that the kids in my neighborhood can all play at one house and talk all about how school is going,” she said.

Carley likes the freedom to relax in the art room when she’s there.

“It’s nice to know that I can go there and relax if I’m stressed, it’s nice to know that I have that net, just in case,” she said.

Mollie loves her music and band programs, despite the declining numbers she said they have seen in recent years. She loves the diversity seen in her school, and never wants that to change.

“You can walk down the hallway and hear Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese,” she said. “They’re also very accepting of special needs kids.”

Many of the students could list things they would never want to see change at their schools, as well as a few things they wish they could see change.

“Nothing,” said both Teagan and Zachary, when it came to thinking of changes in their school.

“I hope they never change recess, because teachers and kids need time to regroup after half of the day,” Peyton said. “Teachers need time to grade papers, and kids need time to relax and hang out.”

“I wish they would change it so that there’s not so many tests and quizzes during the week, because there’s usually three or four quizzes or tests a week and it’s hard to study for so many at once. I get confused with all the different topics,” Noella said. “But, I hope they never change the teachers at my school … I have a great team of teachers and they encourage learning.”

“I wish we could keep the same teacher every year,” Juliet said. “I wish we could go through four years, pick one of them to have for the rest of our lives.”

Parker hopes her school’s principal never changes.

“I don’t want him to change the way he runs the school,” she said. “He’s strict, but fun, and he’s not strict all the time.”

As both Mollie and Carley considered all things from their years of school experiences, they each had some things they wished they could change about the educational process.

“I wish we could sit down with the educational board … we have opinions, too,” Mollie said.

“I wish they would change the testing and the homework loads,” Carley said.

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