When students return to classes tomorrow, they’ll hear how they’ll be tested on Chromebook laptop computers, rather than on paper, as the district phases out the NECAP tests and transitions to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).
And there will be plenty of other changes, too, said Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education.
But although the Warwick Teachers Union and the School Committee have still not reached a contract agreement – the current three-year pact expires on Aug. 31 – there is no talk of an interruption in the opening of schools.
Both sides have agreed to a news blackout on negotiations, so specifics on the status of talks and the key issues are lacking. Nonetheless, the parties continue to meet, and neither side has declared an impasse.
“As long as talks continue, it will be OK,” speculated Mullen, who is not a member of the negotiating team.
Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and a member of the school negotiating team, said yesterday she didn’t foresee any problem with the opening of schools.
Does that mean talks continue?
“One could conclude that,” she answered.
That should be good news for the community, which has had its share of teacher contract disruptions over the past 25 years.
Students who may wish for a few more days of summer vacation aren’t likely to get them for lack of a teacher contract.
“Everything is a go,” Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said yesterday.
He said that fire code improvements have been completed at a number of elementary schools, a new roof at Vets is “in the final stages” and that the walking track at Oakland Beach School is ready. A handicapped ramp at Toll Gate was built during the summer.
What they will find are fewer students overall, as enrollment totals continue to decline. Total district enrollment as of Friday was 9,179, of which 4,295 are secondary students and the balance elementary students. This is a drop from an enrollment of 9,393 as of last October.
As this academic year starts, the topic of how the district should respond to declining enrollment remains in the forefront. After a study commission comprised of educators and citizen and city administration representatives unanimously recommended closing Gorton and Aldrich Junior High Schools and Veterans High School and re-purposing Vets as a middle school, the School Committee voted to hire an outside consultant to study the issue and come back with a plan. Over the spring and summer, a subcommittee drafted specifications for bid proposals.
That request for proposals has been advertised, and bids are to be submitted by this October. According to specifications, the firm awarded the contract will have 90 days to complete its work unless the School Committee agrees to an extension.
Meanwhile, one benefit of a reduced elementary school population, which was only seen as achievable with creation of a middle school system with grades six through eight, is taking place anyhow. With a middle school system, elementary schools would gain the classroom space to offer all-day kindergarten. With reduced numbers of kindergartners, the department has been able to achieve the same goal without adding classrooms. Five more of the city’s elementary schools are providing all-day kindergarten this year.
Teachers are returning sooner than students.
For the past couple of weeks, teachers have been using their own time to prepare for the opening of schools, preparing classrooms and reviewing schedules and other materials. That continued yesterday on a formal basis, with three hours of staff development being conducted at different locations throughout the district for teachers, guidance counselors, special education teachers and even school nurses. Teacher orientation is being conducted today.
Mullen said much of the development sessions would focus on the Common Core state standards and the use of data and how it impacts decision-making. With the use of RTI (response to intervention) and EWS (early warning system), he explained, educators are able to make correlations between tardiness, attendance and other student behaviors to academic performance.
“The whole goal is to improve student success,” he said.
On a more global perspective, the district is seeking to assess whether students are engaged and whether they are improving. Although the NECAP tests will continue this year statewide, Warwick is already transitioning to PARCC, which will become the new state standard. Students in grades 3 through 11 will be taking the tests in March and May of next year. Mullen said the tests would be conducted on Chromebooks for English language arts and math. All of the schools have been wired for wireless Internet access, thereby enabling the use of Chromebooks and existing computers for testing purposes. The NECAP test will be used for science.
Kathy Desrosiers, coordinator of English language arts, compared the Common Core state standards to stairs that start in kindergarten and continue through high school. She said at each grade level, students are required to have a working knowledge of the standards.
As an example of a Common Core standard, Desrosiers said students as early as those in kindergarten are introduced to the practice of citing evidence when answering a question.
“Evidence-based answers start as early as that,” she said. “It sets the foundation early.”
In later grades, she explained, students are exposed to other media such as video clips in addition to reading to garner information to answer a question. Looking ahead, she sees more silent reading on the part of students, followed by discussion as well as a greater dependence on non-fiction material.
“This is not a Johnnie-come-lately for the district,” she said. The district has been working on integrating the Common Core standards for a couple of years. Race to the Top funds won by the state have underwritten much of the cost, she said.
For the second year, the district will use the STAR program to assess student performance during the year. The first of these assessments in early literacy, reading and math will be completed during September with additional assessments twice more during the academic year. STAR assessments last year showed steady improvement throughout all but a few schools in the district.