2005-11-10 / Front Page

‘Drastic changes’ ahead for Jamestown schools

By Donna K. Drago

‘Drastic changes’ ahead for Jamestown schools

In its ongoing attempt to streamline processes and operate more efficiently, the School Committee continued its series of workshops restructuring and reorganizing the school district.

At last Thursday’s session, an audience of more than 40 heard a series of presentations from the superintendent and school board who say that things need to change. They also heard from teachers and parents who want to preserve current services.

Supertendent Kathy Sipala told the group that many times she has been asked the question, “What are you doing this for?”

She said that Jamestown is already a high performing district, which is the highest designation a school can earn from the Rhode Island Department of Education. But “there are things we can do better,” she said.

Sipala referred to Jamestown’s particular situation of having a declining enrollment at a time when governmental mandates continue to increase the budget as “a perfect storm” that will continue to present difficulties for the district.

“Our smallness and uniqueness are our strengths, but they are also our biggest challenges,” she said.

Since 2001, the schools have lost 90 students, and there have been staff cuts during the same period of 6.6 positions, according to Sipala.

She said that it was time to look internally, “Let enrollment guide our discussions,” and the results “have to be reasonable.”

John Pini, the recently retired superintendent of the Chariho school district, and a resident of Jamestown, has volunteered to help facilitate the restructuring discussions.

He called the schools’ mission to reorganize “heavy lifting ahead,” and he noted that his difficulty with his role is that “there are so many good things about this district.”

Pini talked about a study he did some 25 years ago on what would become “a tremendous societal divide,” which is the present national situation of having “an older population in control of the resources.” No matter what is good for the school district, the reality is that “it will not be popular with everybody,” he said.

He noted that the diminishing enrollment was causing the most tension in the district and hypothesized that if he had to pick up the entire district and drop it down somewhere else: “I’d bet my house that small class sizes are gone,” he said.

He would not be able to justify the Jamestown class sizes, which are as small as 12 or 13 students per class, and that people have to “look at the reality out there around you.”

On the agenda were discussions on middle school programming, class size, and support services.

Special education

Among the people that made statements to the school board were Terry Tomassi, the co-chairwoman of the schools’ Special Education Local Advisory Committee, who was concerned that services for special education students would be cut back.

Tomassi’s position was that having a special education director and in-house autism program actually saved the town money by avoiding out-of-district placements that “would demolish the school budget” if all 12 Jamestown students who have been diagnosed with a form of autism had to be sent elsewhere for their services.

“Special education students should not be viewed as a budget drain,” Tomassi said.

“They are valuable members of a community,” she added.

Special Education Director Beth Pinto said that nationally there has been a 1,535 percent increase in the occurrence of autism in children since 1992, and that “Jamestown is the only district in the state with double digits,” meaning that there are no other districts with more than 10 autistic students.

“We have a need for high-end, high-expense programs,” Pinto said.

Middle school issues

The organization of the middle school is presenting issues at the Lawn Avenue School, because, as Sipala put it, “Teachers have to teach what they’re qualified for,” according to the law.

In a larger school system, they can shift teachers around, Sipala said, adding that in Jamestown, “We have nowhere else to go.”

In the past two years, one grade 5 class and one grade 6 class have been dropped at Lawn, and now the same smaller group will be moving into grade 7, where each of the four grade level teachers teaches only the subject in which they have been certified. In each grade, there is a teacher who teaches math, social studies, science, and English, making it difficult to drop any one teacher or classroom.

“We have an issue,” Sipala said.

Lark Goodyear, a member of the grade 7 teaching team, gave a presentation that the teachers put together on how they could best use their teaching time next year.

Goodyear proposed that each teacher teach three sections of their subject to their own grade, and two sections of enrichment or elective courses that would be open to students in either grade 7 or 8, which would give the junior high students more academic offerings.

Among the additional courses suggested were typing, woodworking, or sewing in addition to advanced placement versions of already existing offerings.

Samira Hakki, a member of the School Improvement Team, said that the SIT supports a fourteacher model for both grades 7 and 8 and likes the idea of electives, which are offered at larger middle schools.

School Committee member Julie Kallfelz said that she liked the ideas laid out by Goodyear, but asked, “Would you be willing to come up with good, better, and best scenarios?”

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser took the request a step further, asking “If we have to go to a three-teacher model, are we better served in Jamestown or at North Kingstown?”

Sipala called that topic “a huge discussion for the community,” and Pini posed another question: If the junior high is to be tuitioned out, is North Kingstown the best place, or would another town, like Narragansett, be more suitable?

Co-teaching and class size

Afinal topic on the table at last Thursday’s session was the coteaching model at the Melrose school.

There are co-teaching classrooms in grades 2, 3 and 4 that were designed as a way to integrate special education students with regular education students so that the regular kids could model behaviors that the special education kids could emulate. The coteaching also allows special education students to remain in their classroom all day instead of being taken out for special services. In each grade, there are three classrooms, but one of them has two teachers — one for the grade level teacher and a special education educator.

Kaiser asked Pinto if there was a way to reformat the co-teaching model to allow for more flexibility. “Is there a way that co-teaching does not have to be taught in every grade, every year?” Kaiser asked.

What’s next?

Pini suggested that the school board members “dig in. There’s homework to be done.” He told them to focus on class size, the middle school structure, and school services.

“I envision there will be some drastic changes that will be phased in, Pini concluded.

The next session of reorganization workshops, which is on the topic of the administrative structure, is scheduled for Dec. 1.

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