2009-09-17 / News

State education commissioner outlines priorities during Jamestown school visit

By Dara Chadwick

Deborah Gist (back row, second from right), commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education, visited Jamestown schools on Tuesday, where she met with parents, teachers, administrators and students. Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten Deborah Gist (back row, second from right), commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education, visited Jamestown schools on Tuesday, where she met with parents, teachers, administrators and students. Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten When R.I. Dept. of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist visited Jamestown schools on Tuesday, one of her goals was to find out “how things we’re doing at the state level are actually being rolled out in the school,” she said.

As it turns out, Gist’s goal was a perfect fit with what Maureen McGuirl’s eighth-grade social studies class at Lawn Avenue School has been discussing in class: How public policy is created and implemented.

Gist met with one of McGuirl’s classes to get a sense of what students are thinking about their school – and about what they feel her priorities as education commissioner should be.

“I want to know how I can do better,” Gist told the students. “I want to know, ‘What should I change?’”

Students wasted no time in letting Gist know about one of their top priorities: the school lunch program and its new emphasis on healthy foods.

“I don’t like the lunch. It’s all healthy,” said student Kristjana McCarthy. “I mean, it’s OK that we’re going healthy, but I think they’re overdoing it.”

Other students soon chimed in with their complaints – everything from mushy vegetables and too-small portion sizes to food that gets stuck in your teeth.

Gist deftly seized the opportunity to talk about public policy and the real effects that policy can have when student Evin Barrett said he didn’t like the fact that students are forced to take a side dish with lunch.

“Some kids don’t even eat it,” he said. “It goes to waste.”

That’s a prime example, Gist told the students, of an unexpected effect of a public policy.

“We don’t always know how a policy is going to be when the action happens,” she said. When the policy was created mandating that students had to take a side, she said, “No one thought about sides being thrown away. No one thought, ‘What if we’re wasting food?’”

Understanding those effects – the consequences of policy put into action – is a priority for Gist in her new role as the state’s education commissioner. She is visiting some 60 schools throughout the state, including charter and private schools, to get a sense of how policy is being implemented each day.

“I want to make sure the decisions we’re making are making a difference in a positive way,” she told a group of parents representing organizations including the Jamestown Education Foundation, Jamestown School Committee, School Improvement Teams, Parent Teacher Organization and the Jamestown Special Education Local Advisory Committee.

School Committee member Julie Kallfelz told Gist, “As a parent, I’m relieved to hear that level of enthusiasm coming from the state level.”

Gist used the meeting with parents as an opportunity to introduce the state’s “Transforming Education in Rhode Island” plan, which includes five priorities: Ensuring educator excellence, accelerating all schools toward greatness, establishing worldclass standards and assessments, developing user-friendly data systems and investing resources wisely.

When Lawn School parent and SIT co-chair Lisa Carlisle asked if “world-class standards” would be something implemented in the U.S. as a whole that each state must follow, Gist said that Rhode Island’s math standards are currently among the most rigorous in the country. She also said that Rhode Island is committed to a partnership with the other New England states and that so far, Rhode Island’s standards are “pretty closely aligned” with a movement toward common state standards throughout the rest of the country.

Gist also highlighted the importance of teacher evaluation, adding, “Nothing is more important in a child’s achievement than the quality of the classroom teacher.”

Parent Sally Schott asked Gist how she defines an “excellent educator.”

Gist responded that her department has created a set of draft standards for teacher evaluation that include observation, parent input, student input and student achievement, and that the plan is to develop a tool that will be available to all districts for use in teacher evaluation.

After the meeting, Kallfelz said that an effective teacher evaluation tool is essential, adding that a mandate from the state would help the district put “best practices” in place sooner rather than later.

Gist also asked the group what they loved most about Jamestown schools.

Michelle Wagner, a parent, praised the district’s inclusion program, calling it “fantastic.”

Other issues that Gist discussed with parents included efficient use of resources. She said she supports consolidation where it is appropriate, and said that some districts might be able to “share services” without consolidating.

R.I. Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, who accompanied Gist during her visit to Jamestown Schools, said that by sending its students to North Kingstown High School, Jamestown is, in a way, already consolidating.

“Jamestown has a unique aspect to it that way,” she said.

Gist’s visit to Jamestown schools also included a meeting with teachers and administrators. She emphasized her availability, desire for feedback and her wish to have a good understanding of the goals that the district has for its students.

“Your children are your babies,” she told the group of parents. “Each one of those children [in the classroom] is somebody’s baby. I take that very, very seriously.”

For additional information about Gist’s “Transforming Education in Rhode Island” plan, visit www.ride.ri.gov.

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