2010-12-02 / News

Island school faces a difficult race

By Tim Riel

Jamestown School Superintendent Maria Lukon and her administration are discussing options on how to best implement changes in curriculum and reform the district’s educational system in order to qualify for grants under the federal Ride to the Top (RTT) program.

“Everything is changing,” Lukon said. “It’s like the rug is being pulled out from under us. It’s a really great thing, but everything is coming fast and furiously. The whole thing has to be accomplished in four years.”

The RTT is a $4.35 billion U.S. Department of Education program created to encourage changes in education in state and local districts. Each state competed on a RTT 500- point scale based on progress from students, teacher and principal effectiveness, developing common standards and assessments, implementing statewide data systems, prioritizing educational funding and creating successful innovative and charter schools.

Since President Barack Obama announced the program in July 2009, two separate phases were held where states would have the opportunity to qualify for the federal grants. The first phase ended in April, and although Rhode Island was a finalist, only Tennessee and Delaware scored high enough to receive federal funding. States that failed to meet the requirements were allowed to try again.

The second phase, announced on Aug. 24, was more successful – 10 states qualified for funding, including Rhode Island, which finished fifth. The $75 million that Rhode Island was granted was the largest single competitive grant ever awarded to the state.

Before the grant was awarded, each school district in Rhode Island had to make a choice that if funding was given, they would abide by the criteria set forth by the program. Only two districts, Chariho and Little Compton, declined to participate.

Jamestown, a participating district, now must meet certain marks in order to receive its share of the $75 million. “We signed on and said that if [Rhode Island] wins this grant, that we would do the following,” Lukon said.

By law, at least half of the $75 million must be allotted to local school districts. And since a formula based on poverty is used, Jamestown doesn’t stand to get a huge chunk of the grant. “You will see urban areas getting much more than wealthier districts like Jamestown,” Lukon said.

Lukon said that although it is a great opportunity for the island school district, certain criteria would be difficult to reach. She said that Jamestown alone doesn’t have the administrative capacity to reach certain goals.

“We are very, very lean here,” she said. “I work [part time] and I have two principals (Kathy Almanzor at Lawn Avenue and Carole Melucci at Melrose) and a director of student services (Gwenn Spence). Anything that comes down the pike, we have three and a half people.”

Since the deadline for meeting the requirements of the RTT program is just four years, Jamestown agreed to look into working with the Southern Rhode Island Collaborative (SORICO), which represents the nine South County school districts. The goal is that the money secured by group funding would exceed individual funding if they were to work alone. Unfortunately, SORICO is low on funding as it is, and the collaborative discussed their options in a meeting on Nov. 29.

“SORICO is virtually bankrupted,” Lukon said. “We voted that we are looking into selling or leasing the building. But we will stay together in a hibernated state. We just won’t take on new projects.”

Of the five support systems that Rhode Island is focusing on in order for school districts to receive grant funding, Jamestown will be participating in four of them: standards and curriculum, instructional improvement, educator effectiveness, and human capital development. The only support system that is not available to the Jamestown school district is school transformation and innovation.

Standards and curriculum refers to the ability of Rhode Island educators to develop model curricula in English, math, science and social studies. By 2015, each should be ready to “implement instruction and assessments that are aligned by the common core,” according to a 58-page report that Lukon and her administration completed.

The second support system, instructional improvement, discusses state educators having the ability to access and use a “statewide instructional management system that provides access to an array of data analysis, assessment, and instructional tools,” according to the report. Educator effectiveness – the third system – will evaluate each one under a “system that provides actionable and continuous feedback.”

The fourth support system refers to the professional development and will “change the daily planning, instruction, assessment, and support practices in all school.” The plan is to attract teachers who are the “best and the brightest,” and to maintain a “vibrant and well-trained teaching workforce.”

Outlined in a 58-page report, Lukon and her administration discussed each support system and their plans on how to reach the goals, when each goal should be met, and what kind of money can be expected if a goal is met.

Although nothing is set in stone with the RTT plans, Lukon and the Jamestown school district are making huge strides in discussing and trying to implement an effective plan to offer “an educational system that prepares all Rhode Island students for success in college, careers, and life.”

“We do a really good job in this school district and it’s nice to let the residents know how we are spending their tax dollars,” Lukon said.

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