2011-03-24 / News

School panel hears about progress of NASA-funded project

By Geoff Campbell

Furhana DiBiase presented details of progress made so far with the Science and Mathematics Scholars project at last week’s Jamestown School Committee meeting.

The project is a Jamestown Education Foundation joint venture with Lawn Avenue School and is funded by a $200,000 grant from NASA that was received by the education foundation. DiBiase manages the project, which ends in November.

The scholars project provides the use of professional scientists as speakers, infrastructure and technology improvements for the schools to promote science and mathematics, field trips that support the curriculum, and faculty stipends for curriculum revision.

The program was announced in October 2009 and the start was delayed for a year.

Curriculum work completed during the summer for the sixth, seventh and eighth grades included a fully documented weather curriculum by eighth-grade teacher, Jim Kaczynski. The new curriculum takes full advantage of the data that is being produced by Lawn Avenue School’s weather station, which was installed last year.

The sixth grade macro/micro organism unit was revised and the students were able to speak in a live videoconference with a teacher stationed on a research vessel in the Pacifi c Ocean, according to DiBiase.

The seventh-grade electricity unit was also updated and speakers included both National Grid office personnel, as well as a lineman who emphasized the ongoing learning in which he engages annually.

Tying much of the learning together for students is science “note booking.” Now in use at both Lawn Avenue and at Melrose Avenue School, note booking is documenting findings like a scientist. The results, DiBiase said, can be “a positive effect on writing overall.”

The sixth grade is breeding clownfish, which is “not a trivial thing,” according to DiBiase. She explained that the “temperamental” fish are currently being bred successfully at Roger Williams University and that the students readily engage in real scientific work.

A green house, originally part of the plan, was scraped as unrealistic, and instead was replaced by a hydroponics farm that has been built in the sixth-grade classroom.

Mark Phillips, the only hydroponic farmer remaining in Rhode Island, was instrumental in developing the 200-plant farm now at Lawn Avenue School. A 100-gallon water tank feeds nutrient-rich water through 25 trays. DiBiase expects that plants started by Phillips will make significant progress in its new home over the remaining two months of the school year. This summer the farm will be cleaned out and the unit will begin anew in September.

In other news, it was made aware that DiBiase’s salary is funded by the NASA grant, which runs out in November. The Committee discussed the potential of finding other revenue sources to not only maintain the program, but to expand it. DiBiase said that grant applications are being considered.

The Committee also discussed the importance of the community to become aware of the value of the work that DiBiase and the teachers have done. They also talked about the value of finding advocates of the program. One such advocate is the educational foundation.

Lukon added that the foundation has been supportive of the work that the school is doing in raising student levels of knowledge and thinking and then applying it, which is the goal of the Rigor and Relevance initiative.

Also, Lukon announced the resignation of Gwen Spence. “With great personal sadness,” she said, “I recommend that the School Committee vote to accept, with regret, the resignation of Gwen Spence as the director of student services effective July 29, 2011, or earlier, by mutual agreement.”

In a March 17 letter to the Committee and Lukon, Spence wrote, “My decision to leave my position is due to my husband’s acceptance of a position in Ohio starting April 1, 2011. In giving you my notice early it is my hope that a new director is hired prior to my end date so that a smooth transition can occur.”

Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser noted that Spence’s departure would be “a great loss” and Lukon added that “she is a great team member and she’s accomplished a lot in a short period.”

Spence said, “It was wonderful, thanks for the opportunity. It’s been great to be here.”

The motion was passed unanimously.

The principals’ reports covered a number of highlighted activities including reading week at Melrose Avenue School, where each student will create an artful picture of their favorite book. “A reading bar graph by grade level will be exhibited, displaying the number of minutes read by students,” Melrose Avenue School Principal Carole Melucci said.

At Lawn Avenue School, highlights included All-State Chorus. According to Principal Kathy Almanzor, “Mrs. Gilda Bullard [accompanied] three Lawn Avenue School students to Moses Brown School in preparation for a concert at Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Sunday.”

In other business, the district tracks the meal count at the two schools in order to assess the progress of the food service provider, Sodexho, and the move to a healthy foods menu.

So far this year, 15,449 lunches have been purchased in total by students at the two Jamestown schools. That number is down by approximately 900 from a year ago and nearly 400 compared to 2009. Melrose Avenue students have purchased 9,832 lunches compared to Lawn Avenue’s 5,617. While Melrose numbers are holding relative steady over the three-year period, Lawn Avenue numbers have declined.

Kaiser said that since Sodexho has become the food service provider, “We are spending considerably less money.”

Lukon added that the “higher the sales, the less cost to the district.” She added that no lunch program breaks even.

Committee member Julie Kallfelz said that goal is to “create a healthy lunch that the kids will come to eat.” She pointed to the nearly 10,000 lunches served this year to Melrose Avenue students as an indicator of the current and potential success of the program over time.

Lukon pointed out that data made available by Kids First and Action for Healthy Kids reveals that Jamestown leads all other Rhode Island districts in pounds-per-student consumption of state-grown food at 13.17 pounds. The next closest district is Newport at 6.04 pounds.

The next meeting of the Jamestown School Committee is scheduled for April 7, at the Melrose Avenue School.

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