2011-09-29 / News

Incumbent to seek his second term on School Committee


B.J. Whitehouse, an incumbent on the School Committee, will run for one of the panel’s two opens seats during its Nov. 8 election. The election will carry a three-year term. 
PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN B.J. Whitehouse, an incumbent on the School Committee, will run for one of the panel’s two opens seats during its Nov. 8 election. The election will carry a three-year term. PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN An incumbent on the School Committee will seek a second term in the Nov. 8 town election.

B.J. Whitehouse, 56, said he is running again to “make sure kids on this island have access to a high quality education.”

Whitehouse brings decades of classroom experience to the table, he said, and the confidence to help steer Jamestown schools through the current “tumult that’s occurring in education.”

Over the coming years, he said, the Jamestown schools will absorb significant changes. For example, in 2014, the state Department of Education rolls out a new achievement test, replacing the New England Common Assessment Program exams, and this fall, Jamestown launches new, time-consuming teacher evaluations.

“Our administrators are working flat out keeping up with all the regulations,” Whitehouse said. “The playing field for educators in the last three years has expanded so much it really is kind of mind boggling.”

Jamestown also is proactive in adopting all the new initiatives, he said. Only two districts, Jamestown and Warwick, for example, will start the teacher evaluations this fall. “Our administrators jump in feet first,” he said.

Asked the main reason for the pace of change, Whitehouse pointed to state education Commissioner Deborah Gist, in addition to the No Child Left Behind federal mandates.

“The commissioner takes the law very seriously and is holding people accountable,” he said, in her effort to raise standards in Rhode Island. “It takes an enormous amount of person power to get it done. She is absolutely tireless, and she has a great deal of latitude. I think she’s great, and she drives us nuts.”

In his first four-year stint on the School Committee, Whitehouse has worked on policy as well as operations.

“I’ve been a liaison to the Melrose School Improvement Team, the facilities committee and the policy committee,” he said. In the policy role, he has been charged with updating the handbook for the whole district, he said, and developing new policies, as circumstances have demanded.

On the question over whether Jamestown should continue sending students to North Kingstown High, Whitehouse favors keeping options open. No parents have so far complained to him about the quality of the high school education, he said, but Superintendent of Schools Marcia Lukon wants to evaluate other possibilities.

“All this stuff is going on,” he said, but teachers have to remember education amounts to something more than test scores.

“Kids aren’t widgets,” he said. ”You can’t package them all the same. Some kids miss their mom and some, God forbid, get beat at home or get little support or great support. Each one’s a unique individual and brings something different to class.”

He thinks the focus should be on teaching youngsters good decisionmaking skills.

“I’m hoping the kids are learning to become self-aware human beings capable of making choices for themselves and their families,” he said. As for No Child Left Behind, Whitehouse said the federal mandates really are not practical.

“How do you say boondoggle without using the word boondoggle?” he said. “We’re going to leave a lot of children behind, not because we want to or because our best efforts” are not sufficient.

He added, “So many things are out of the control of boards of education and teachers,” he said. “There are only so many things you can do.”

Nonetheless, the Jamestown teachers are not giving up in the face of long odds.

“They cherish and treasure the children on this island,” he said.

Whitehouse faces two opponents, Sarah Baines and Lowell Thomas, in the race. The other incumbent, Julie Kallfelz, will not run again.

The two top vote getters will win seats on the School Committee and three-year terms.

Whitehouse is originally from Illyria, Ohio. His wife, Christine Ariel, a North Kingston attorney in private practice, is originally from the Philadelphia area. She moved to Rhode Island to attend the University of Rhode Island and fell in love with the state. They met at a contra dance at the Kingstown Congregational Church.

“My wife is a fabulous dancer,” he said.

The couple has no children, but Whitehouse has taught hundreds of youngsters in Rhode Island public schools. He started his career on Block Island, worked four years in that public school system, teaching all 67 children there, which encompasses kindergarten through 12th grade.

Currently, he teaches music in the Little Compton schools, a post he has held 23 years, he said.

Little Compton is the state’s third smallest school district.

“I’m working my way up the ranks,” he quipped.

He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in music education at Bowling Green State University and Rhode Island College, respectively.

He credits the years on Block Island for helping him appreciate community values.

“I came from a town of about 55,000, moved 12 miles off the coast into a town of 702, and I discovered community,” he said. “I discovered how it works and how important neighbors are and how important people are.”

Whitehouse is prominent in Jamestown community projects. Besides his four-year stint on the School Committee, he started the fireworks committee and belongs to the community band and the theater. For 27 years, he has directed the Jamestown Community Chorus.

Asked why he is running again, Whitehouse gave a couple of reasons.

“The short answer is, kids can’t vote and I can,” he said. He also said his efforts on the School Committee honor the memory of his father, who believed in service.

“My dad was a big believer in community service,” said Whitehouse. His father served in World War II, volunteered with the auxiliary police and ran for town council. Whitehouse has lost count of the pints of blood his father donated to blood drives.

“Of course, he’d be spinning in his grave that his son’s a Democrat,” Whitehouse said. “But he believed everybody needs to pitch in. You pitch in and help. That’s how our democracy works. Rights without responsibility mean nothing.”

Whitehouse said he feels “a little bit disappointed” more people are not running. He gives the current School Committee members high marks for their hard work and commitment to children’s education. They don’t always agree, he said, but they put the children’s best interests first.

“We all have our eye on the same thing – the education of children,” he said.

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