Admins reflect on nearly a year in charge of East Providence schools
EAST PROVIDENCE — Approaching the one-year anniversary of taking stewardship of the system, Superintendent Kim Mercer and her administrative team remain enthusiastic in their positions, though quite cognizant of the challenges that lay ahead for East Providence schools.
During an all-encompassing interview last week with The Post in their new offices on the third floor of City Hall, Mrs. Mercer, Assistant Superintendent Julie Motta and Curriculum Director Dawn August reflected on their first year guiding the department, what they've accomplished and what still must be achieved to bring the city's schools into compliance with mandates as well as satisfy the needs and wants of tax-paying parents of East Providence students.
On the curriculum and instruction front the administrators, like many of their counterparts around the state and nation, are fighting the clock in regard to enriching pupils while implementing programs to meet the much-talked about Common Core standards.
For this term, the administration has introduced a new reading tutorial, "Project Read," in grades Kindergarten to third. In addition, "Eureka Math" was started for grades K-5. Mrs. Motta said the hope and expectation next fall is to implement Eureka Math from K-12. In addition, the department recently purchased a new reading program, "Achieve 3000," for middle school and high school students. Some 350 students are currently involved in the program, the purpose of which is closing gaps in reading levels as well as being an enrichment tool for those already performing at acceptable levels.
Ms. August noted these changes weren't needed as a means for East Providence students to catch up, but to accelerate their adjustments to the new standards on the horizon.
"It's not so much (East Providence kids) being behind, but it's more that the state switched from the GLE standards and NECAP testing to the Common Core standards, which will be tested by the PARCC system. And in order to align ourselves, we had to make these changes," Ms. August said.
Added Mrs. Mercer, "We're building on what was started."
"I think like with any initiative, the first year is a learning curve. I think next year the implementation will be a lot smoother," she continued. "We did put in some new initiatives this year, but we will be implementing the PARCC assessment next year. This year is a pilot, and we have to get the students ready for it. I know people had spoken to us about a phase in, but it's not fair to the students because the expectation is all students in grades 3-12 will be taking this test."
Mrs. Motta noted the first five months of the 2013-14 term have been a time of adjustment for all involved.
"With the new math curriculum, parents were very uneasy about it at the beginning of the new school year," she explained. "They didn't know how to help their children with their homework and things like that. But we had two big math roll-out nights and the chambers were full. And from that, we're having grade level math family nights where the teachers are actually teaching a lesson with the parents watching it.
"They're seeing how much the kids can do with the new standards. I think the Kindergarten night, the parents could not believe how much the kids knew in just October, only a few weeks into the new year."
Mrs. Mercer said the response from most parents has been positive.
"I think they're interested in what their children are doing at school. We're getting feedback, and we encourage it. We want the feedback from parents, as we do from the teachers," the superintendent added.
On a similar note, Mrs. Motta said, "We're trying to make a shift in parental engagement. It's not just about volunteering to chaperone the father-daughter dance or the Christmas bazaar. We're bringing you into events to help you support your kids academically and learning at home so they can be partners with us in their education."
The teachers, too, have been very accepting of the changes and eager to gain a better understanding of them, the administrators said. To date this term, East Providence teachers have participated in over 10,000 hours of professional development time, a significant investment according to Ms. August.
"The teachers have been willing to go wherever we've asked them to go," she added. "They've embraced the new programs, gone to over 10,000 hours of professional development. We know it's been a lot. We just want to acknowledge that they've embraced and really want to do what's best for the kids. It's not about us. We couldn't do this without them."
Without a doubt, one of most pressing issues the administration continues to face is the rush to maintain the high school's accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Several of NEASC's requirements are nearly completed, though a few, like the new science labs, have taken longer than expected.
"I'm disappointed it hasn't been completed," Mrs. Mercer said of the lab. "I understand things happen that hold it up. The plumbing was changed. They wanted the student tables to be smaller, so those had to be ordered. I understand the delays, but I'm still disappointed."
On the status of the school in general she continued, "I have been told the structure of the building is solid. The plumbing is an issue because it just hasn't been repaired. Right now, we're doing the best we can with what we have. As far as the future, I'm not sure. NEASC, I think we'll be able to address all their concerns. I think the only one we might not be able to by May is the boys' locker room with the handicap accessibility.
"The building itself, I don't know what the future holds. There's so many variables in building a new high school like bonding and permissions, things like that. If I'm told to start looking into it, we will. But right now, the immediate future is to get that high school accredited, and we're doing what we have to do to get it done."
Mrs. Mercer said she knows full well about conditions at other schools in the district, including Whiteknact Elementary which is slated to get a new roof this summer. She also said she recently submitted Necessity of Construction paperwork to the Rhode Island Department of Education for its approval on projects needed throughout the system.
"We are aware of everything that needs to be done, but there's only so much money. We did put money in budget into the capital fund this year, and we hope to continue to do that. But I need the public to understand that there is only so much money and we have to prioritize. We're trying to do what's best for the students and as quickly as possible," Mrs. Mercer added.
The superintendent also she understands some parents and employees remain anxious about the future, but all three administrators believe the district is on the right path.
"There's growing pains with anything. We're trying hard to support any of the changes we put into place. But knowing that, nothing's going to occur magically overnight. It's going to take us time and shared responsibility and working together…A lot of the changes we've made aren't because we want to mix things up, it's because we don't have much time with the 'Race to the Top' and the changes to the teacher evaluations and assessments. It's like the perfect storm," said Mrs. Motta.
Added Ms. August, "Generally, I get the sense the teachers are happy that the seats are filled, that there is an administrative team. When I met with Kim before taking this job, she said the people of East Providence need good resources and a smile. And I think we've tried to hit that place. So, yes, we are asking a lot, but we're putting the supports in place they need and I think they understand we're headed in the right direction and we're doing it together. We'd like to have more time, but we don't."
Though not quite a year, Mrs. Mercer said she has enjoyed her stay to this point and expects things to improve over the course of the next few years.
"We like the people, we like the teachers," the superintendent added. "Like the principals, they're hard working and committed. And we do try to get out there as often as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes I'm flying through buildings because I'm there on a mission. But people have to understand we do have an open-door policy and they're welcome any time. People have to understand we're not hiding anything. We're very transparent.
"It's only really been 10 months. It hasn't even been a year yet, but I hope we've made a difference. I hope people see it that way. We are accessible. Do we all enjoy coming to work every day? We do. It's a great place to work, a great place to be. The people have been very good to us."