Chris Maher, Providence School District
1. What are you most proud of about your school district?
We are most proud of the improvements our principals, teachers and school staff have already made in our school culture. Chronic absenteeism, where students are out for more than 10 percent of enrolled school days, is down by 11 percent over the past year. Out-of-school suspensions are down nearly 22 percent. We believe these positive trends will have a direct impact on our students’ educational performance, because more time in class means more learning is taking place. To give you a sense of the scope of the time some students are missing, the average hours lost for students suspended two or more time equals nearly 2,200 instructional minutes a year. And, the average hours by a chronically absent student in our system is in excess of 10,000 instructional minutes. Decreasing chronic absenteeism and out-of-school suspensions is a difficult task, and it involves building relationships with students and their families. Our schools deserve a lot of credit for taking on this work, and we believe it will result in improved academic outcomes.
2. What is the biggest challenge your district faces?
The biggest challenge for the Providence Public School District, by far, is the changing demographic of the families we serve. More than 25 percent of our students qualify for specialized instruction under the definition of English Language Learner (ELL). That’s more than double what it was only a few years ago. This is why it is so important that this year’s state budget, for the first time, included a targeted investment in English Language Learning. We are thankful to the governor and General Assembly for investing in this group of students for the first time in Rhode Island’s history. However, as our population of English Language Learners continues to grow at unprecedented rates, we will need to continue to add significantly more resources and identify strategic interventions to better serve their needs.
3. Tell us something students and parents might be surprised about during the 2016-17 school year.
Families may be surprised to see where real-time information about their schools pops up. This year, we are launching a new initiative to ensure that each school has an active Facebook account and Twitter account. We know that communication with our families is critical and that we need to meet families where they are congregating – in this case, on their smart phones and through social media.
4. If the R.I. Dept. of Education could give your district one thing, what would it be?
We actually have a big thank you to give to the Rhode Island Department of Education this year. RIDE, through its new capital fund, has awarded us nearly $10 million in funding to make critical renovations and upgrades to some of our school facilities.
5. If you could personally change one thing in your district, what would it be?
If I could personally change one thing in my district, it would be greater connectivity to our community. We have all heard that it takes a village to raise a child. In Providence, it takes more than a school. It takes a city to raise a child. That means we need to think about non-traditional and collaborative ways to remove the barriers that keep our kids from achieving. That means more out-of-school learning time, just as we are accomplishing through a number of summer programs. It means more innovative partnerships, such as the one we launched with Providence Center and Behavioral Solutions, where we are facilitating mental health care access for our students and families. The city and the school have already working together on the larger issue of educational equity. Providence is one of six cities involved in a two-year program with the Harvard Graduate School of Education known as By All Means: Redesigning Education to Restore Opportunity. The program tasks mayors to work collaboratively with educational leaders, social services, parks and recreation, cultural and arts organizations and other community groups to address the achievement gap associated with urban and lower-income populations. We are committed to making real change for Providence families.
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