How South Kingstown has become one of Rhode Island’s model school districts

South Kingstown Supt. Kristen Stringfellow.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – When Kristen Stringfellow was hired to become superintendent of schools in South Kingstown in 2009, she knew she was fortunate to be taking over a district whose students already tested well above the state average in math and English.

But seven years later, Stringfellow has led South Kingstown to new heights, building a school system that includes some of the best-performing elementary schools in Rhode Island and a high school that has seen the number of students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses more than quintuple since she took over.

Stringfellow, whose colleagues around the state recently named her superintendent of the year, credits the town’s teachers with creating a culture and climate where students are excited to come to school every day.

“It’s a very engaging, dynamic learning community,” she told Eyewitness News.

The results don’t lie.

Of the seven schools in Rhode Island where at least 70% of students met proficiency in both math and English on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam taken last school year, two came from South Kingstown public schools: Peace Dale Elementary and Matunuck Elementary. (Kingston Hill Academy, a public charter school in the town, was also on that list.)

As a district, South Kingstown’s PARCC scores increased four percentage points in math to 54%, compared to the state average of 30%. In English language arts (ELA), scores dipped about three points to 55%, but were well above the state average of 38%.

Stringfellow said the success at the elementary school level stems from the district’s decision to work with Columbia University to develop a reading program now used in every classroom. She said the district has hired literacy coaches and the university has providing “ongoing support and professional development” for the past five years.

“And because we’ve been in that same program of best practice reading and writing strategies, my belief is that that has had a significant impact on how many kids are reading at high levels and how much they enjoy reading, and that’s showing in our PARCC scores,” she said.

Despite the success on the PARCC exam, Stringfellow said she doesn’t want teachers focusing too much on standardized testing. In an Eyewitness News survey of every superintendent in Rhode Island, Stringfellow said one thing she wishes the Rhode Island Dept. of Education would cut back on is the time schools spend testing.

“So we just don’t do test prep,” she said. “We teach the best quality curriculum possible. We invest a lot of money in coaching and supporting our wonderful teachers.”

Still, Stringfellow acknowledged there is more work to do.

At the high school level, South Kingstown’s PARCC scores fell five pert engage points in English (down to 33% proficiency) and four points in math (down to 25% proficiency). Stringfellow said she’s concerned the PARCC scores are artificially low because students were “not motivated to show all that they know on this assessment.”

She said participation in AP courses has grown from just 62 students during her first year on the job to 353 students last year. Of the students who took AP exams during the 2015-16 school year, 67% scored at college level mastery. Similarly, SAT scores have risen steadily since Stringfellow became superintendent.

Stringfellow also said South Kingstown has historically been a community where a large chunk of high school students never apply to college, but she’s hopeful those rates will increase thanks in part to the state’s decision to provide free PSAT and SAT exams to all high school students.

“I think that if you’ve never been given the opportunity to take the SAT, then you underestimate how glorious your score is going to be,” she said.

Heading into the new school year, Stringfellow said South Kingstown is focusing on how to better serve families in need while also making significant investments in technology.

Although South Kingstown remains one of the more affluent districts in the state, Stringfellow said the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch – a commonly-used poverty indicator – has grown from 13% in 2009 to 22% last year. She said the district is working to provide better access to transportation for families while also investing in dual-language programs.

On the technology side, she said every student in the ninth and 10th grade will be provided their own personal laptop that they can take home. The goal is to eventually give every high school student their own device. She said the district also has enough devices for every student from grades three to eight, but students won’t be able to take them home.

Stringfellow said she’s fortunate to lead a district that wants to invest heavily in students, but it all goes back to the teachers.

“We have fabulous teachers in South Kingstown, and they very much are connected to children,” she said. “They’re child-based. That’s what led me to apply here in the first place.”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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