Touting accomplishments, ed commissioner pitches ‘opportunity agenda’ for RI students

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Education Commissioner Ken Wagner used his annual address to Rhode Island Monday to highlight a wide array of programs designed to prepare students for college and the workforce while underscoring the need for schools to continue to evolve in the coming years.

In his 30-minute State of Education address at William M. Davies Jr. Career and Technical High School in Lincoln, Wagner emphasized what he calls an “opportunity agenda” for students, touting the expansion of advanced courses offered throughout the state as well as a program that allows students to earn an associate degree while still in high school.

“If we want true equity for all kids, we must recognize that achievement gaps are really opportunity gaps,” Wagner said. “We need to close those gaps, and working with the governor and General Assembly, we made real progress over the past year.”

Unlike last year – when he unveiled a proposal to create “empowerment schools” that would give principals and teachers sweeping control over most of the major decisions made in their schools – Wagner’s second State of Education address as commissioner did not include any new policy announcements or plans to overhaul Rhode Island’s struggling schools.

Instead Wagner focused on how the educational landscape is shifting as the economy changes, a familiar narrative echoed by most Rhode Island leaders in recent years. He called an investment in teachers and students “an investment in our future, because a highly skilled workforce, a growing economy, and vibrant communities are all anchored in education.”

“Too many of our children are not prepared for their futures,” Wagner said. “We need a path forward that provides equity of opportunity for all, especially students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and adult learners.”

Wagner called the expansion of state-funded pre-K programs and all-day kindergarten crucial investments in high-quality early learning. He praised Gov. Gina Raimondo for setting a goal of having at least 75% of third-grade students reading proficiently by 2025, calling the early years of school a “foundation upon which we build lifelong opportunities.”

The commissioner also offered praise for several districts around the state that have taken advantage of the state’s new programs.

In Providence, he said, there is a middle school student taking college courses, a high school student taking classes at New England Tech and another student who didn’t know English in middle school and recently earned top scores in several college courses. He said ninth graders in Woonsocket are now enrolled in a “success” course where they are required to craft a 10-year plan of what they want and how they plan to accomplish their goals. And he praised the work teachers at Davies have done in recent years.

“It’s amazing what can happen when we partner across government, business, and communities,” Wagner said. “It’s even more amazing what can happen when we believe in our kids strongly enough to really prepare them and challenge them.”

Wagner also praised Raimondo’s proposal to provide two years of free college tuition to new high school graduates who attend the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Promise plan has not been approved by the General Assembly, but Raimondo has crisscrossed the state advocating for what has become her signature priority this year.

“Rhode Island Promise makes a simple commitment,” Wagner said. “If you work hard enough to meet the acceptance criteria, there will be a seat waiting for you at a Rhode Island public college or university.”

Although Wagner has come under fire from teachers’ unions for supporting the expansion of the Achievement First Mayoral Academy in Providence, he repeated his frequent calls to “give principals and teachers more opportunities and pathways to meet the needs of their students.”

Wagner also hinted at an announcement Raimondo, the Rhode Island Foundation and several major business leaders are planning to make regarding “shared leadership capacity in our schools and districts.”

Wagner didn’t specifically address criticism he has faced for supporting charter school expansion, but he emphasized that “one size doesn’t fit all.” He noted the career and technical education programs have seen large increases in enrollment. He said schools should form partnerships with colleges, nonprofits organizations, businesses and other schools to provide more options to students.

“This is not about building a parallel system,” Wagner said. “It is about building a strong and responsive system that offers children parallel pathways to preparedness.”

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