The Oct. 9 School Committee meeting started like any other, with Denise Bilodeau, who oversees the Graduation by Proficiency (GBP) program, providing an update on the status of senior projects.
“We’re tracking 711 seniors, 450 of them have approved project proposals and 169 have completed between one and 15 hours of required field work [with a mentor],” she said.
However, following Bilodeau’s GBP update is when the real discussion began, as Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, explained the decision to halt all face-to-face mentor interaction as of Oct. 1 due to the passage of a recent bill requiring mentors to have state and federal background checks.
“We felt we could not leave students out in the lurch, so we developed a fair system that kept the rigor of the process,” Mullen said.
Mullen said a number of students who had already completed their 15 hours of fieldwork with a mentor are simply waiting for the early presentation period in February to discuss their projects before judges. A second group of students that had already begun meeting with their mentors but had not yet completed the 15 hours, would be allowed to continue communication with their mentors through electronic means only. And the third group of students, who had not yet started meeting with a mentor, will only communicate with mentors electronically.
Mullen said that although the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) interprets the law to only apply to in-school mentors, such as those that work one-on-one with students through the Rhode Island Mentoring Partnership, the law is too general and does not specify a mentoring situation.
“All mentoring situations would apply to this law,” he said. “The law exists, regardless of our interpretation versus RIDE’s interpretation, but we preferred to err on the side of caution.”
Committee member Christopher Friel asked if other school districts that require a senior project for graduation are following Warwick’s example and addressing the mentor portion of the project.
“I know that Coventry is holding a BCI night to have mentors get state and federal background checks and they’re moving forward with the program,” said Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and compliance and legal counsel for the committee.
When Friel asked why Warwick isn’t doing that, she said, “The cost was considered a prohibitive situation, whether the district, the mentor or the student’s family covered it.”
Healey continued, saying, “Also, this is something that would have to be done every year and there’s a tremendous amount of clerical work involved. It would be necessary to maintain records over time. In the event a situation arose, we could be liable if we don’t have proper tracking documentation.”
Healey said the cost associated with a federal background check would be $35, and when multiplied by 711 students, it amounts to approximately $26,000.
Committee vice chairman Patrick Maloney asked if the aim was to create a “level playing field” for all students to be successful by allowing them to have the same experience with senior project, thereby not putting students whose families can’t afford the fee at a disadvantage, which Mullen confirmed.
“We’re reviewing other programs currently, such as internships, and we’re hoping to work together to come up with a plan with a structural change to include community input with the senior project,” Healey said.
When asked if parents could legally accompany their child while meeting with a mentor, Healey said they can but due to wanting equal access for all students and to provide them with the same experience, the decision was made not to allow that.
Committee member Terri Medeiros didn’t agree with the department’s decision to eliminate face-to-face mentor contact, saying the department needs to do more research.
“The senior project demonstrates a growth of the student, whether they learn the field they chose is not something they want to go into, is a field they want to learn more about or even if they just learned something new from the experience; to take this aspect away and tell students they have to stop stifles students,” she said. “My concern is going straight across the board and taking mentoring away from all students. I don’t think it’s the best we can do.”
When committee member Eugene Nadeau asked what the response from students has been, Mullen said initially there was “a great deal of questions.”
Bilodeau said students also thought the new policy meant they had to start their projects over from the beginning.
“The only piece that would change would be the final product; the research would not be affected,” she said. “Some students were upset by that, for example ones that wanted to teach a lesson at an elementary school.”
Nadeau then asked, for example, if his granddaughter wanted to study what it’s like to be a school committee member, would she be able to talk to him and ask him questions, as a relative, and further asked how could the department prevent students from talking to relatives about their projects.
“There’s no way to know who every student is talking to,” Bilodeau said, to which Nadeau responded, “That’s my point.”
Maloney said he understood the department’s decision.
“I feel the Attorney General’s office wouldn’t be able to get the BCI paperwork done in a timely manner anyway, so I understand why we had to do this,” he said, adding if the school department doesn’t follow the law, the state can cut its funding, in this case approximately $36 million.
Echoing Maloney’s comment about the paperwork taking a long time if the department were to go through with the background checks, Healey said local and state police departments have lobbied against the national BCI check for many years because of the influx of applicants and the paperwork that would be involved with the process, “so it had to be a statute on the books in order to ensure it gets done.”
Committee chair Beth Furtado wasn’t happy with the new law.
“The General Assembly just interrupted the education of 711 students with this law. It’s absolutely disgraceful,” she said.
During public comment, Pilgrim senior David Tibbetts was the first to speak. He said seniors are scared of the recent changes to the project.
“A lot of students feel unsure, abandoned and as guinea pigs in an experiment,” he said. “A lot of people are saying this [change] was for the good of the students and to protect us, but we feel the students have been cheated and wronged.”
Tibbetts continued, saying, “No one came down to the schools to ask our opinions. We feel the GBP coordinators should provide weekly updates about what’s happening with the project.”
Tibbetts, who’s planning to join the military upon graduation, said it’s important for seniors to know where they stand with the project, as they plan for the future after high school, to make sure they pass for graduation.
“We want reassurance that nothing else will change,” he said.
Following Tibbetts, Darlene Netcoh, English teacher at Toll Gate and a regular attendee at school committee meetings whose long advocated for the elimination of senior project, reiterated her position.
“We don’t need senior project. Senior year is hard enough. With students already planning their futures, they don’t need to be in turmoil and filled with worry,” she said, adding, “I know of students that are leaving the district to avoid senior project.”
David Testa, a parent with children in the Warwick school system who is running for an At-Large committee seat, said the school committee was not well served by the Association of School Committees.
“Where was your representation at the State House,” he questioned. “If the public wants to see changes, the way to do that is to send a letter to your representative asking that you want the law changed.”
Testa, who has served as a senior project judge for three years, said, “I think you neuter the program,” in reference to the new Warwick mentor policy.
“I think we could focus more on the student portfolio,” he said, referring to another graduation requirement of Warwick students who must present a portfolio of student work compiled throughout their four-year high school career. “The portfolio, the [senior] project and NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] is a lot to ask of a 17- or 18-year-old kid to graduate.”
Parent Amy Frank, whose son graduated Toll Gate last year, agreed, saying the department needs to rethink the senior project issue.
“My son graduated top 10 in his class, but the project was a waste of his time, which distracted from his AP [Advanced Placement] classes and all other school work,” she said. “It did nothing to help him get into college or make him well-rounded because that already happened through his Warwick education.”
Frank said she didn’t understand why Warwick was asking extra of its students when other districts aren’t doing the same.
“I feel you’re placing an undue burden on students,” she said. “I think you need to listen to what we’re saying.”