Jo-Ann Schofield, president and CEO of Mentor RI, didn’t know what to do. She was registered to attend the National Mentor conference next week in Washington, D.C., and then received an email from the school administration asking her to serve as a member of the Community Vision Development team meeting from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday.
Should she cancel her planned trip to the national conference? What would this group comprised of school administrators, students, parents, teachers, city representatives, and local business and community leaders be doing, and might she be able to offer insights and direction to the future of Warwick schools?
As Mentor RI runs the Warwick mentoring program matching 110 students considered by their school principals and teachers as benefiting from a mentor, Schofield closely follows Warwick school developments and knew the School Committee retained educational consultant Frank Locker and architect Ed Bourget to evaluate secondary schools and the proposal that Warwick build a new high school most likely to replace Pilgrim. Locker and Bourget are to finalize their report and recommendations by this April. The School Committee will then choose a selected course of action, which could include the construction of a new high school.
But from the brief invitation, Schofield – and presumably many of the others invited – didn’t know what to expect.
Locker had the answers Tuesday.
“We’re creating a think tank,” he said.
Locker said the group would represent a cross section of Warwick residents and business people to address the question of where they would like to see Warwick schools go. He expects team members to care about kids and the city, and when they have completed their work, “we will have a pretty articulated picture of teaching in the future and segue into what that means for the future.”
He said about two-thirds of the discussion over the two days – which will be held at the Tides Restaurant, part of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center – will be focused on teaching and learning, with the balance directed at facilities.
Think tank members will work at tables in groups of six. Locker expects a student to be a member of each table team along with a teacher. He said he is looking to avoid having a preponderance of principals or administrators, as he said the tendency is for others in the group to look for answers. Three secondary and one elementary principal will be participating in the sessions.
Asked if he knew who from the administration would be attending, Mayor Joseph Solomon said he believes Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi would be present but knew of no others.
Solomon said he thought it important that schools establish the level of funding they could expect from the state before discussing a new high school. He was encouraged the think tank would focus on learning and teaching.
As for the session, Locker has found students are often at first hesitant to offer opinions but then, as discussion becomes free flowing, actively contribute.
To “prime the pump,” participants will be asked to view three brief videos prior to the first meeting next Wednesday. Links to the videos will be sent to participants. Locker will start off the process with a brief introduction.
As each day progresses, table teams will be asked to enumerate ideas and opinions they find valuable to the discussion. Those ideas will be written on flip charts and taped to the walls as references for all the teams.
Locker said it is important that participants attend both days.
“People leave exhausted and excited,” he said of the sessions.
From similar exercises conducted in other school districts, he said participants are drained from thinking about issues and dealing with information they initially had little knowledge of, yet excited by what it could mean for education.
It’s those ideas based in the understanding and expectations of the community that Locker is looking to draw out.
“I’m the messenger, they do all the thinking,” he said of the table teams.
Locker will present “think tank” findings, conclusions and recommendations to the School Committee shortly after the second meeting.
But that’s not the extent of community input.
Two community sessions in different parts of the city are planned. They are open to the public and will follow a similar format of table teams to further hone the work done earlier.
Incidentally, Schofield won’t be traveling to Washington next week. Rather, she will be a member of a “think tank” working on the future of Warwick schools.