A report prepared by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) after their scheduled accreditation visit to Toll Gate High School this past March raised concerns about funding levels provided to the school district, claiming it has negatively impacted the school in various areas including services to students and the professional learning of teachers and support staff.
The report also raised concerns regarding the Warwick School Committee. Specifically, it mentioned “confusion of some members' roles in supporting the school” and said it was “clear” there was “a conflict of interest wherein one of the members of the school board also acts as a student advocate.”
The accreditation process occurs once every 10 years and analyzes the educational practices and environment of a school. Earning accreditation assures that schools can offer accepted AP courses and align with higher education establishments. To earn accreditation, the school must demonstrate acceptable adherence to seven supporting standards – from student expectations and sharing of information to health, educational and support services for students.
It will not be known for at least a couple weeks if Toll Gate passed its accreditation process. An official letter will be sent from NEASC to the school department when the process has concluded.
The report mentions on multiple occasions the deficiencies of Toll Gate High School that they conclude are directly the result of inadequate or inconsistent funding as provided by the city.
“Inconsistent community funding impacts the school's ability to implement long range plans that adequately address programs and services, enrollment changes and staffing needs, facility needs, technology, and capital improvements,” the report states.
The report points to examples such as the school’s media center/library, which they conclude is understaffed and does not possess the types of resources that are essential towards promoting a 21st century learning environment. For example, while the library has over 16,000 print book titles, it possesses only 70 e-books and two Chromebook computers that access the online book catalog. Only 12 percent of students surveyed said they use the library for classes, and 27.5 percent of staff report using the library on a regular basis in conjunction with their assignments.
The report concurs that the library is not integrated in any meaningful way with school curriculum. “Most of the English and history classes teach research skills within their own classrooms, not the library,” the report states. It concludes the library/media center is more utilized as a hub to drop off damaged Chromebooks than it is a utilized tool for advanced learning.
The report lists funding deficiencies as affecting the school’s sports programming, with the example being the school having no field for baseball, and fine arts as well, citing a lack of funding for the music department. The report states that only 29.7 percent of the staff feels as though the school has sufficient instructional materials to implement its curriculum.
The report most often repeats its concerns regarding district funding when referencing the availability of professional development and teacher learning. It mentions how the schools had to cut two professional development days for the most recent school year. The district has subsequently cut all professional development – just one of 46 total cuts amounting to $7.7 million – to balance their FY2020 budget, which begins July 1.
“This [lack of funding] has had a significant negative impact on the advancement of 21st century learning skills and the ability of teachers to examine student assessment data to determine appropriate instructional next steps for more able learners as well as interventions and supports for those students struggling with content,” the report states.
As a result, the report states, professional development at the school is only achieved by those who volunteer their time and are not compensated for their efforts. Even in these cases where some choose to go the extra mile to advance their learning, teachers have no mechanism to share what they’ve learned with colleagues outside of informal, word-of-mouth methods.
“We are definitely hamstrung by a lack of funding for PD [professional development],” said Superintendent Philip Thornton on Tuesday.
The lack of funding for professional development is an especially important point because perhaps the biggest deficiency identified by NEASC in the report is that there is a major lack of cohesion within the school regarding how curriculum is implemented, carried out and evaluated. Essentially, teachers within the same building utilize totally different ways of teaching the curriculum and then have different, subjective standards for grading work that students hand in.
Thornton said that the ideal learning environment at Toll Gate, and across the whole district, would be a situation where every student has the same target dates for where their progress should be within the curriculum and know what it takes to achieve a good grade.
“The ideal framework would be everyone operates under the same umbrella with same rubrics and same understanding,” he said, adding that the district is actively trying to achieve this kind of curricular cohesion, pointing to a new, modernized math curriculum as an example of this effort. However, that new math curriculum currently hangs in the balance, as its entire cost of implementation (supplies, textbooks, etc.) has been cut from the FY2020 budget.
“Insufficient funding has significantly impacted professional development and curriculum revision,” the report reiterates.
About halfway through the 105-page report, one section touches upon the Warwick School Committee – and the assessment of the elected body, of which three members are brand new to the board as of this January, is not a positive one.
“The school board demonstrates a gap in understanding of the school's 21st century learning expectations and the school board's role in meeting the needs of the school to ensure that students achieve 21st century learning expectations,” the report states. “There is confusion of some members' roles in supporting the school.”
Specifically, the report mentions one member in particular who has been outspoken in being a “student advocate,” which the report indicates is a clear conflict of interest, considering the school committee has to act as an impartial body that reviews things like teacher grievances and disciplinary issues that often involve students, families and school personnel.
School Committee vice chairperson Judy Cobden doesn’t deny that the report is referencing her in this assessment, as she spent years prior to being elected to the committee last November as a pro bono advocate for parents going through IEP meetings. However, on Wednesday she denied any wrongdoing or inappropriate actions since being elected.
“I personally know the situations I have been in since I’ve been a school committee member are not litigation matters,” she said, adding that she had been involved with two IEP meetings since being elected. “If a parent is just exhausted and they need some support, I'm going to give it to them. If my constituent needs my help, provided I'm not breaking the law, I'm going to be there for them.”
Cobden said she would turn down a request for her support if the situation could escalate to a point where litigation was necessary, and that she would recuse herself from any situation where she has a past history with parents or students involved in such matters.
“I will not do anything to cause a lawsuit or do anything I shouldn’t be doing,” she said. “I don’t think there's anything wrong with that.”
The report continues its assessment of the school committee.
“At times, school board members take actions within the school to address concerns of community members without consultation of school leadership or central office personnel,” the report continues.
While the report doesn’t state a specific example of this type of action, it could be – since the accreditation process began in March – referring to an incident that occurred in late February of this year, where the school committee suddenly and without discussion decided not to renew the coaching position of Thomas Dolce, a long-time track coach.
Committee chairwoman Karen Bachus and Cobden later explained – after outraged student athletes waged a campaign to reinstate Dolce – that they had received anonymous, unspecified complaints about Dolce. As a result, they said they held off on appointing him to further look into the matter. However, the complainants never came forward, and they reinstated Dolce a short time later.
Bachus said that she doubted this incident was what NEASC’s report was referring to, as she said that she went to Thornton with the concerns regarding Dolce when she became aware of them. She said it could be referencing the actions of the committee’s newly-elected clerk, 20-year-old Nathan Cornell.
“Nathan caused quite a stir the first few months of his tenure,” Bachus said, without specifying further. Cornell did not respond to an email requesting comment on this story.
School committee member-at-large David Testa did not disagree with NEASC’s finding on his school committee colleagues.
“I can't disagree with the NEASC conclusion,” he said. “RI law spells out pretty clearly where school committees can go where they can't. In other words, it spells out how to 'stay in your lane.' I think that when the first action of a newly seated committee is to grant itself unfettered access to school buildings, it's symptomatic of what the NEASC team found.”
Thornton, too, found truth in the report.
“Screening school boards is always a good idea. There's a great deal of complexity that goes into the running of a school district,” he said. “I think sometimes there can be confusion in terms of that work.”
However, he said the experience of working with the new school committee as they have earned more experience has been a positive one.
“I think sometimes we certainly have our dialogues on how to get to a certain place, but I think as were working together more and more, we're finding more commonality on how to get to that place,” he said.