‘We have to get it right,’ Raimondo says education chief

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As Governor Gina Raimondo’s second public listening session on the selection of a new state education commissioner wrapped up last Thursday, the roughly two-dozen participants were given a parting exercise.

They were asked to sum up, in a single word, how they hope to describe the new commissioner one year from now.

Their responses – “visionary,” “inspirational,” “collaborator,” “dynamic,” “innovator,” “empowering” – spoke to the high standards to which the educational community is aspiring.

The discussion preceding that exercise, meanwhile, highlighted the challenges facing Rhode Island’s schools and students – as well as a deep sense of optimism and a shared commitment to overcome those obstacles.

“We have a big opportunity … and we have to get it right,” Raimondo told those gathered in the library of Cranston’s Park View Middle School. “We have a lot of folks who are depending on us … This is all about opportunity for the next generation.”

“I think we can achieve anything if we’re working together,” said Barbara Cottam, the governor’s nominee to chair the Board of Education, lauding those who have attended the forums for their “passion … for their profession and for our students.”

The listening session brought together teachers, administrators, school committee members, municipal leaders, advocates and others from communities around the state to share their thoughts on the search for a successor to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who has accepted the position of schools superintendent in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. It was the second such session the governor has held.

“I am committed to listening to all constituencies,” Raimondo said.

Kevin Gallagher, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, said the listening sessions are part of the administration’s effort to take a proactive and inclusive approach to filling the education commissioner’s position. During initial discussions on how to proceed, he said, the governor and her aides agreed the effort would not be best served through the posting of a “help wanted ad.”

Instead, the decision was made to consult with a broad range of constituencies and define the characteristics the next leader of the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) ought to possess. The administration, Gallagher said, intends to use that information to identify people who “fit that profile,” rather than “sitting back passively” and waiting for candidates to apply.

Issues of testing, equity and leadership were front-and-center during the session, with participants’ thoughts and recommendations on the education commissioner search accompanied by personal accounts of how policy plays out in classrooms.

Several were critical of what they see as an over reliance on standardized testing, speaking of how they have seen it negatively impact otherwise successful and promising students. Questions were also raised over RIDE’s handling of the upcoming Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams.

“We live in a culture that is so obsessed with keeping score … We try to fit all of our students into a square peg,” said Anthony Fiano, a board member of the Rhode Island Parent Information Network.

Cranston School Committee Chairwoman Janice Ruggieri said RIDE’s handling of the PARCC – particularly issues of whether, and how, parents can opt students out of the testing – has led to much confusion and frustration. She said state leadership must provide “some directive, some guidelines,” and said the PARCC situation is representative of a broader, ongoing issue.

“There doesn’t seem to be a real willingness to set policy,” she said.

The achievement gap that exists for Rhode Island’s minority students drew much discussion, with many making calling for an education commissioner who will bring a true focus on the issue of educational equity.

“We need a commissioner that puts equity in education front and center,” said Anna Cano Morales, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University and chairwoman of the Central Falls School Board of Trustees.

Channavy Chhay, executive director of the Center for Southeast Asians, spoke of her own story as an immigrant who arrived in the United States as a teenager and found success.

“Education has brought me that pathway,” she said, adding that the next education commissioner should be “someone who embraces diversity, someone who doesn’t treat it as a punch line.”

Osvaldo Jose Marti, assistant principal at Providence’s Highlander Charter School, also spoke of the achievement gap for minority students.

“We need to have a leader who is focused on outcomes and focused on student achievement,” he said.

Jeannine Nota-Masse, Cranston’s assistant superintendent, said a degree of anxiety exists within the state’s educational community with the coming change in RIDE leadership. She praised the governor for including the public discussion as part of the process – “At least someone is listening and asking, ‘What do you think?’” – while asserting that the next education commissioner need not necessarily be a Rhode Islander, but should be “connected” in some way to the Ocean State.

“I have community roots. I’m invested in my community … that means something,” she said.

Mike Crudale, Park View’s principal, said the next RIDE chief must bring a positive, inclusive approach to the role.

“A leader is someone people want to follow … people who don’t lead, people run away from them,” he said.

Jim Zanfini, principal at Cranston’s Oak Lawn Elementary School, cited the example of Pope Francis, who he said “transformed the Catholic Church” at a time of division and controversy. The next education commissioner, he said, would ideally bring a similar – albeit smaller-scale – impact.

“Right now, we’re a very divided Rhode Island,” he said.

Fiano said the next RIDE chief should be someone who “[looks] at the glass half full” and builds on the “wonderful foundation” Rhode Island already has in place. They should have an open door, he added, but must also be able to say “no” when needed.

“We’re idealistic, and we’re dreamers,” he said.

Dennis Littky, co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning and the Met Center in Providence, said the next education commissioner must find a balance between issuing policy directives and building consensus from the community level. He also said RIDE must “change from being more regulatory to being supportive of innovation.”

Heather Tow-Yick, executive director of Rhode Island’s Teach for American office, said talent makes a major difference, whether in the classroom or as head of the education department.

“Talent at every single level … is so important,” she said.

In addition to Cottam, Raimondo was joined at the Park View session by education board member Colleen Callahan and nominee Betsy Shimberg.

Throughout the process, the governor’s office is seeking to create a continuous dialogue through its “#nextined” hashtag on Twitter and other social media platforms.

Ed forum Cranston jpg

CRANSTON CONTINGENT: Cranston School Committee Chairwoman Janice Ruggieri speaks during last week’s forum at Park View. Also on hand from Cranston were Assistant Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse, Oak Lawn Elementary Principal Jim Zanfini, Park View Principal Mike Crudale and Park View special education teacher Cara Fitzgerald. (Herald photos)

Ed forum governor

‘ALL ABOUT OPPORTUNITY’: Gov. Gina Raimondo addresses the roughly two-dozen representatives of the state’s educational community on hand at Park View Middle School in Cranston for last week’s listening session on the selection of a new education commissioner.

Ed forum list

HIGH HOPES: Participants in the forum shared the single word they hope to use when describing the next education commissioner one year from now.

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