Cover Story | Education

Rhody Schools in National News

What's happening at East Greenwich schools to earn national accolades?

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Sure, East Greenwich is beautiful. Frenchtown Park is home to those haunting Tillinghast Mill ruins, the delicious jonnycakes from the Beacon Diner are a treat worth the morning wait, and it’s historically significant – Windmill Cottage and the Kent County Courthouse are just two of the local landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places. But did you know it’s also really smart? That’s right. This past August, East Greenwich High School (EGHS) jumped from #283 to #186 in Newsweek’s 2015 ranking of “America’s Top High Schools.” Not to be outdone, in September Archie R. Cole Middle School was one of three Rhode Island schools commended as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. So what’s going on in the East Greenwich School Department that’s earning it national recognition? And does it have implications for public education across the Ocean State?

By the Numbers
It would be easy to say that EGHS succeeds because, well, it’s in East Greenwich and that’s where we keep all the money. While that’s an entertaining punch line, it’s not wholly accurate. The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, in its most recent five-year estimate, listed East Greenwich’s “median household income” as $96,438. That’s second in the state behind Barrington’s $103,696. However, InfoWorks!, the Rhode Island Education Data Reporting site, shows that, in annual “per pupil spending,” East Greenwich dispenses $14,987, well below the statewide average of $15,740.

Looking Beyond for Inspiration
Starting his seventh year as Superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools, it’s safe to say that Dr. Victor Mercurio has heard all the money comments before. “Schools only exist,” he replies, “in so far as people show up to teach and learn everyday. And, in this community, it’s a full community effort.”

It’s easy to believe that he values the notion of community because he says the word “we” almost exclusively when he needs a pronoun. Daily, Mercurio hears ideas from school board members, teachers, parents, kids, even those looking to relocate to East Greenwich, but aren’t residents yet. “We have a lot of families move here from other parts of the country and literally from outside the United States who have experience in schools as students and parents that’s different from what we offer here. Those folks are always challenging our thinking to say, ‘Have you considered what other districts are doing?’”

East Greenwich parent, Patty Horoho, who currently has two children in the high school, says that the district’s success is based on positive involvement from a variety of people. Both EGHS and Cole Middle School have “great contact with the families.” She is enthusiastic to be part of a school system that genuinely courts parental involvement and opinion, while encouraging faculty and staff to participate in their schools beyond the classroom. She recalls, “I‘ve always felt the strong presence of the administration. At Cole I would see Principal Meyer at every little event.” That dedication is celebrated by each school’s PTG (Parent Teacher Group). They’re extremely active in both advocacy and giving credit when it’s due. They elicit parental involvement through emails and sign-up lists. The PTGs are known for holding their families accountable to be a part of the solution by urging parents to participate in school board meetings and individual building planning sessions as well.

This environment of challenging established mindsets is just rhetoric without the reality of implementation. The School Department doesn’t just wait around for people to point out budding avenues of progress either. Part of their success in recent years is their effort in actively seeking out potential opportunities even if, on the surface, they don’t seems like natural fits.

The Chromebook 1:1 rollout that was initiated last year at the high school actually began five years ago with a discussion regarding technology possibilities and what other schools are doing. Mercurio remembers, “We went to Burlington, MA, a community not necessarily like ours in demographics, but they were pursuing something from a teaching and learning standpoint that was intriguing.”

Michael Podraza, EGHS’s Principal, vehemently agrees with the necessity to reach beyond his building’s walls for inspiration. “Fortunately, in this era of connectedness we are more able than ever to hear and learn about innovative practices and reach out to educators and schools – locally, nationally and globally… In this day and age, we must take advantage of the experts and innovators who are just a click away.” This by no means negates the good old-fashioned phone call or the face-to-face sit down. Podraza is regularly on the phone with Cole Middle School Principal Alexis Meyer. The two buildings share departments for Common Core subject areas in grade 6 through 12, and those members meet together monthly. This lends itself to forward thinking but also to practical problem solving.

It’s one thing to give everyone in a school building Chromebooks, it’s quite another to establish positive habits of use and maintain the hardware. These are issues that will, no doubt, remain ongoing as students enroll and graduate from the high school.

Another “problem” that’s being aggressively “solved” is unifying school start times across the district. This would mean later start times at the high school and middle school. The first bell rings in both buildings at 7:33am, however the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no class begin prior to 8:30am. School Committee meetings will continue this year to address the realities of busing and financing for the issue. Permanently altering the length of the academic day impacts the school district’s community as a whole, which, as it turns out, may be when East Greenwich shines the brightest. Superintendent Mercurio celebrates that “the expectation and support in the District runs literally pre-K through 12. There’s no one in the municipality who comes to work everyday and doesn’t try to solve problems.”

The Superintendent, while heaping accolades on Podraza and the high school for the Newsweek ranking, is also quick to praise his other schools as invaluable in developing life-long learners: “That high school is fed by four truly outstanding elementary schools and one truly outstanding middle school.” The latter are trying to accelerate through the curve by finalizing full-day kindergarten across all elementary buildings, while the former touts its existing kid-centric mission and programming. Cole has a self-developed Advisory program where small groups of students meet with one staff member once a week. The goal is for each child to have at least one adult in the building with whom they have a connection. Annually, the faculty revise and update the curriculum based on the current and future needs of the students. Principal Meyer even has her own Advisory kids.

Letting Students Know You Care
Perhaps it’s that hands on approach that leads to success? Mrs. Meyer quotes the opening line of her school’s mission statement, which starts differently from many: “We believe we can make a difference in the lives of our students.” She says that, “the most important thing you can do for the kids in your building is let them know you care. Work hard to create those relationships, and that’s the culture that let’s them thrive. It’s that simple.” This environment can be seen from the high school down to The Early Childhood Program at Meadowbrook Elementary School. The only pre-K classes in the district, their inclusive classes offer students with special needs an opportunity to learn beside “peer models,” who are considered more “typical” learners. “Peer model” families also pay tuition and are not solely East Greenwich residents. The program is small and currently has 48 students enrolled, with many moving up to kindergarten within the public school system depending on need.

Making kids feel cared for means stability and structure in staffing. Meyer says, “the leadership in the district has been somewhat stable. It’s only my personal opinion, but I think that has a powerful impact on how schools perform and the commitment that people have to their buildings and staff.”

Meyer knows a little something about commitment to a building. She has been a fixture at Cole for years. She’s served as principal for seven years, after two as assistant principal. In fact, she started her educational career as a teaching assistant at Cole. Podraza was assistant principal at EGHS for four years during a string of interim and short-time appointed principals. And, while the school was doing relatively well, his selection by Mercurio (who began as superintendent in 2009) and unanimous appointment by the school board as principal in spring of 2011 was a relief, and let the community really begin planning for the future.

Podraza continues to have strong support from the school board and superintendent’s office, which allows his building’s faculty and staff to spotlight the kids. “When schools are able to focus on learning, students’ passions are activated and the educators’ ability to “personalize” occurs organically. Then, as a byproduct, the need for artificial and extrinsic rewards to compel learning is greatly reduced.”

He’s happy about the Newsweek ranking because it highlights the hard work of his school community. That being said, he is pragmatic about the reasons EG jumped so significantly this year: “It is very difficult to know the precise reason. Each and every publication’s school rankings are generally comprised of different elements and variable weights that they assign to each category to evaluate and rank schools according to their metrics.”

How Some are Ranked
Extrinsic rewards and ranking schools based on performance metrics are not anything new. “I would argue,” says Mercurio, “that the discussion around metrics took place 30, maybe 40 years ago when the district was comparing itself based on SAT scores.” Data-based school ranking is admittedly incomplete because there’s an immense amount of information to cull, so publications, as Podraza mentions, pick a small number of specific data points for their focus, mostly based on what they think the interests are of their particular readership.

The Newsweek list’s target area was college readiness and measured aspects like average SAT/ACT scores, counselor to student ratio, and student retention. But like most things in life, decisions are based one the information available at the time of evaluation. Barrington High School found itself, unfortunately, and notably, out of Newsweek’s top 500 (after an awesome showing at #200 in 2014) due to lack of information. In a September 24 posting, EastBayRI.com reported that the drop was the result of incomplete application data. The school failed to submit some statistics regarding college enrollment. In good news, all the data was present for Barrington last month when Nayatt School, along with the aforementioned Cole Middle School, and Pawtucket’s Francis J. Varieur Elementary School were named National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2015.

Rankings and awards can be used as powerful tools for schools in public relations. Many families take school systems into deep consideration when relocating, as Mercurio can attest. And good press can serve to accentuate specific attributes or bring attention to an overlooked school.

In the same issue as “America’s Top High Schools” Newsweek also published its annual “Beating the Odds” ranking, which used the same metrics, but focused on schools that are succeeding in college preparation despite economic disadvantages in a portion of their student body. This year, Providence’s Classical High School ranked #113 on this list.

For his part, new Commissioner of Education Dr. Ken Wagner is hoping that the Newsweek rankings will serve to remind Rhode Islanders and show the rest of the country that education in our little state is making big strides. He says in a statement: “I was pleased to see that Classical High School and EGHS have earned high rankings in national publications, and I want to
congratulate the students and educators at Classical and EGHS. These rankings recognize both the high achievement levels of the students at these two schools and the commitment to enhanced coursework for all students.

“We should be proud that Rhode Island has many excellent high schools deserving of recognition for their personalized approach to learning, including career-and-technical schools, schools for the arts, charter public high schools, an environmental-studies school and a virtual-learning high school. Having great high schools makes Rhode Island a wonderful state for students and families to live, to learn and to do business.”

East Greenwich continues to be beautiful, and delicious, and historic, and smart (and probably 50 other things too). As such, the class bell continues to ring at EGHS and the recognition has not gone to the principal’s head. Podraza refers to it as the “culture of ‘never-done.’” It’s something that the best schools constantly practice. “They know,” he says, “that no matter how ‘successful’ a school or person has been in the past, these past successes will not dictate our, or our students’, success in the future. As a consequence we are constantly looking ahead to how can we best serve our students learning now and in the future. We might not always get it right, or create the perfect program, however there is tremendous value in giving efforts to the never-ending search to improve and better serve our students.”