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State of Education: Strengthening Neighborhood Schools, Preparing Students for the Future

Building on Record Investments,
School and Family Empowerment Initiative Proposed

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - As part of his State of Education Address before the General Assembly, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner today (March 30) outlined a plan to strengthen neighborhood schools to give every student a chance to succeed.

Governor Raimondo is focused on putting people back to work, strengthening our economy, and ensuring that everyone can “make it in Rhode Island.” Helping our kids build the skills that matter so they have the opportunity to compete for the jobs that pay is a key component. Students can attain these skills, Wagner noted, through advanced coursework and by developing “soft skills,” such as problem-solving, creativity, and persistence.

“Education is an investment in our future,” Wagner said. “What’s good for our children is also good for our economy and our state.”

“Our plan proposes record investments in K-12 schools, but more funding alone isn’t enough. We need to ensure that our schools are preparing kids to succeed and get ready for attending college or pursuing a career,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “Only by working together to strengthen our neighborhood schools will we be able to create opportunities for everyone to make it in Rhode Island.”

Commissioner Wagner’s speech builds on progress we’ve made over the past 16 months, including:

  • enacting a plan to triple the number of prekindergarten classrooms in Rhode Island by 2019;
  • making all-day kindergarten universal across Rhode Island;
  • launching Prepare RI, which enables all eligible high-school students to take college classes for free;
  • creating the P-Tech program, where local businesses adopt a school to help students get the skills and education to prepare them for jobs that exist in Rhode Island; and
  • creating a School Building Authority to modernize our schools that, in its first year, has already invested $20 million for projects at 86 schools benefiting more than 30,000 students.

In today’s address, Commissioner Wagner highlighted three strategies to support Rhode Island students and schools:

  • providing access to advanced classes to help kids build the skills that matter for future success;
  • re-imagining how we do schooling for the 21st century – with rigor, relevance, and student engagement; and
  • empowering principals, teachers, and families.

The key to the voluntary School Empowerment initiative is to give neighborhood schools, teachers, and principals, more authority to make decisions about things that directly affect their students – things such as textbooks, the school day, and personnel. This initiative will give schools the flexibility to do what’s best for their students and help principals and teachers focus on teaching by:

  • getting rid of red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy so that teachers can spend more time teaching;
  • eliminating regulations that are slowing progress; and
  • providing principals and teacher leaders with autonomy.

Open enrollment would also be totally voluntary; that is, empowerment schools would get to decide whether they would accept students from outside of their school area based on space availability and family preference. The initiative will let families choose the school that has a teaching approach that best suits the needs of their children.

“Imagine if we could eliminate student mobility and the academic struggles that come with it by allowing students who change addresses to stay in their school and continue learning with their trusted teachers,” Wagner said.

These reforms are proven ideas. For more than 20 years, Massachusetts has had high standards, school-based empowerment, and inter-district enrollment transfer, and they have moved from middle of the pack to best in the nation. Adhering to these core principles – high standards, accountability, school empowerment, and expanded choice – Massachusetts saw test scores rise, students succeed, and its economy boom.

This year, Raimondo proposed funds to help build this leadership and empowerment work. The budget includes:

  • $1 million for teacher and principal leadership pipelines;
  • an additional $750,000 for expert classroom teachers to provide regional and statewide instructional leadership; and
  • $1 million for school and district teams to plan for and design their empowerment plan.

A number of educators and community members have expressed support for our approach for helping kids succeed and strengthening neighborhood schools, including:

“I am thrilled just imagining how awesome it would be if we had autonomy in our schools – able to do what we have to do for the children that we know and understand. Accountability is a must, but we can’t be held accountable for student results when our hands are tied as it relates to resources, what to use, and who needs what. Let teachers assess, evaluate, analyze, and reflect so that we can decide what is best and will work for our students.” – Debra Scarpelli, Teacher, Pawtucket

“Partnerships and strong communications between families and schools are essential to improving education. As president of the Rhode Island PTA, I am pleased that Governor Raimondo and Commissioner Wagner have made family engagement a central component of the strategic plan for education.” – Hilary Fournier, President, Rhode Island PTA

“English learners, particularly from the Latino community, have long been underserved and undervalued by Rhode Island public schools, and our schools can no longer ignore this growing student population. Through their commitment to and support of education equity, innovation, school autonomy, and revisions to the funding formula, Governor Raimondo and Commissioner Wagner have shown a commitment to closing opportunity gaps and providing necessary resources to schools to serve all students.” – Anna Cano Morales, Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University

“The members of the Rhode Island Student Advisory Council have consistently spoken of the need for more personalized instruction and for the availability of more innovative methods with which every student can meet state graduation requirements. I am pleased that Commissioner Wagner’s education initiatives support these goals and values.” – Colby Anderson, Chairperson, R.I. Student Advisory Council; student, East Greenwich High School


For additional statements, see accompanying document: SOE 2016 – Statements of Support

We will post the text of the State of Education Address on the home page of the RIDE website, ride.ri.gov, by 5 p.m. at www.ride.ri.gov/Empowerment