Loss of smart kids program questioned


The School Committee’s tie vote that resulted in the elimination of the Accelerated Learning Activities Program (ALAP) from Warwick schools has left parents questioning how their advanced learning students will be taken care of.

Sarah Lockhart, president of the ALAP PTA, has two sons, Luke and JT, who were in the program.

“I am very, very sad and very disappointed in the decision,” said Lockhart. “It really shows us where the priorities are.”

“It really upsets me the more I learn about it,” said Liza Glick, whose daughter was planning to participate in ALAP for the first time this fall.

“These kids deserve a program like this. I can’t believe they can’t find a way to make it work,” said Ted Larson, a former president of the ALAP PTA who still volunteers with the organization.

According to School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado, the motion presented during Tuesday’s meeting was to reinstate the ALAP program. Because the vote was 2-2, with one abstention, it did not pass and the program remained out of the budget.

“If you don’t have majority, it fails,” said Furtado.

Furtado and School Committee member Terri Medeiros voted against the motion. While she says she understands the value of ALAP and called it a wonderful program, Furtado said resources need to be utilized to benefit the greatest number of students.

“It pains me to eliminate that program,” she said.

There are close to 300 students in the ALAP program, and Furtado said the cost was about $350,000 to serve .5 percent of the student population.

“I believe that we need to take care of the educational needs of all students,” said Furtado. “We need to challenge the teacher to challenge all their students in the schools.”

While parents are upset that the program was eliminated, many are even more upset at Karen Bachus’ decision to abstain from voting.

“That is the one that really upsets us,” said Glick. “She had the power either way, to make it go or make it stay. I don’t understand how [abstaining] is allowed.”

“That was really shocking,” said Lockhart about the abstention. “That’s why you’re on the committee, to make choices and to vote.”

Bachus was unable to be reached for comment.

Committee member Jennifer Ahearn, who voted to keep the program, said she has no problem with eliminating ALAP, provided there is something to replace it. However, implementing a substitute could be problematic from her perspective.

She said teachers spent a lot of classroom time working with those who are having difficulty meeting standards.

“It’s the kids at the lower end that need intervention,” she said. She said it is just as important to recognize students with higher levels of achievement need to be challenged and if that doesn’t happen, they can become bored and even be disruptive to the rest of the class.

Ahearn inquired about the cost of ALAP and said she was told the program is in the range of $275,000 to $325,000, differing from the amount said by Furtado. She also said 398 elementary students are enrolled in the program, almost 100 more than others say.

“I’m not OK with it,” she said of the decision. “We don’t have anything in its place.”

Kathleen Ogni, parent of an ALAP student, understands cuts have to be made and there will always be outcry.

“It’s not an easy decision,” said Ogni.

However, she wishes there was more clarity when it comes to what was saved because ALAP was cut.

“If it really has to be cut, you have to be clear on what you are saving,” said Ogni.

As a concerned parent, Ogni attended the Tuesday meeting and was surprised when an actual breakdown could not be provided. “What does that cut mean? What does that keep?” questions Ogni.

She said a fuzzy answer was given by the administration naming different things that may or may not be saved because of ALAP’s elimination.

Patrick Maloney Jr. is also questioning the committee’s math. As the former ALAP PTA president, Maloney said the only cost to the school department regarding ALAP is the salary of the 2.5 teachers; programming such as ALAP University, an all-day program that allows ALAP students to take three special courses, is paid for through PTA fundraising.

Maloney, a former school committee member himself, said the committee’s savings estimate of $325,000 is incorrect. He said although they eliminated the 2.5 ALAP positions, those specific teachers were put back into the classroom and maintained their current salaries. So in actuality, Maloney said the savings are equal to the salary of 2.5 new teachers, which he estimated to be $180,000.

“I want to see where they are getting [$325,000] from,” said Maloney, adding that the committee needs to realize the value of the program and try rescheduling teachers or reducing the program to two teachers before elimination.

Maloney also pointed out that a 1.5 percent increase in WISE Union salaries was given before the newest school committee members even went through a budget process. While he is not saying the $437,000 annual increase was not deserved, Maloney believes the school committee should have done their due diligence and found that money. It is his personal opinion that the raise was given in the hope that Gorton Junior High would be closed and money for programming found that way.

“If I knew this program was being cut and I knew the savings was going to go back into the classroom and used to educate all students, I wouldn’t be fighting so hard,” said Maloney. “But it’s going to salary and benefits. It’s already been spent.”

Eugene Nadeau, who voted to reinstate ALAP, was the only member of the School Committee to vote against the final budget. Not only was he against the elimination of ALAP, but Nadeau was also against keeping the librarian position at Gorton vacant, and cuts to art, music and sports.

“The vote to eliminate this program is heartbreaking,” said Nadeau, who has received and responded to over 30 e-mails regarding ALAP since Tuesday’s meeting.

Nadeau said he knows money is an issue, but in a budget of $158 million, he has to believe there was another way to save ALAP, referencing a past Beacon article in which the Warwick Teachers Union president Jim Ginolfi said he would be willing to talk with the school department and help with funding if he could.

At the meeting, when Nadeau asked if Ginolfi had been approached, the administration said no.

“I don’t know why we didn’t talk to the WTU to try to make up funds,” said Nadeau. “Why didn’t we take advantage of that? We perhaps lost an opportunity.”

Nadeau is hopeful there will still be an opportunity to save the program, which he said benefits so many students. In the past two-and-a-half years that he has been on the committee, Nadeau said he has only heard good things and success stories coming out of the program.

“I think they deserve our assistance just as much as the other students,” said Nadeau. “Part of our duty is to create a climate, a learning climate, where we teach students to their potential.”

Nadeau feels the argument of only serving a small portion of students is not the best.

“You can say the same for every sports team,” said Nadeau, pointing out that teams cannot take everyone. “The ones that feel it doesn’t cover enough students so it should be cut, they don’t say it when it comes to the other programs: arts, music, sports.”

Larson agrees.

“If this was an all-star baseball team, everyone would say well we need to have an all-star team,” said Larson.

The former ALAP PTA president and vice president, whose daughter was about to enter her final year in ALAP, also argues against the claim that only a certain number of students are allowed in the program.

“If 1,000 kids were tested and 1,000 kids got into ALAP, we would have 1,000 in the program,” said Larson.

He believes the teachers are not testing enough students because they see the program as disruptive to the school day and “non-essential.”

“If the teachers had more kids tested, there could be more kids in the program,” said Larson, adding that more parents should request to have their child tested to see if they meet qualifications.

Larson also pointed out that ALAP is always on the chopping block, but in past years where there was no $2.5 million surplus, the program survived. Now, however, it is being eliminated.

“With no ALAP program, there is no opportunity for kids to shine like this,” said Larson, referring to kids who participate in special science fairs, represent Warwick and Rhode Island during National History Day and other opportunities. “We are basically telling these students there is no need to reach.”

“There is a better way to challenge all of the students in all of the classrooms,” said Furtado, adding that she would hope to invest in classroom technology such as wireless and tablet computers to encourage growth in students at all performance levels.

Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino also believes the benefits of ALAP can be integrated into the classroom.

“ALAP made them grow and look at things differently,” said D’Agostino. “Teachers can do the same.”

D’Agostino believes through professional development and new materials, regular classroom teachers will be able to provide additional enrichment work and opportunities for those students who wish to take advantage of them.

“Everyone needs to be worked and stretched a little bit more in the classroom,” said the superintendent.

Providing examples, D’Agostino pointed out that current classroom materials often feature additional challenging questions, specifically in math, that students can be encouraged to take on when a teacher is working with students who may be struggling with material.

There are also opportunities for students to find additional ways to come to a solution to a problem.

“Just because a student came up with a solution different from the teacher’s doesn’t mean its wrong,” said D’Agostino, saying students who solve a problem quickly can be encouraged to look again and find a second or even third solution.

D’Agostino has seen this process in action, recalling seeing a lesson plan from a first grade teacher. The teacher provided one handout to her class and catered the one handout to different learning abilities.

“They don’t need busy work,” said D’Agostino. “They need assignments to make them grow and think.”

Current ALAP work done by students in the program is not graded, however D’Agostino said enrichment work integrated into the classroom could be considered as extra credit opportunities.

Maloney doesn’t believe his daughter will benefit from D’Agostino’s proposed model.

“My kid is already doing [the enrichment work]. They go through the regular stuff so fast,” said Maloney. “So what added value is my kid going to get if she’s already doing it?”

Nadeau is also concerned about giving more responsibilities to teachers.

“It seems we expect more of them through the years, and it’s not fair to teachers,” he said.

He also feels providing more work to some students but not others in a classroom can be tough.

“Is it fair to be singled out in the classroom like that?” asked Nadeau.

Lockhart fears the additional work could just be forgotten.

“It’s scheduled and it’s not going to be missed,” said Lockhart on the current ALAP program. She feels if it is integrated in the regular classroom, it will be easier to be skipped over if time does not allow for it.

She also said removing the high-performing students from the classroom can change the dynamics of the classroom, even if it is just for a little bit of time.

Nadeau believes the elimination of ALAP will result in more than just the loss of a valuable program that brings distinction to the district. It could result in the loss of more students.

“A lot of these parents are going to send their children to Hendricken, to Bay View, to LaSalle, to Prout.”

He believes programs such as ALAP prove that a school district is doing their job to help students at all levels of learning ability and will show parents that their students do well in Warwick schools.

Maloney agrees with that idea.

“Valuable programs like ALAP make our school system stand out in the state to people who are moving to Rhode Island. When we cut programs like this, we are telling them to move somewhere else,” he said.

“We want to have faith in public schools, but when a program like this is cut, it makes a statement,” said Lockhart.

Looking forward, it appears the ALAP parents will not give up hope. Lockhart explained that there has been a lot of discussion on the Warwick ALAP PTA Facebook page.

“It sounds like people want to huddle together,” said Lockhart, adding there are preliminary plans for a meeting to discuss the next steps parents want to take.

Lockhart said she is hopeful for the program’s future, but knows she and the other parents have an uphill battle before them.

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