The October 2 meeting of the Cranston Education Advisory Board (CEAB) was full of information for its guests. Representatives from throughout the Cranston School Department, including Tom Barbieri from Cranston High School West, Gerry Auth from the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center (CACTC), Janet Antonelli from Chester Barrows Elementary School, Bryan Byerlee from Garden City Elementary School, Robin Gervais, Lisa Milson and Grace Swinski from the Cranston Family Center, Joseph Rotz from Central Administration, and Jeff Gale from the Cranston School Committee attended the meeting. The primary guest speaker for the evening was Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse.
As guests dined in the Meshanticut Room at CACTC on a dinner provided by the Culinary Arts program, several speakers were on the agenda for the evening.
CEAB past chairperson John McCarthy officially handed over the reins to new chairperson Jen Davey, and thanked the board and its members for the opportunity to serve both as chairperson and as a school representative in the years prior to that. His role will now focus on working to keep the CEAB board positions filled.
New chairperson Davey officially welcomed everyone to the meeting and described CEAB as an excellent vehicle by which to accurately get the word out citywide in Cranston about very important issues for parents, educators and administrators alike.
CACTC director, Gerry Auth came forward to speak to the newest changes to the CACTC programs, including the expansion of the programs to include all four years of high school, as well as the addition of a new pathways program, the JROTC program housed at Cranston High School East, which now brings the number of career and technical education (CTE) programs in Cranston up to 12.
With the expansion of the programs to a fourth year beginning next school year, Auth has been speaking extensively to the students who are eligible to attend CACTC in high school, namely this year’s eighth and ninth-grade students and their families at school open houses and during visits to the middle schools.
Auth announced that beginning in October, new videos would be uploaded to the CACTC website which would show more details about each pathways program than ever before, allowing students and families to make the best decisions about their educational pathways for their high school years.
“There is a tremendous focus, a spotlight on career and technical education now,” said Auth, noting that the old voc-tech image has long since been shed from the CACTC programming, given the immense opportunities that exist for CTE students, and that now, it’s not a matter of if a student wishes to gain a CACTC education while in high school, but rather which program they’ll choose.
Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse touched on her role at the state level in the career and technical education arena as a member of the governor’s board for CTE, and spoke to the rigor of the programs in Cranston as well as the competition statewide to have strong programs in the area of CTE because of students’ abilities to choose the school and program that is the best fit for them, wherever it is located, with the sending district paying the receiving district a tuition rate each time a student comes in from an outside district.
“Children can now go to any CTE program in the state,” said Nota-Masse. “It’s created some competition among the various career and technical centers and high schools in Rhode Island and it has caused us to really step up our game. Gerry Auth has worked miracles for the past five years since he’s been here and it is because of him that our career and technical center is what it is. He has given these programs new life.”
She switched gears to a more serious topic, looking for input from the CEAB board and its members on how to curb the issue of unpaid debts for student lunches in Cranston, something that has been a controversial issue recently.
“Many of you have probably heard of the hotly debated topic of lunch shaming,” Nota-Masse said. “Students can qualify for reduced pricing for lunches, or for free lunch, which includes milk, a meal, vegetables and fruits; a very complete lunch that follows all USDA guidelines including being low fat, having less sugar and using whole grains. Many parents fill out the forms and qualify that way, but many parents have either not filled out the forms, or they do not qualify, and yet the students take a lunch and never pay.”
The idea of lunch-shaming comes in when school district policies require students who owe money, to be given a separate lunch, different than that of their peers.
Nota-Masse explained that it is never the district’s intention to make any child feel ashamed or to blame children for something that is out of their realm of control and that lunch shaming is not something the Cranston School Department is looking for when implementing their lunch policies.
The non-payments have created a debit for the district of approximately $52,000, up from approximately $38,000 and $44,000 in the two years prior, and although it may seem to some as if that money is not necessary for the district to recoup, Nota-Masse noted that $52,000 could be better spent to fund a first-year teacher salary or other district needs, instead. She also explained that in some cases students might only own a few dollars, but in other more serious cases, individual students owe hundreds of dollars by the end of the year.
Trying to find a fair, sensitive, legal way to avoid such debt being accrued each year is what Nota-Masse was hoping to find some suggestions for from the CEAB group.
“We want to make sure that kids are getting what they need, a full nutritional meal, while families are being treated fairly, respectfully and reasonably,” she said. “We don’t want to shame our students and we don’t want a spotlight to be on the kids. It’s really an issue that is not going away.”
The superintendent also asked the CEAB board and its members to consider the issue of excess absences from school, another issue that the school district has been focused on.
“All students need to be in school, on time, every day, when they are well,” she said. “Some students have excessive absences: 30, 40, 50 days absent from school in their early years, which leaves huge gaps in their learning and by the time they’ve reached middle school and high school they’ve lost years of learning and the state of mind has become that school is optional. We are seeing these patterns starting earlier and earlier, and this is not just about kids taking an extra week out to go to Disney before the April vacation week. These are kids with serious absentee issues.”
Nota-Masse acknowledged that the schools are aware that students and their families face a multitude of challenges, from child care to transportation for multiple children in multiple schools, but that students are still losing instruction each time they are absent from or late to school.
Using last year’s Surveyworks data, Nota-Masse said that each school has developed a plan to mitigate absences, and it is her hope that CEAB can brainstorm and share ideas as well to help spread the word about the importance of being in school every day.
The superintendent also addressed questions, which came from the audience about issues with transportation, and noted that although the district has plenty of buses, there is a shortage of bus drivers and stated that there is also a shortage of teacher assistants in Cranston. She explained that this issue impacts Cranston but is a statewide issue as well, and said that both shortages are a focus of attention at the central office level as the district works to mitigate the problems as best they can.
Following the superintendent’s presentation, CHSW student Christopher McCarthy spoke to the group on behalf of Park View Middle School, as an alumni. He addressed the group about the upcoming Park View Middle School 5K race, which is held on Veteran’s Day and is in its fifth year. Half of the proceeds from the event will go to Operation Stand Down, a Rhode Island based veteran’s assistance and resource program and half of the proceeds will go to Park View Middle School. Last year the race had approximately 1,700 participants, just 100 people shy of the CVS 5K race participation rate. Race day registration will take place at 7:00 a.m. and the race begins at 9:30 a.m., but registration is ongoing prior to that week, with the first 700 people to register receiving free race t-shirts. Those who register early will be able to pick up their packets on November 9 between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. For more information about the upcoming event which will be held at Roger Williams Park, those interested can call PVMS at 270-8090, visit the race Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pvms5k/, or visit the school website at cpsed.net/pview.
School Committee Representative Jeff Gale touched on the issue of the recent report released statewide which detailed the needs of every school building in the state and the work that needs to be done in order to have the buildings meet the 21st Century Learning Standards.
“I am still trying to wrap my head around that number,” said Gale, “It is about $189 million for our city and about $2.2 billion for our entire state. The school committee is looking for ways that we can do that, and possible alternatives that we might be able to look at.”
As the meeting wrapped up, Joe Rotz, Executive Director of Educational Programs and Services encouraged the members of CEAB to put forth their questions and ideas for topics for future meetings.
“We have had a productive past year, and we have a lot of great initiatives for this year,” he said. “We are looking to hear more about your interests, your questions and looking to hear more from you about what you’d like to hear from us.”