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Schools talk enrollment, goals

September 29, 2011

Jenks Jr. High School nurse Linda Mendonca holds the "Award of Honor" plaque that the Pawtucket School Department received from the R.I. Healthy Schools Coalition. Pictured with Mendonca are, from left, Wellness Committee member Miriam Plitt, Wellness Committee Chairperson/School Committee member Joanne Bonollo, and Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke.

PAWTUCKET — In its first regular meeting since the start of the new school year, the School Committee discussed the mixed enrollment figures and outlined an ambitious set of district-wide goals aimed at improving student performance.
Dept. Supt. Kim Mercer gave a run-down of recent enrollment figures throughout the school district, which show an increase of students overall at the elementary level, but a drop at the junior high and high schools. The total number of students registered to date is 8,754, down by 49 over the figure for Sept. 1, 2010. She added that this figure is still somewhat fluid as schools continue to experience late registrations for the new school year.
The total enrollment at the city's 10 elementary schools is currently 5,127, an increase of 143 over the figure for Sept. 1 of last year. While there were some minor drops in numbers at three of the schools, Baldwin and Potter-Burns by 6 students each and Winters by 10, the rest of the schools saw a slight to significant spike, with the biggest surge at Fallon Memorial with 49 students, Greene with 30, and Cunningham and Curvin-McCabe at 27 and 28 respectively.
At the three junior high schools, the total enrollment for the 2011-2012 school year is presently 1,304, down 72 students from Sept. 1 of last year. Both Goff and Slater show 42 less students than they had recorded at this time in 2010, with Goff's current student population at 477 and Slater's at 515. However, with 312 students currently enrolled, Jenks saw an increase of 12 students from September 2010.
At the high school level, the total enrollment this September dropped by 120 students from the same time last year. With its enrollment at 926 so far for the 2011-2012 school year, Shea decreased by 71 students over the figure for Sept. 1, 2010, and Tolman has 96 less students than it did a year ago, with current enrollment at 1,145. On the other hand, the Jacqueline M. Walsh High School for the Performing and Visual Arts grew by 29 students, showing a total enrollment of 134. Also showing an increase is the district's Alternative Learning Program where 78 students are currently enrolled, compared to 60 at the same time in 2010.
Mercer noted that Blackstone Valley Prep, the charter school based in Cumberland, added two more grade levels this year, 1 and 5, drawing 141 students from Pawtucket. Yet, she noted there is no way of knowing how many of those students would have enrolled in the city's public elementary schools as opposed to attending a parochial or private school.
Mercer also told the committee that the public school district saw a big response at the elementary level when the change was made from half-day to all-day kindergarten. Last year, Blackstone Valley Prep also added a full-day kindergarten, which drew some of the local students who now make up the first grade class there.
When looking at enrollment figures from the 2003-2004 school year to the present, Mercer told the School Committee that the district is “trending up” after experiencing several years of decline. In 2003-2004, total enrollment was at 9,682 and this figure continued to dip each year before it reached a low of 8,516 in 2009-2009. The next school year, however, when the all-day kindergarten was added at all schools except Curtis and Potter-Burns, the total enrollment rose by 105 in 2010-2011 and it spiked again in 2010-2011 by 91 students when the all-day kindergarten was implemented at all 10 elementary schools.
In other matters, Supt. Deborah Cylke acknowledged the school district's recent receipt of the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition's annual “Award of Honor.” The award is given to a school district who has demonstrated outstanding commitment to improving nutrition and physical activity for the past year.
Cylke praised the members of the school board's Wellness Committee for their efforts in improving school nutrition, and particularly singled out Solange Morrissette, of Sodexo food services, for implementing more locally grown foods and creative menu items in the school lunch program. She also said that School Committeewoman Joanne Bonollo, who is chairman of the Wellness Committee, will be traveling to Washington, DC for a special program hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama in regard to her healthy food initiatives for children.
In addition to Cylke, Bonollo and Morrissette, the members of the Wellness Committee include Karin Wetherill, Tammy Drape, Ray Pita, Linda Mendonca, Ken Bowdish, Joseph McNamara, Adriana Vargas, Ericka Moore, Marjorie Nasin, Miriam Plitt, School Committeeman Michael Araujo and Ronnie Cremonini.
Also on Tuesday, the School Committee was given a lengthy presentation from Cylke, Mercer, and other school administrators on the school district's initiatives for the 2011-2012 school year. Highlights included actions to improve the common core curriculum for English Language Learners, programs to improve reading and literacy, particularly for students needing intervention; changes in math to offer both more remedial help and intervention as well as more advanced opportunities for accelerated students, and increased measures to service more special education students within local classroom settings rather than in out-of-district placements.
Additionally, Mercer and Hersh Cristino, head of instructional technology, spoke of the implementation of two new “SmartLabs” computer workrooms at Goff and Slater junior high schools, and also the relocation of a computer lab for professional development at the School Administration Building on Main Street. Cristino also pointed said there will be an increase in the number of on-line courses available to students.
The administrators also unveiled a proposal to turn the first floor of the School Administration building into a state-of-the-art meeting space designed for professional development and other educational related purposes. They said the space could also function as a meeting room for the School Committee. While they pointed out that much of the labor to open up and re-purpose the space had been done by current maintenance staff, they estimated that approximately $10,000 will be needed to complete the space to the proposed plans and to outfit it with new computer, sound and projection equipment.
Also, former School Committeeman Joseph Knight spoke during the public comment session of the meeting to criticize the School Committee for adding language in its last three meeting agendas that appears to limit public discussion. Knight said he objected to the recent inclusion of a statement under “Public Participation” that reads “The Committee is precluded from discussing or acting on items raised by public comment, which are not already on the agenda.”
Knight told the school board that having this language on the past three meeting agendas violates the Open Meetings Act and notified members that he had filed three complaints pertaining to this on Tuesday.
In contrast to Knight's complaint, School Department attorney Stephen M. Robinson said that the language was added in an effort to prevent any violations of the Open Meetings law in that it alerts the public to the fact that the School Committee is not legally allowed to vote on any matter brought up during the Public Participation period that hasn't previously appeared on the agenda. He denied that it prohibits any member from addressing the public if they so wish during this portion of the meeting.
Cylke also said the intent with adding the new language was “quite the opposite” of what Knight was suggesting and said it was simply meant to let the speaker know that the School Committee cannot vote on an item that hasn't been included on a meeting agenda. She added that this and other language changes are part of an effort to align the Pawtucket School Committee meeting format with that of the National School Board Association and other established models.
Cylke stressed that the public is always welcome to comment, and that school officials will continue to ask questions to learn about their concerns, but said she wants speakers to also realize that school officials cannot legally take any action to resolve their issues at that time.

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