2014-02-07 / Front Page

New School Chief Ready for Challenge

By Tom Walsh

Colleen Burns Jermain became the new school superintendent in January. (Photo by Meg O'Neil) Colleen Burns Jermain became the new school superintendent in January. (Photo by Meg O'Neil) On a bright, sun-washed Tuesday morning in early February, Newport School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain answered a phone call that amazed her.

“Snow days,” she said, breaking into a smile as she disclosed to a visitor that the caller, mindful of a wintry weather forecast for the following day, wanted to know whether Newport schools would be open in 24 hours. “It’s the worst part of the job. Snow days disrupt family routines. That’s the worst. But there’s the safety factor. You can’t just put children on a bus with icy roads.”

A series of winter storms notwithstanding, the job of leading Newport’s public schools seems to agree with Jermain. After her selection to succeed John Ambrogi last August, Jermain began work as superintendent in January. Prior to that, she served as chief of staff performance and technology for Providence public schools. The Providence College graduate has also worked as assistant superintendent of schools in Portsmouth and principal-superintendent of Little Compton schools, among other education positions.

But her heart has always belonged to Newport. Her father was once principal of Rogers High School, where she earned a diploma in the late 1970s. Assorted relatives were also local teachers. “She’s a hometown girl. She grew up here,” enthused one Newport School Committee member after her appointment.

Jermain believes in Newport schools. She is quick to tell you about the system’s successes. “Did you know that Rogers sent two students to Ivy League colleges (Brown University and Columbia) last year?”

To buttress that fact, she produces the record for the past five years – four Rogers graduates were accepted at Brown University, one at Harvard and others were accepted at schools such as Boston College, Holy Cross, Boston University and Northeastern.

Of course, not every day is a sunny day, even in Newport. Statewide news concerning the controversial NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) test that broke last week noted that 46 percent of Newport 11th graders scored substantially below proficient in math.

“Math is an area that we’re focusing on very closely,” Jermain said. “We’re looking at programs and at how we are sequencing math instruction. We will continue this conversation.”

Personally, she said, she enjoys math, even though she majored in history at PC. “Math is a challenge for all schools,” she said. “It starts in elementary school, where there is a lot of pressure on teachers to cover all things well – and that includes math. Our students must be fluent in numeracy.”

The issue, she said, cuts to the core of what quality education is supposed to be about. Jermain recalled her own school days. It was a time, she said, when students were required to memorize math formulas to succeed. “When I took a math test, the first thing I did was write down all the formulas I’d memorized,” she said.

But there was a problem with that. She said memorizing math formulas did not help students to know why a right answer was a right answer. “Students need to understand how they arrived at the right answer. It’s not so much about formulas. We need to guide our students and empower them to understand how we learn. We want them asking each other, ‘How did you do that?’”

As Newport superintendent, Jermain has inherited an issue that has plagued the city for some time – student truancy.

“That issue is usually not about the child. It’s about the adults,” she said. And, she agrees with others in Newport that it’s an economic issue.

“Is it parents who are too busy working and struggling to meet the bills? And, is this so overwhelming that school is not a top-five priority? I don’t know,” she said. “Students have to determine what’s important and get to school every day. It’s a hard one. At the high school level, students need a reason to want to go to school.”

In a message to visitors to the Newport schools website, Jermain maintains that “this is a time for Newport public schools to recharge and reposition ourselves for a bright and exciting new future…".

Asked about that choice of words, Jermain said, “Teachers are ready to try new initiatives to be able to take risks and challenge their students. I see a thrust in which teachers and teacher leaders are ready to take on challenges.” At the elementary level, she said the opening of the new Pell School— placing all of the city’s elementarylevel pupils and teachers under the same roof—“will help them to better learn what’s working and find out what’s not, and to make changes where necessary.”

She said the Pell School has already reached the student capacity it was designed for. “The challenge will be to meet the needs of all of our elementary students now and going forward,” she said.

Jermain was asked what makes her laugh.

“Lots of things,” she said. “Not every day is the best day. But it’s how you react to things that makes the difference. Your attitude does make a difference. It determines how you want your life to be.” She said she loves her new job, snow days and all. “It’s going great. There are a lot of challenges. Our goal is to meet those challenges and to shape what works best in Newport’s schools.”

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