2015-04-23 / Around Town

Solutions 'Take Time,' Schools Chief Says

By Tom Walsh

Sixteen months after “coming home” to lead Newport’s School Department, Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain smiles broadly as she describes improvements already achieved, but concedes candidly that more hard work lies ahead to achieve further gains.

“It’s been a very busy year,” she said in an interview with Newport This Week. “Every day is an adventure. In the end, you take it one day at a time.”

Jermain knew when she took the job that she faced a mountain of lingering issues, including a structural budget deficit, chronic truancy and absenteeism, and a new elementary school that replaced the city’s neighborhood elementary schools but was already at or beyond its student capacity. And she conceded that there are frustrations— the biggest being that there is not enough time in the day to fully address all issues at once.

“Things take time. There’s never enough time to really address everything you want to do. So you prioritize,” said Jermain, a 1976 Rogers High School graduate who took the Newport position after working as chief of staff performance and technology in the Providence School Department.

“It’s not unusual to come here on a weeknight and see others still here,” Jermain said. “I’ve got a good team.”

In an op-ed column that Jermain co-authored last Sept. 30 in the Providence Journal with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, Jermain wrote that, “We need to be vigilant and engaged as we work to provide more high-quality opportunities for early learning, to close achievement gaps in all communities, to provide challenging coursework for all students, to provide social and emotional learning opportunities, to promote world languages and the use of technology, to build strong connections between our high schools and postsecondary institutions…to name just a few initiatives that may lie on the road ahead.”

Her words sounded similar in many ways to what she said in her interview with Newport This Week on April 21. For example, she excitedly told of the second of two prekindergarten fairs set for Saturday, May 2 that is designed to “enable parents and guardians to see all of the opportunities available” to children ages three to five. “There is never just one piece of the puzzle. It’s gathering all the pieces to make sure the picture is completed.”

Newport currently has five prekindergarten sections operating at the former John F. Kennedy Elementary

School in Middletown. That number, Jermain said, may grow to six or seven sections next year.

“Education is an economic issue,” Jermain said. "Socio-economics and poverty matter. It’s important for those children in challenging situations to have the opportunity to be kindergartenready.”

Those words also pertain to a chronic Newport student problem— truancy and absenteeism.

Jermain spoke hopefully that a grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, along with the ongoing efforts of the Chronic Early Absenteeism/Truancy Reduction Initiative will, over the next three years, help Newport become “one of the top 10 districts in the state for substantially increasing its attendance rate.” That would mean the city’s schools would achieve a 12 percent attendance rate increase in three years, she said.

Another goal she hopes to achieve in 2015 is an increase of the Rogers High School four-year graduation rate from 68.2 percent to 72.2 percent.

Jermain said that using the nowvacant Triplett School for a pre-kindergarten early learning center is, “for the near future,” not going to happen. Those plans seem to have been dashed with recent news that the School Department’s budget deficit had climbed from $1.15 million in February to $1.42 million. Dropping the Triplett plan would free about $240,000 that has been set aside for capital improvements at Triplett to use to reduce the shortfall. The department will continue to look at how the city’s schools should be used in the future.

As for the budget problems, Jermain commented, “I knew coming in here that things would be tough with the budget for the first couple of years. We’re very aware of the deficit. We’re looking at ways to keep the costs down.“ She said that means searching for “costavoidance” opportunities while trying to provide better services at less cost. It also means working with school employees, teachers and retirees on contract issues.

“Collaboration is how you get things done and how you sustain what’s being done,” Jermain said. “Collaboration is hard work." She said living and working with those employed by the department is a matter of mutual respect. “We go to the grocery store, we see each other,” she said. “It takes all of us. We need to work together and respect each other.”

The superintendent spoke glowingly of a partnership forged with General Dynamics Electric Boat at Quonset Point in North Kingstown. Under the program, Newport high school students spend time at Electric Boat and become more familiar with good-paying jobs available there—some of them right out of high school. “We’re working to give them the skills needed to work there,” she explained.

In an email note, Jermain later wrote, “It has been a very exciting year as we lay the groundwork for future growth for the Newport School District. I truly believe this can become one of the best school districts in the state.”

And, she added, “I realize I am very fortunate to be here, and I look forward to the challenge.”

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