2016-10-27 / Front Page

School Candidates Discuss the Issues

By Barry Bridges

In the Alliance for a Livable Newport’s final forum of the 2016 election cycle, the contenders vying for the seven Newport School Committee seats convened at Pell Elementary on Tuesday, Oct. 18, to share their views on issues facing the district.

The two-hour session was moderated by the Rhode Island League of Women Voters’ Jane Koster, who posed a series of open-ended and yes/no questions to 11 of the 12 candidates.

Running this year are incumbents Rebecca Bolan, David Carlin, Sandra Flowers, Jo Eva Gaines, David Hanos, Bobby Leary, and Kathleen Silvia. Challengers are Raymond Gomes, Adrienne Haylor, Jennifer Jackson, Hank Kniskern, and Thomas Phelan. Phelan did not participate in the forum.

Several topics were covered in the two-hour event, including how to equip schools for the 21st century; how to best evaluate student performance; how to address the purported “math crisis” at Pell and Thompson Middle School; and how to ensure that taxpayers and city councilors continue to be on board with educational funding needs.

Much of the evening’s discussion surrounded the fact that today’s students will be entering a far different work world than their forebears and how the district can prepare their charges through technology and an effective curriculum while working within always-tight budgets.

“The schools have had some successes, but we are stuck,” said Kniskern in opening statements. “Our work on the strategic plan looks ahead and will bridge the gap between where we are now and where we need to be.”

Gomes noted that while most students are already carrying devices in their pockets, “we need to make sure that every child leaving Rogers knows how to use computers. Give them access to the technology they need and incorporate it into the curriculum.”

“Technology is the new way,” said Jackson, “and we need to in spire students through alternative methods of teaching.”

Silvia added, “We need to expand STEAM programs, and teacher professional development is definitely required. They need to know technology in order to teach it.”

“We are in an information age, and we have to make sure young people are using technology, but they also have to be able to speak, listen, read, and write,” said Flowers.

In a similar vein, Jo Eva Gaines remarked, “Technology is here to stay, and it you don’t get on the bus you will be left behind. But we also have to teach our kids how to think. They need high-order thinking skills in addition to tech skills.”

Especially considering the district’s disappointing scores on the PARCC assessment, the candidates agreed that improving students’ math skills is imperative.

“This is a crisis here, as well as statewide,” said Carlin. “Like a doctor with a disease, you can ignore it and it gets progressively worse, or you can deal with it when it is first brought to your attention. We have to make [math] sexy at early levels so that every kid enjoys it.”

Leary said, “We need to embed mathematics in the curriculum. I would advocate for replacing the two STEM specialists at Pell with two math-certified specialists. It’s not always about money, it’s about the effective use of the money you have.”

“We have to put more effort into math interventions,” said Bolan. “This will be my one goal in my next term, to move math and science scores in the right direction.”

Hanos asserted, “You have to put humans there to address these problems. They’re a cost factor, so we have to make necessary investments. We have to listen to staff and teachers, and if it takes specialists, we will do it.”

In measuring student achievement, Haylor said, “I’m not a fan of formal testing; it’s a summarization of a whole year of work. In the classroom, there is more incremental testing from lesson to lesson. Those are the real barometers of the success of a student.”

During brief yes/no questions, all candidates indicated that it is not the role of the School Committee to arbitrate conflicts between teachers and school administrators. And, echoing a topic from past years, eight said they would consider a common high school for both Newport and Middletown, with Carlin, Leary, and Flowers declining to endorse that idea. Most supported increased funding to expand pre-K enrollment, with the exception of Carlin and Leary.

A two-part question on charter schools elicited more nuanced responses, notwithstanding the yes/ no format, with some taking rebuttal time to explain that their support would depend on whether charters offer unique programming beyond that available in public schools.

Throughout the forum, the challengers generally expressed their confidence that they would bring new energy and viewpoints to the committee.

“I have lived elsewhere and can bring perspectives from other states,” said Jackson. “I represent the ‘unheard voice’ and am a parent who is frustrated.”

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