Newport This Week

Liaison Group Discusses Grants, Unified Schools, and Truancy

With the 2013-14 school year now well underway, members of the Newport School Committee and City Council Liaison Subcommittee met on Monday, Nov. 4 to discuss a range of topics, including walking and biking routes to school; the possibility of a unified school district with Middletown; and a new approach to battling truancy.

Newport City Manager Jane Howington told the group that she has received communication from Middletown about the possibility of making Dexter Street, the location of the Pell School, into a one-way street. Additionally, new crosswalks are being planned to ensure safer crossing areas near the school. Police presence both before and after school at Pell was also discussed.

Both Pell Elementary and Thompson Middle School have received funds from a Safe Walks to School Grant. This program encourages and teaches students how to safely walk or ride their bicycles to school, but the money has not been put to much use yet.

As many as 50 students at Thompson regularly ride their bikes to school, but there is nowhere to lock them up, explained Rebecca Bolan, a school committee member who attended the meeting but is not part of the liaison group. “None of the things that would be helpful [from the grant] are occurring at this point,” she said. “There hasn’t been a biking education program at Thompson. There are lots of things in this grant, and the money needs to start being disseminated and used.”

Bari George, Executive Director of Bike Newport, attended the meeting and offered the organization’s services, including certified educators to provide a bicycling education program, safety books, helmets, and more. “We have a lot of really easy ways to deliver what’s in the grant,” she told the group. “There’s a lot of spinning going on, but no traction.”

Bolan said that a “National Bike to School Day” was held in October. Of the 40 students who rode their bicycle that day, only one wore a helmet. Another issue is that Thompson currently has only one dilapidated bike rack, which can accommodate approximately 10 bikes.

Next on the agenda, City Councilor Naomi Neville told the school committee that the council would soon vote on a resolution that would create a joint group of two city councilors and two school committee members to meet with Middletown or any other interested community to discuss the possibility of a unified high school.

“On the council side, there is a willingness to participate in the direction that Middletown is moving,” Neville said.

School Committee member Jo Eva Gaines said she would be willing to join the discussion group and mentioned that committee member Robert Power had also expressed interest.

Gaines said, “We’re not endorsing the concept, but endorsing the conversation.”

Superintendent John Ambrogi was more blunt on the issue saying, “This is Middletown wanting to construct a new high school and realizing they don’t have the critical mass of students to do that. Let’s call it what it is.”

Lastly, School Committee Chairman Charles Shoemaker briefly brought up the issue of chronic absenteeism in Newport schools and suggested that a new approach to tackling the issue is on the horizon. The district’s high rate of truant and chronically absent students, particularly in the kindergarten through fourth-grade level, is not due to student’s unwillingness to go to school, Shoemaker explained, but rather a lack of responsibility on the part of parents to get their children to school.

In the past, chronically absent students would have to appear in truancy court, where the student, not the parent, is put on trial. “Nobody wants to put a seven-year-old on trial,” Shoemaker said. “We have to go a different route.”

It appears that the new route will no longer see a truancy complaint filed against the student, but a criminal complaint filed against the parent(s).

Shoemaker said there are already four-five cases lined up where parents are at fault for their child’s chronic absenteeism.

“The judge suggests we send a letter to let parents know there’s a new policy in town,” Shoemaker said. “Hopefully, once that bell is rung, other parents in the community will know that we mean business.”

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