By JEN COWART
On March 5, Cranston High School West hosted its first-ever Parent Summit, a one-hour event that allowed parents to visit a variety of stations throughout an evening focused on a mix of topics relevant to their students’ education.
The event began with a check-in process. Parents were given a colored card that told them which group they were in and the order in which they would visit the available stations.
The station rotations for the evening included a Blended Learning presentation in the iLab housed in the library, a “Hidden in Plain Sight” presentation held in the cafeteria, a presentation from Principal Tom Barbieri about the recent School Accountability report cards and a presentation from Assistant Principal Dave Schiappa about the new PBIS program, also held in the library. Each presentation was scheduled to last just 20 minutes and included an opportunity for questions and answers.
In the iLab, math educator Julie Bannon and English Language Arts educator Kate Ray spoke about their experiences as teachers in the Highlander Institute’s Blended Learning program. Bannon has been involved with the program for two years and Ray for one. Each of them has had the benefit of professional development, coaching and co-teaching as they work to incorporate the more personalized approach to teaching and learning into their classrooms. The entire district is involved in the program, which has allowed more and more teachers to engage their students in Blended and Personalized Learning in their classrooms each year.
By housing the session in the iLab, parents could not only get a better understanding of what Blended Learning is and what it is not, but could also see an example of what a flexible Blended Learning classroom looks like compared to a more traditional classroom set up with rows of seating.
The iLab is set up with a variety of learning areas, including areas for whole class, small group and individual learning opportunities, allowing teachers to better meet the needs of all students. The two teachers co-taught the initial part of the session together, addressing the whole group of parents, and then split off into smaller groups as they went over some examples of techniques used in their respective classrooms. There was also an opportunity for individual questions.
This session modeled the teaching style while informing parents about the specifics of how it is utilized in classrooms. Blended Learning utilizes technology in a variety of ways, and both teachers went over some of the technology pieces they incorporate into their classrooms, including Google Classroom, IXL, Khan Academy, Edpuzzle, Noredink.com and Common Lit.
In the cafeteria, Dana DeVerna and Katelyn Bianco were on hand from the Cranston Substance Abuse Task Force as parents worked their way through a mock setting of a typical teenager’s bedroom.
Throughout the space, small, round, numbered stickers were placed on various items in the room. Corresponding informational cards were handed out to parents, and as they encountered a sticker, they could look on the card to see what type of hiding place this would be for a student using illegal substances.
There were 50 hiding places or clues that signified illegal substance abuse could be taking place. Clues included possession of eye drops that could be used to alleviate red eyes from drug use. Examples of hiding places included illegal substances hidden inside of a stuffed animal, inside of a highlighter marker, under the soles of shoes, inside of a lipstick container or behind a light switch cover.
There was an opportunity for parents to speak one-on-one with DeVerna and Bianco if they had questions about anything they saw in the room that they were unfamiliar with or concerned about. Parents were also provided with resources to take home with them.
At the third station, Barbieri used a portion of the time to address the parents in attendance. He shared with them the four-star rating that Cranston West was able to achieve on the new state accountability system. He explained how the rankings were achieved and noted that Cranston West, being the third-largest high school in Rhode Island, was the only high school of its size to receive a four-star rating. He shared with parents that the student absenteeism category ranking was where the school received one out of three points, keeping them from receiving a fifth star on the rating scale. The three categories assessed were student suspension rates, teacher absenteeism rates and student absenteeism rates.
Barbieri listed all of the types of absences that counted as “excused” and noted that at West and in Cranston, some types are excused, such as a college visit, that are not considered excused by the state. However, he explained that the rate of student absenteeism is a serious problem.
“I need your help,” he said. “I understand the prices of airfare tickets, and I get that it’s cheaper to go away before or after a designated school vacation week, but one point out of three is significant. If we were only dealing with excused absences, we’d have gotten two points out of three. These extended vacations and other unexcused absences have a serious impact on our school’s ratings.”
Barbieri noted that as a parent of two high school students at West, he understands that students often want to stay home at certain times for certain reasons.
“They know just the right thing to say,” he said. “But my wife, who also works here, and I, we had to make a decision and our decision is that if they are not running a fever or throwing up, they’re going to school. I’m not telling you that this is the decision that you have to make, I’m just telling you what we do.
That’s for your family to decide.”
Schiappa explained that the new PBIS program will now reward students who have perfect attendance each week. The program allows teachers and administrators to reward students who are doing the right thing, and those who are going above and beyond what they should be doing. Attendance is just one facet of the program, and Schiappa gave an overview of the entire program. He told the parents that as students are rewarded points they will be eligible for weekly raffles and have the opportunity to “shop” for prizes, which include things such as lunch with the mayor, a free tuxedo rental or gift cards to local businesses. The students are able to track their rewards on an app that is available for their phones.
“In this way, we are able to recognize all kids for doing the right thing, not just some,” he said, citing specific brain research around rewarding good behavior as a means of teaching students how to behave.
Barbieri and the rest of his administrative team, including assistant principals John Fontaine, Elizabeth Furtado and Vincent Varrechione, were on hand throughout the evening, checking in at each station and speaking to parents about the evening.
“The administrative team and our staff were looking to change things up a little bit. Rather than having a parent meeting where the parents sit in one place and hear the information, we thought it would be different to have the parents up and moving around and to hear from some of the people their children are working with every day, to see some of the things they’re doing,” Barbieri said.
Parents who attended received a brief survey about the event and the information gathered will be used to help plan future summits.