December 23, 2015 02:58PM
By CYNTHIA DRUMMOND
Sun Staff Writer
SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Administrators from the Chariho Regional School District held their annual four-day retreat this week to prepare for the new school year. The meetings, collectively known as the Summer Leadership Advance, focused on topics such as blended learning and chronic absenteeism.
The retreat, a 13-year tradition, provides a casual atmosphere for administrators to set aside the routine details of managing their schools and exchange ideas and teaching concepts. Chariho Superintendent Barry Ricci said midsummer was the ideal time for the retreat.
“People enter it with a clear head,” he said. “It’s not like you’re thinking about getting ready for school yet, it’s not that close. The end of the year has already happened, so this time of the year is when you’re not being distracted by other things.”
One of the district’s most challenging initiatives has been the 1:1 computer roll-out and how to fully integrate technology into the curriculum. In September, the program will expand, with ninth grade students getting the laptops used last year by the senior class and new devices being issued to eighth grade students and all elementary school teachers.
Participants spent considerable time discussing a concept called “blended learning,” which has advantages over traditional teaching. By fully integrating technology into the classroom, blended learning facilitates more personalized instruction so students can learn at their own pace. It also provides equal access to learning opportunities and allows schools to better control costs by providing a one-on-one learning experience for students who need extra help without the additional expense of hiring tutors.
The administrators were asked to study a textbook on blended learning and discuss ways to adopt the concept in Chariho schools. Assistant Superintendent Jane Daly said the key was to use technology to produce measurable improvements in individual students’ learning experiences.
“You can have computers in the classroom. You can have all the different technology available, but is it really changing the students’ learning? Is it really giving ownership to students to be able to control the pace at which they’re learning, to control what they’ll learn, to set goals for themselves?” she asked.
Chariho Middle School Assistant Principal Steven Morrone said teachers would be expected to adapt to the sweeping changes that blended learning will bring.
“When our kids have devices, we expect teachers to start off by adjusting what they have done in the past, to use the technology to replace some existing activities,” he said. “But our goal is to make some dynamic changes in how they instruct, so it’s not just the kids using a tool or a device. It’s how they access the learning and gain more knowledge.”
Educators are also being encouraged to work toward their goals in a somewhat radical way. “Moon-shooting” asks them to think beyond their traditional limitations and dream big — whether or not the tools to achieve those dreams exist.
“It’s really thinking beyond what we have every day and what we know,” Morrone said. “So if you think you need a specific app to accomplish this, don’t worry if we don’t have it. Maybe it’s something we can develop or maybe someone knows of something that could do what you want to do ... we want teachers to go outside the box in their planning and how they teach kids.”
Participants also spent part of their day discussing the issue of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 18 or more days of school in one year. Stephanie Geller of the Rhode Island Kids Count advocacy organization presented statistics on chronic absenteeism in the Chariho district and other districts in the state. She also offered several ideas on how to reduce it.
Students who miss school at the start of the school year in September are more likely to be absent more often during the rest of the year, and those who miss more than 10 percent of the school year are more prone to dropping out before they finish high school.
While overall Chariho’s statistics compared favorably to those in other districts, there was a spike in absenteeism in sixth grade, an issue that middle school Principal Gregory Zenion attributed to the difficulties some students experience when they make the transition to middle school instruction.
“The physical transition is fourth to fifth but the real transition is from fifth to sixth, because they go from a fifth-grade elementary model, doing the elementary teaching style, and in sixth grade, you start to see that shift more to the middle school — more content-led, a little bit more rigorous work,” he said. “Historically, sixth grade has been the academic year when kids are struggling.”
Zenion added that students were also experiencing physical changes during that time, so social pressures made the transition even more challenging. Measures the middle school has already put in place for the coming school year include reallocating teachers to provide more support to students who might be absent more often because they are struggling.
Geller described chronic absenteeism as a community issue, and suggested involving more parents, legislators, physicians, faith-based groups and the news media in combating the problem. She also reassured the group that the Chariho absenteeism rate was relatively low.
“Your chronic absence is not as bad as other communities. In most of your buildings, it’s 20-something students. It doesn’t feel like a problem that you can’t address,” she said.
Ricci said the discussion had been useful in raising awareness of absenteeism and exploring possible solutions.
“I know the principals are concerned about small numbers of kids who are chronically absent, and [we wanted] to give them some ideas about how to address that issue, also to gather some of the data and let the data guide the decisions,” he said. “So it was more to raise the level of awareness in the district. Our policy has been strict on absence, and maybe that’s why we’re low.”