WOOD RIVER JCT. — Administrators from every Chariho school spent three and a half days this week in the high school library, discussing ways to improve district policies and operations.

They also shared ideas for making the major transitions from pre-K to kindergarten, elementary to middle school, and middle to high school less stressful for students and their families.

Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci explained that the event, which takes place every year in July, is known as an advance because it reflects the forward-looking nature of the discussions.

“It used to be called a retreat, but it’s not a retreat anymore because retreat implies going backwards. So, we called it an advance,” he said.

The advance began Monday and wrapped up at lunch on Thursday. This year’s theme, chosen by Ricci, is how the world’s best schools, in countries such as Finland, China and Canada, got where they are, and what improvements Chariho could make to emulate them. The discussion was based on the 2019 book “Leading High Performance School Systems,” by Marc Tucker.

The term "systems" can be vague, but Assistant Superintendent Jane Daly described the systems in the school district as “how things work together to improve teaching and learning, thinking about what we want to achieve to improve student learning and then looking at our policies and our protocols and our systems that help us achieve that and how can we improve upon them.”

One example of a system currently undergoing improvements is Chariho's data-intensive student assessment structure. The district will introduce a new software platform called Performance Matters. It will collate test results in real time, making them instantly available to teachers. 

Daly said the new platform will be a real time-saver for teachers.

“Now, the teacher has to go and individually correct all those results and then put them on a spreadsheet so they can share those results with other teachers and share them with the administrator in the building,” she said. “This platform is going to allow us to get the results in real time. … Instead of spending time collecting and curating all that data, they can spend the time actually looking at the data and making instructional decisions.”

Participants also discussed ways to ease the most significant school transitions. Mary Beth Florenz, assistant middle school principal, said the transition process is a particular concern at the middle school, where students arrive from the elementary schools and in just a few years leave to enter high school.

"We try our best to bridge it so the students can transition comfortably and feel part of that next system that they’re going to," she said. "It’s sometimes more difficult for families, because the expectations of the students at each of those levels are different, so middle school is the beginning of the independence and a lot of parents don’t really want to let go yet.”

Gregory Zenion, middle school principal, said the school was always looking for ways to make students feel more comfortable.

“We’re always looking for feedback from parents, what worked, what didn’t,” he said. “A lot of our open house welcome night has been adjusted and changed based on parent feedback. We used to have a half hour where parents met with administration, and believe it or not, parents said they could get that information elsewhere.They really wanted that time to spend in the classrooms, with the teachers, in the hallways, just getting to know them.”

A special effort is also being made to help newly arrived fifth-graders feel at home.

“We think it’s critical that the fifth-grade teachers do welcome their kids every day that first week," Zenion said.

"They get them off the buses, they bring them to classes, just to make sure they don’t feel too overwhelmed.”

Charlestown Elementary School Principal Jennifer Poore said her school had also made changes in the way it welcomes new students and their parents.

“At the elementary level, we’ve definitely changed our registration,” she said. “It used to be parents in the hallway filling out paperwork in the middle of summer. It was not intimate, it was not fun, and most importantly, we had no connection with the families or the kids. So, we changed that the last couple of years. ... Now we do a week in March. We have set days. We notify through the preschools. We have parents come in, the registration has moved from the main office to the library, which is much more child-centered … We do guided tours of the school. The kids and their parents get to see what the school really looks like during the school day.”

Chariho assistant principal Andrea Spas said she had gained a better understanding of middle school challenges after meeting with Zenion and Florenz.

“That collaboration is so important for us to make sure we’re on the same page and refining and improving current systems so that our incoming students are as best prepared as possible,” she said.

Chariho principal Craig MacKenzie said he appreciated having time at the advance to explore ways to improve his school.

“We’re  in a place, as a school district and even as an individual school, where we’re really about refining some systems that we have in place,” he said. “Not that we’re not going to find places where we have to build systems, but we understand as an administrative team how important it is to have systems to rely on when you’re working with 1,100 students and 150 faculty members.”

Gerald Auth, director of Chariho Tech, said his school had the additional challenge of integrating students coming in from other school districts.

“Craig, Andrea and I have done a lot of work this summer trying to ease that transition from out of district, whether it’s communicating our academic expectations or even our systems that we have in place, our technology system," he said. "This is the best time of year, because once the school year starts, we deal with those day-to-day operations more intensely.”

Ricci said the advance is a window that allows administrators to step back and look at what needs to be improved in their schools before they begin their demanding fall schedules.

“Continuous improvement is really important, and if you don’t take time to reflect on your work and make it better, then you don’t ever get there,” he said. “During the school year, you can’t do this. There’s no way."

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