WOOD RIVER JCT. — The Chariho Alternative Learning Academy has received $152,000 in federal funds after being identified by the Rhode Island Department of Education as being “in need of comprehensive support” because of the school’s low graduation rate of 53 percent.

CALA received the lowest rating, a single star out of a possible five stars, in RIDE’s 2018 schools report card. RIDE spokeswoman Megan Geoghegan said the one-star rating made the school, which serves students with special needs, eligible for the federal funding, which is allocated by the state.

"Schools that have been identified as in need of Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) — a federal designation for the lowest performing schools in a state — are eligible for School Improvement 1003 Grants," she said. "This pool of federal funds is specifically designed to help schools in identified status ramp up and implement their school improvement plans." 

Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci told the School Committee at its Oct. 15 meeting that the funds would make it possible for the district to carry out needed improvements in a shorter time period.

“We've already made great improvement strides on behalf of these students," he said. "The grant will allow additional improvement strategies to come to fruition more quickly. I was very impressed with the community-based planning process that resulted in the award of this grant.”

A committee facilitated by Chariho development officer Katie Kirakosian was formed late last winter to prepare the grant application, which was submitted in May. The committee worked with RIDE throughout the process.

“We convened a school-based team and a community advisory board and met a series of times, so this was an extensive process,” she said.

The committee consisted of administrators, CALA teachers and staff members, and five members of the community, including School Committee members and the parent of a CALA student.

Linda Lyall, a School Committee member representing Charlestown, said she welcomed the opportunity to serve on the committee. Lyall has a background as a teacher and administrator in special education, having worked at a school district in Wilton, Connecticut.

“This is something near and dear to my heart, because it’s part of my background putting together programs for kids so they can be successful,” she said.

Despite the relatively large size of the committee, which totaled about 12 people, Kirakosian said the mandate of submitting a successful grant application had made it easier for members to focus on a clear and common goal.

“We were guided by RIDE and through ESSA [the federal Every Student Succeeds Act] so we had to do a needs assessment,” Kirakosian explained. “We couldn’t just start brainstorming ideas. There was some of that going on, but they all needed to be evidence-based. We needed to show that there was a research study of a particular caliber that had been completed that showed that that would work.”

Using data provided by CALA, the committee conducted a needs assessment that revealed where the issues lay. Members also used information gleaned from a survey of students about how they felt about their school.

The committee came up with three goals and five initiatives, or "interventions" aimed at improving the academy’s ranking on the state report card.

“We identified one of our goals as improving the graduation rate because we wanted to make sure that was always at the forefront,” Kirakosian said.

The second goal is to improve achievement in standardized tests in English language arts and mathematics.

“The third goal," Kirakosian said, "is ensuring that CALA students feel connected, respected and valued. Improvement will be measured by students' responses in yearly surveys conducted by the district.” 

The five interventions described in the grant application will help the school meet the three goals.

The district will provide increased support for students’ social and emotional needs as well as their academic needs. Secondly, the mentoring program, currently available only to Grade 9 students, will expand in stages to include all levels. In the 2020-21 school year, a third initiative will focus on individualized learning, and bring in outside trainers who will observe classrooms and work with teachers.

The fourth intervention calls for increased diversity and inclusiveness training for the teachers and staff, and the fifth involves adapting the middle and high school learner qualities curriculums to the academy.

Chariho’s learning qualities curriculum connects academic and social emotional learning, encouraging students to be self-directed learners, quality producers, collaborative workers and respectful citizens, and to possess a growth mindset. Kirakosian said integrating the learner qualities into the CALA curriculum would help attain the grant application’s third goal of ensuring that students feel connected, respected and valued.

“We saw it as a way to reach goal three and make strides there,” Kirakosian said. “Really critical components, because if you have to be a respectful citizen, we’re hoping that with this applied, and with students held accountable for this at CALA, then it would impact students.”

The funds will also support advanced training for behavioral management assistants and the purchase of a dedicated passenger van.

“Our rationale for that is students would be able to engage in diverse environments with their peers and community both during and after school, and that would help them succeed not only academically but also socially and emotionally,” Kirokasian said.

Geoghegan said Chariho's funding application had meshed well with RIDE's current priorities.

"For CALA, their plan focused tightly on a few priority areas, including substantially shifting culture and climate in the school community through close mentoring and partnership for students, as well as embedding and applying practices that focus on diversity and inclusion," she said. "CALA and Chariho’s tight focus on school environment aligns with the commissioner’s ongoing conversation in Providence and around the state: The culture and climate within our schools matter, and contribute in deep, meaningful, and sustained ways toward rigorous teaching and joyful learning at all levels."

The committee will continue to meet as the new initiatives are phased in. Lyall said her participation has been rewarding.

“I looked forward to going to the meetings,” she said. “I felt they were productive. I just feel we’re on the right track."

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