As Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse moves into her third year, she sat down with the Herald to discuss future developments in the district and efforts to increase diversity in the workforce.
Nota-Masse first touched on the JACOBS/Cooperative Strategies report that recognized almost $190 million worth of deficiencies throughout all of the Cranston schools.
She is in the process of assembling a committee to examine what the top priorities would be and preparing for bonding for the 2020 election. She said decisions on renovations, such as upgrading heating systems as opposed to improving acoustics, will have to be made based on what impacts students.
“I think the report needs to be looked at closely to identify things that affect kids on a daily basis,” Nota-Masse said. “We have a very narrow window of time to complete these projects. We have from the day school ends till the day school opens to get there, do demolition, construction [and] have it wrapped up in addition to getting stuff out of buildings.”
She also mentioned some summer projects that have been ongoing during the summer. Four schools, including Stadium and Chester Barrows, have received fire suppression updates. She added, with a knock on wood, that the Cranston West auditorium renovations are also on schedule.
As September rapidly approaches, one of Nota-Masse’s top initiatives for the coming year is improving attendance across the board. She said there are no concrete reasons for why attendance continues to drop, but that systemic absences could create “gaps in learning.”
Last year, according to the Rhode Island Kids Count factbook, Cranston had the state’s fourth-lowest high school attendance rate at 88 percent. The middle school figure was 91 percent.
“If kids start in kindergarten not coming to school on time, not coming to school at all, and it continues, by the time they hit middle school there are large gaps there because they’ve missed so much school,” Nota-Masse said. “Oftentimes when we have students that might be involved in truancy court, when you look back on their attendance it’s not something that just started suddenly.”
The district won’t try out an attendance grade to remedy the issue. In fact, Nota-Masse did away with the previous policy, which slashed 10 points from a student’s grade if they were absent six or more times, this spring.
She felt it put students at a disadvantage.
“If you’re a B student, and you earned that B, you’re getting a letter grade taken from you because of an absenteeism, which, it’s important that you’re there and I see that,” Nota-Masse said. “But to hurt them on their grade didn’t make sense.”
As of now, Nota-Masse isn’t sure of what other recourse could be taken if numbers continue to decline.
“It’s a statewide problem, it’s not just a Cranston problem,” Nota-Masse said. “It really is. On one side people go, ‘There’s online learning [and] computer-based learning,’ but here we feel to really be a part of your school community, it’s important that you’re in school. We offer a lot of support and services to kids when they’re in school.”
Nota-Masse said that there also is no need for another school in the city at the moment, but increased development on the western side of the city is making her “a little nervous.”
“With home development growing on that side of the city, that could be an impact, but you don’t know,” she said. “It’s hard to predict who’s going to move in, how many kids they’re going to have, until the houses go up. Then we can make predictions. Some of the building that’s happening now is based on permits that were given 15-20 years ago. You can’t make predictions until you actually have a house and kids showing up.”
She also said she couldn’t predict what level a new, hypothetical school would be. More students have been moved to Orchard Farms to get it closer to capacity, and Cranston West is “flexible” due to its more expansive campus.
Both high schools will have some significant tasks to tackle in the coming years as well. Cranston West is already in the preparation stages for its New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) evaluation. East had its visit from NEASC in March of this year and recently received its report.
Nota-Masse said that West will start its self-study portion of the evaluation when school comes back into session.
East could be the site of a new project as soon as 2018, aimed at increasing diversity throughout the city’s workforce. It would be a joint effort with Roger Williams University and New England Tech to create a law enforcement and public service program.
‘We’re hoping that that allows students who go to East, which is a diverse population of students, to look at law enforcement and public service as a potential career and really learn about it in high school,” Nota-Masse said. “Hopefully that will help increase the applications of students from minority backgrounds for fire service, law enforcement, it could be corrections, could be just going to law school. [We’re] letting them know that this is an option for them in high school and not post-grad.”
Cranston Police and Fire have both tried to increase diversity. The former held a recruitment drive in June, while the latter inducted its first female member, Rebecca Lema, back in May.
Ward 1 Councilman Steve Stycos has led the charge for more diversity in the city, noting in a Herald op-ed that 2 percent of the city’s workforce is composed of minorities.
Those numbers don’t match up with the percentage of minorities in the school system. Of the 11,431 students from Cranston, 26.6 percent are Hispanic, according to the district’s statistics. Just more than 8 percent are Asian, and 4.4 percent are two or more races. In all, just over 45 percent of students in Cranston are non-white.
Nota-Masse said that, even if students end up working in Providence or for the State Police, it’s about broadening horizons before college.
“We’re starting to work with the different groups to get that program going,” Nota-Masse said. “I think we have to open up our options for students, so that they can see all the different possibilities that are available to them. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re 21, 22 because they’ve already gone a different path.”