Dr. Ken Wagner and Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Ann Snider visited and toured Garden City Elementary School in Cranston on April 11.
It was Wagner’s final visit to the city’s schools as the state’s education commissioner. He officially left the post on April 26. Snider will also be retiring in June, making this visit among her last as well.
The pair were greeted in the library, where Principal Brian Byerlee, along with a group of students, staff and parents, provided an overview of Garden City School and its vibrant community.
“Thank you for choosing Garden City for a visit,” Byerlee said. “We’re happy to have you here and happy to have the opportunity for you to visit our classrooms.”
Byerlee, who is in year two as administrator for the school, provided a snapshot of the Garden City school community, which includes approximately 40 teachers and nearly 300 students.
“We are a strong community and very close-knit, and that’s our asset,” he said, describing recent school-wide events such as a family game night, a color run day and a World Down Syndrome Day observance.
Byerlee said that the school received four stars in the recently released accountability ratings, and emphasized that without a strong community the school would not be able to reach the fifth star, even with its focus on standards, data and instructional practices.
He also discussed the diversity that is present in the school in all areas, including levels of need, family situations, cultural backgrounds, exposure to trauma and adverse childhood experiences, and readiness to learn.
Byerlee commended the Cranston Public Schools for revamping the curriculum in various academic areas and praised the district’s selection of core instructional programs. He described the school’s participation as an early adopter of the district’s Blended Learning and Personalized Learning initiatives, noting that more than 80 percent of the teachers on the staff were involved in those initiatives, which Wagner and Snider observed during the tour.
He also spoke about the importance of listening to student voices and recognizing student leadership within the school. He cited Matthew Pappas, a student who had approached him with a concern about the use of plastic straws in the lunchroom. After listening to Pappas and sharing his concerns with the school lunch provider, straws were removed from the lunchroom.
“When Matthew said, ‘Thank you for listening to me, most people don’t listen to kids,’ that was the most powerful thing for me,” the principal said.
Byerlee asked the students in the room to speak about the reasons why they were proud of Garden City School. The answers varied from the lack of bullying that exists within the school and the partnerships that exist between older and younger students to the fair rules and the respect that permeates the school culture.
“I’m proud to be able to be myself around my teachers and my friends,” fifth-grader Roman Duarte said.
When asked what makes them excited about learning, the students described projects focusing on engineering, including the creation of irrigation systems and a catapult project, a moon finger painting project and the creation of imaginary animals complete with sense receptors.
“I liked learning persuasive writing and working on writing about whether or not dogs should run in the Iditarod,” fourth-grader Julia Muschiano said.
Snider spoke to the students and praised their vocabulary, language and dialogue.
“You use very precise words to describe what you’re working on, and it’s so exciting for us to hear,” she said.
“I can tell that you have a lot of strong opinions,” he said.
When the parents were asked about the school and what is working well for them, their answers revealed the strong sense of community that exists at Garden City School.
“Our community is our biggest strength,” parent Erica Wiedenroth said. “Our strong support network of parents and teachers helps to lay the foundation for the education that happens in the classrooms. We make sure that we are not just about fundraising. We are always creating opportunities to bring families together to meet the kids that our kids are interacting with. We have the strong support of the administration and the teachers at the school and we would not be able to do what we do without it. The teachers are conduits. They are helpful and supportive and they attend everything we do. It’s huge to have the teachers’ support.”
Wagner agreed that a strong parent group is important to a school’s success and asked the parents present to be thinking about the upcoming middle school years and how they can build that same network at the middle school level, connecting the two schools.
“It’s sometimes hard to maintain that level of involvement at the middle school level,” he said.
Parent Melissa Lord agreed and noted that as a parent of children spanning several school levels, she has seen the connection between the secondary schools and the elementary school as older siblings come back to the school to help out and are excited to do so.
“The pride that the kids have here is the biggest thing for me,” she said.
As the staff members were asked to weigh in, fourth-grade teacher Monica Finelli shared that after teaching at the school for 16 years and being the daughter of a 28-year teaching veteran, she has always seen the strong community that has existed there, but has noticed most recently the positive impact that the Blended and Personalized Learning initiatives have had on student engagement and collaboration.
Joseph Rotz, the district’s executive director of programs and services, noted that Garden City School has become a model for other schools in the district that are implementing the same initiatives since its collaboration with the Highlander Institute three years ago.
Wagner and Snider’s visit concluded with a comprehensive tour of the building, visiting classrooms at every level and spending time engaging with both teachers and students.
Both praised Byerlee and his staff at the conclusion of the tour.
“You have the ‘secret sauce’ here,” Wagner said. “You have culture, collaboration, and a cohesive learning community. It’s often hard to engage and challenge kids while at the same time tying it to larger units of adult accountability. You have all of the pieces in place all stitched together.”