R.I. schools chief stresses commitment to career education (Providence Journal)

By Donita Naylor 
Journal Staff Writer

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — State Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner said Monday that public education is about so much more than test scores and grade point averages.

It’s about finding your passion, whether it’s in English or engineering, welding or 3-D manufacturing.

In his annual State of Education speech, Wagner extolled the state’s commitment to career and tech education, which has come a long way from the vocational education of the 1970s and ’80s.

“If you have the passion, we have the pathway,” he told about 200 people, including students, teachers, dignitaries and parents, on Monday evening at Potter Burns Elementary School. “But let me also be clear to our educators. If we only create pathways without challenging and preparing students for the real world they are about to enter, we will have wasted our time and theirs. Rigor, challenge and preparedness are the fuel that must power these pathways.”

Rhode Island schools now offer 155 career programs, he said.

Wagner also pledged his support for Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal to spend $500 million on school renovations.

“Rhode Island hasn’t made a significant statewide investment in school facilities in more than two decades,” he said at Potter Burns, which has been upgraded with a clean-air system, carbon-monoxide detectors in every room, LED lighting, Wi-Fi, high-efficiency toilets and a computer for every student.

Wagner was introduced by fifth-grader Selena Abi Saleh, who said she learned to speak English when she started attending Potter Burns. Now she’s learning Mandarin Chinese and computer coding, which she said could be considered her fourth language.

In his address, Wagner challenged the state to invest in Latino students, saying Latino families are the fastest-growing population in Rhode Island, but the state has the widest achievement gap between white and Latino students in the country.

“We will never have a workforce that looks like the communities they serve until we first encourage more young people, including students of color, to become teachers,” Wagner said. “Education is the civil rights work of our time.”

The Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island College, the Learning Community charter school, Roger Williams University and the Providence schools are developing English as a Second Language certifications to bolster the number of ESL teachers.

Wagner also encouraged more attention on school culture. “Especially at this moment, we need to make sure that no child falls through the cracks, with potentially tragic consequences.”

Students who had submitted questions before Monday were given microphones to ask them. First up was Teddy Ruedakurto, age 5½, from Peace Dale Elementary in South Kingstown. “Kindergarten is so awesome,” he said. “I’m having trouble sitting still during class because we need more minutes of recess.” Getting sent to a chair for not sitting still isn’t helping his education or his physical development, he said.

Wagner said Teddy had used the word “recess” but Wagner would use the words “play” and “movement.” Both are essential to learning, he said. He is introducing a kindergarten program from Boston that relies on both to build children’s interest in learning.

Nancy Rodriguez, a ninth grader at Central Falls High School, asked how the state is helping Central Falls students reach their full potential and why students from some schools are treated different from others in Rhode Island. “If we focus on opportunities, then our students will be just fine,” Wagner said. Referring to a proposal to follow business models for building leaders, he said the state needs to develop teachers as leaders, administrators as leaders, and students and families as leaders.

The last question came from Juliette Marino, a third grader at West Kingston Elementary in South Kingstown. “How can we learn more about science in elementary school?” she asked. “Will you add time to teaching science?”

Wagner said scientists are like detectives. They always want to learn more. “You can be learning science and language at the same time,” he said, adding that teachers need more “time to design those integrated, deep lessons.” Children are too often taught in ways that separate the parts of life into subjects, but showing that math and language are in science, art, music and social studies will help them connect with learning.