PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner used his annual State of Education speech Monday to urge his colleagues to embrace student passion as they seek to improve educational outcomes throughout the state.
Speaking before more than 200 educators, students and elected officials at the newly-renovated Potter Burns Elementary School in Pawtucket, Wagner highlighted innovative programs in schools in every corner of the state while also acknowledging the achievement gaps most districts still face.
"When we spark a student's passion, when we provide a strong foundation and a safe, 21st century learning environment, when we support them with a positive school culture, challenge them with rigorous learning opportunities, and offer them personalized career pathways, our students will take the lead, Wagner said.
Wagner's third State of Education speech focused heavily on existing opportunities in schools rather than introducing new policy proposals. He said achievement gaps can be closed by focusing on literacy at early ages, providing challenging and engaging curriculum, investing in social and emotional learning and creating career pathways that are aligned to the interests of students and the needs of Rhode Island.
He singled out the wide proficiency disparities between white and Hispanic students as an area that needs improvement. Roughly 49% of white students in grades three through eight scored proficiency on the English Language Arts section of the state's standardized test in 2017, compared to just 22% of Hispanic students. In math, 40% of white students scored at grade level, while just 16% of Hispanic students were proficient.
"When we quiet down the noise and stop to listen, we hear Rhode Island students and their teachers provide so many answers to the urgent questions we face in education," Wagner said.
While test scores are something state leaders constantly monitor, Wagner said also it's important to focus on "leading indicators" like student and teacher attendance, quality curriculum, advanced coursework and career-based learning to understand how schools are functioning. He said Rhode Island is one of only a handful states to include suspension rates as well as student and teacher attendance as part of its accountability plan under the federal Every Students Succeeds Act.
The commissioner also repeated his call for the state to invest in school repairs, delivering his speech in a 99-year-old building that saw a complete overhaul in recent years. Potter Burns is now widely considered one of the most beautiful elementary schools in the state. Gov. Gina Raimondo is urging state lawmakers to approve a ballot question that would ask voters to support borrowing $250 million for school repairs this November.
"With the help of Rhode Island voters, we are on the verge of a once-in-a-generation investment in school facilities, so that students in every community have access to 21st century learning environments that are safe, secure, and inspire the best in our children and their teachers," Wagner said.
Wagner also took several questions from students, including a precocious kindergartener who implored him to give more time for recess. (He said he supports more play time for kids.) When a teenager from Central Falls High School asked how students can have their say when it comes to school decisions, Wagner agreed young people "need to be at the table."
"You are the expert in your life," Wagner said. "Never forget that."