IN OUR SCHOOLS - Pathway to competition (Valley Breeze)

By JACQUELYN MOOREHEAD, Valley Breeze & Observer Staff Writer

This summer, school districts across northern Rhode Island are jockeying for position as they try to get ahead of the field on developing new educational pathway programs for students.

With money at stake as children leave their home districts for other programs, many local education leaders say they’re finding school is becoming more of a business than ever.

More schools across the state are creating state-of-the-art career and technical education (CTE) programs, designed to prepare students for college or a career after high school. This year, schools applied to the Rhode Island Department of Education for 59 new CTE programs. There are now 155 RIDE-approved CTE programs in the state.

Students have the option to leave the district to pursue an education from any official RIDE-approved program across the state, even if the program is taught within their school.

Ponaganset High School is a prime example of a school running a lucrative CTE program that attracts students from across the state, and it’s one that other districts are citing as they try to build their own programs to attract and retain students.

Foster-Glocester schools Supt. Michael Barnes said 104 out-of-district students came to study in Ponaganset’s CTE programs last year.

“Some view it as competition. I see it as growth for competence,” Barnes said. He said CTE pathways are essential to preparing students for a future with great jobs.

Ponaganset has 10 CTE pathways, many including the possibility of college credit. Enrolling additional out-of-district students meant expanding regular courses as well, Barnes said, adding English, math, social studies and other teachers in the high school.

New cost formulas have a positive and negative impact on each district, he said. Some students attending PHS may pay less than what it costs to host them, he said, while others pay more.

“It is advantageous due to its predictability, and it does reduce tuition in many districts,” he said. “The real goal is that you wouldn’t pay more for a child who is leaving than a child staying.” He added that he expects fewer students to come to PHS with the addition of programs in other districts.

One school on the rise, adding new pathways every year, is Scituate High School. For a while, Scituate High was seen as on the low-performing end for CTE pathways, and RIDE Chief of Innovation and “Master of CTE” Stephen Osborn said the program additions there are a “thoughtful and deliberate, conscious process.”

Former Supt. Lawrence Filippelli said the school was experiencing a loss of 40 students each year to other districts, including 25 going to Ponaganset alone. Scituate High School Principal Michael Hassell said the school is using advertising to attract students to programs with smaller classrooms for individual attention.

Scituate High did not lose any new students to PHS last year. This year, said Hassell, the district is not losing any 9th-graders, but a significant number of 8th-graders are leaving for other districts.

“We asked ourselves, why are they leaving, let’s answer that,” Hassell said. And so, the school’s three new programs, biomedical science, computer science, and pre-engineering, were developed.

Costly losses for N. Smithfield

In North Smithfield, 60 students left the district for CTE programs elsewhere last year, and a projected 67 students will leave in 2019. According to Supt. Michael St. Jean, the district anticipates spending $731,000 next year in out-of-district education.

“What it means is that it is much, much, much more cost effective to have students remain with the local school than to pay the tuitions for them to attend another school,” St. Jean said.

St. Jean said a school’s CTE program must be approved by RIDE before being able to bill out-of-district student.

Osborn said the CTE Funding Working Group proposed a new model for funding to cap the risks for districts losing students. The goal of the model, which went into effect July 1 and will be phased in over three years, is to make the schools level and comparable, he said. The formula puts costs for sending students to other programs between $12,000 and $18,000.

North Providence maintains narrow focus

North Providence High School has created two new programs, health care pathway and marine trades, to retain students in the district. NPHS Principal Joe Goho said the programs have flourished “beyond our wildest dreams.”

Next year, NPHS expects 86 students in the programs, while 41 participated this year. Seven out-of-district students are expected to join next year, compared with one in the last year.

Goho said NPHS chose the opposite approach as schools putting out a high number of CTE programs, instead focusing on one or two programs at a time. That way, NPHS can “do it well and then move on to the next.”

“You’ll see a lot of schools advertise four to six RIDE-approved CTE programs with only four to five kids enrolled,” Goho said.

Pawtucket ahead of the game

Jacqueline Naspo, strategic officer for school improvement in Pawtucket, said the district has long been on the forefront of academy programs, including four existing ones at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts (dance, music, theater and visual arts), two at Tolman High (law and public safety and marketing and management), and one at Shea High (government and public administration), and there are numerous other pathway programs that have not been approved by RIDE, including a computer science pathway at Shea and Tolman.

This year, Pawtucket has been approved for three more programs, including video and film at JMW, pre-engineering at Shea, and finance at Tolman.

Starting next year, said Naspo, the district will begin trying to pull new students in from other districts. Supt. Patti DiCenso has always been very supportive of developing multiple pathways, she said. Having initiatives on many fronts gives local students the option to go any number of directions.

This is a pivotal time for academies in Rhode Island, said Naspo, with an ongoing effort to attract new businesses that will need trained young people to take jobs. “You have to have a workforce to do that,” she said.

Young people are applying to be in demanding programs, said Naspo, all part of a goal to make them employable after high school.

Cumberland adding programs, coordinator

Other districts, such as Cumberland, have taken notice of Scituate’s struggles to retain students heading to Ponaganset. This year, the district is adding its first four RIDE-approved pathways, and hiring a “pathways coordinator.”

Cumberland Supt. Bob Mitchell says the goal of adding programs in robotics/pre-engineering, information technology, biomedical, and law and public safety is to keep students who may be thinking about leaving for a program in another district, and to attract students who may not have access to the same program in their home district.

Better together

To combat rising costs, districts can form agreements to guarantee transferring student costs between districts. The Northwest Consortium is doing just that.

Burrillville, Lincoln, North Smithfield and Smithfield, and next year Cumberland, combined efforts to share equipment, curriculum and cost efficiencies. Tuition costs for students entering member districts will be $5,000 each. New RIDE formula and protocol allows and encourages such agreements within districts.

LHS looks to be unique

Lincoln High School, which has four CTE programs, is taking a different approach than other schools and providing pathways with “a different spin.”

“We’ve talked about it among principals, and it’s obvious (there are) some academies unique to a certain school,” LHS Principal Kevin McNamara said.

One such program is LHS’s journalism and broadcasting academy, created in 2015 as the only journalism academy in the state.

“This is the new CTE,” said Doreen Picozzi, head of the academy. “We are looking closely about how we teach journalism now, and rolling technology content into career pathways.”

Lincoln has one student attending another school district, but accepted two out-of-district students in the fall. It’s about giving students the opportunity to pursue pathways based on their interests, McNamara said.

Smithfield sees opportunity

Ken Hopkins, principal of Smithfield High School, said the school is hiring a part-time active “recruitment officer” to encourage young students to get involved in CTE pathways.

“We’d like to see an uptick in enrollment,” Hopkins said, by targeting students in middle school early.

“The market is flush with opportunities,” he said.

Plenty of programs in Woonsocket

The Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center is the home base for all of the district’s approved CTE programs, according to a data sheet from RIDE. Nine programs include automotive tech, biotechnology, child studies and human services, computer science/game design, construction tech/solar heat/electric tech, culinary arts, digital media production, graphics and printing, and health careers.

The cost breakdown in northern Rhode Island for sending students to another district:

Cumberland - $13,506

Foster - $15,507

Glocester - $15,960

Lincoln - $16,923

North Providence - $16,083

North Smithfield - $14,436

Pawtucket - $13,562

Scituate - $14,385

Smithfield - $15,706

Woonsocket - $13,820

Writers Ethan Shorey, Nicole Dotzenrod and Lauren Clem contributed to this story.

Meg Geoghegan