Following recent disappointing standardized test scores and a new statewide ranking of the Johnston School District, Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr. said he recognizes there are multiple challenges ahead but believes that they can be overcome.
In December, the Rhode Island Department of Education released a new statewide ranking mechanism for tracking accountability within the state’s schools. The rankings encompassed different metrics that boiled down into overall ratings between one (the lowest performing) and five (the highest performing) stars.
“In the district, we were all over the board. We had our middle school with one star, we had the high school, Winsor Hill and Thornton with two stars, we had Barnes with three and we had Brown Avenue with four,” DiLullo said. “The issue overall seems to be specific groups of kids – kids with special needs, kids with English language learner services.”
DiLullo recently provided a wide-ranging, mid-year analysis of the town’s educational system, its leadership team and programs, along with the impacts such changes had on the town’s students. He said that the district had a number of populations that needed to be targeted in terms of achievement and growth.
“The good news is these results got everyone’s attention, and by getting everybody’s attention, everyone kind of sprung into action,” he said. “We have all of our principals thinking about ways to address the students’ needs.”
The administration is currently examining the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) standardized test results, which recently showed that Johnston students in grades three through eight have fallen behind their Massachusetts counterparts in English language arts (ELA) and math. The district is looking into where the district fell and why, and investigating common areas that need improvement.
DiLullo wants to ensure that all schools are focusing on RICAS goals so that students not only learn the material but also learn the language of RICAS and understand the test questions. He believes there a misunderstanding of the questions exists on the part of students, as teachers may not be using the same language as RICAS.
“For example, one of the topics that came up in the discussion with the middle school is the concept of ‘main idea’ as opposed to ‘central idea.’ So if the teachers are using ‘main idea’ in their classrooms and the test asks for the ‘central idea,’ kids may not know that as being the same terminology,” he said.
Recent faculty meetings have focused on the outcomes of the testing and the overall problems that face the district, such as student attendance. Some of the district’s schools, such as Ferri Middle School, have had issues with student absentee rates. He’s hopeful that the community will assist in getting children to school.
“That’s an area where we need parental support, where kids are able to come to school when they’re able to come to school. So if they’re not truly sick and they just don’t feel like coming, they should really be here. The middle school really had challenges in that area,” DiLullo said.
While Ferri has experienced attendance issues, the town’s high school has shown marked improvements in that area. DiLullo said Principal Dennis Morrell, his administrative team and the teachers have done a “great job getting the kids to focus on learning.”
“A lot of the extraneous behavioral issues, a lot of the attendance issues are taken head on and minimized so that everybody is able to focus on instruction rather than behavior management,” the superintendent said. “The expectation bar has been raised, students are expected to do well, and other programs have been put into place to support students.”
Dilullo highlighted a credit recovery program for students at the high school in which children who initially had problems in a class can now make those credits after school.
Writing throughout the district has also come into focus, and a curriculum integration specialist at the elementary level has developed units of study to address all of the ELA concerns of writing, reading and comprehension. Elementary schools are now focusing on vocabulary building, particularly between grades three through five.
Math is another area of concern. Representatives of an outside organization, Math Solutions, recently visited elementary classrooms and provided feedback on areas they believe need improvement.
DiLullo said he plans on following their suggestions, which revolved around instruction and practices. A math coach, former teacher Jean Picano, who taught at the high school and has a deep understanding of math concepts, has been hired. While she’ll be assisting the district at all grade levels, her current focus is grades kindergarten through eighth grade, as the basis of math instruction begins during those years.
“At the elementary level, we want to make sure that all of our teachers have a deep understanding of math concepts – not only the function of math but the concept and understanding of the applicability of the concept. That’s a real key,” the superintendent said.
DiLullo said schools are now mapping curriculum and ensuring practices are aligned to the state standards. In addition, the curriculum recently put into place includes a tracking system through which teachers and administrator are able to monitor progress.
Comparing the previous year’s PARCC scores to the RICAS scores, there was a substantial drop in both ELA and math. DiLullo said he had a number of concerns, and wants to be sure that the students are taking the testing seriously, particularly at the middle school level.
“The Ferri principal, Matthew Tsonos, his administrative team and the teachers really are focusing on that this year and starting with a campaign around students understanding the importance of that testing,” he said. “We need to do a better job there in terms of the test itself and understanding the test, understanding the connection between the test and the standards, and ensuring that our instructional practices in all of the areas, not only reading, writing and math but also social studies and science because there are those concepts in those classes as well.”
With recent test results below where the district wants to be, DiLullo said teachers and administrators are disappointed. He said teachers work hard each day on assignments and classroom discussions, and become disappointed when they see outcomes such as the test results and rankings.
“It really takes you back and makes you want to look at the reasons why this occurred,” he said.
DiLullo believes Rhode Island has changed testing standards frequently compared with Massachusetts, and that educators to the north have persisted with a set of standards for decades. He said that the key is a curriculum framework with a consistent set of guidelines so that instruction matches statewide goals.
Teachers and administrators are also hopeful that the implementation of technology in classrooms will lead to better results. Teachers continue to learn how to implement computers and software into instruction.
“It’s important that the teacher is still in front of that class, still providing instruction and using that computer as a support or as a tool for research, or as a tool for continued support of instruction and also to allow students who are more advanced to go ahead of where the class is,” DiLullo said. “We’re seeing that happen in many more classrooms and it’s working.”
Julie-anne Zarrella, the former principal of the Early Childhood Center and current assistant superintendent for the town’s schools, is now spearheading curriculum and instruction. DiLullo spoke of the skills she brings to the table.
“She has been a valuable resource to our principals and to our teachers,” he said. “She’s well respected within the district and truly has an understanding of what needs to be done to make sure students are progressing.”
When it comes to grading the district, however, DiLullo believes there is room for improvement.
“I have to say that we’re average at this point,” he said. “I want us to be excellent because we have talented teachers, we have talented administrators. Our students are great students we don’t have a lot of problems with our students. It’s a matter of getting that recipe correct and being able to focus on what we need to focus on to get them to achieve and improve accordingly.”