By SETH MAGAZINER A year before Destiny became one of my fourth-grade students, she watched out her front window as the lifeless body of a neighbor was wheeled out of his home following a drive-by shooting. Not long after that Hurricane Katrina hit her
A year before Destiny became one of my fourth-grade students, she watched out her front window as the lifeless body of a neighbor was wheeled out of his home following a drive-by shooting. Not long after that Hurricane Katrina hit her native New Orleans, and Destiny had to move with her mother and two younger brothers to a distant town.
When Destiny started in my class, she was nearly two years below grade level in reading and had trouble focusing. But despite all she had been through, and having to care for her brothers every night while her mother worked late, Destiny bounced back. Through the course of the school year her reading level improved and she became more outgoing in class and on the playground. There were moments of frustration and setback but she emerged as a star student, proof that every child has the ability to thrive if the right systems are in place.
Over the past year, many children in Rhode Island have experienced dislocation and trauma. Thousands of kids have seen their parents laid off, have grappled with the mental health impacts of social distancing, and have lost family members to COVID. Remote learning is not nearly as effective as in-person school. Through no fault of the teachers, parents or students, a whole generation of kids is at risk of falling behind.
Rhode Island is due to receive billions of dollars in federal aid in the coming months. This represents a once in a generation opportunity to invest in Rhode Island’s future and we must be bold, innovative and forward thinking. It is vital that a transparent, thoughtful process be developed to ensure that this funding is allocated wisely. The public should be given an opportunity to submit feedback and ideas.
But no matter what, one of the highest priorities should be helping students make up for lost ground, and making our workforce economically competitive in the long run.
Most urgently, significant funding should be allocated to after-school and summer learning programs. Federal relief guidelines require Rhode Island to spend a minimum of $4 million each on afterschool and summer programs, but we should do far more. Funding should be awarded to a diverse array of providers offering a range of learning models. Because teenagers’ summer jobs are often an important source of income for lower-income families, we should offer stipends for high school students to enroll in summer courses. School can be a summer job this year.
Stimulus funds can also help to address some of the structural challenges facing our education system. The Providence Schools have had difficulty recruiting and retaining educators to fill dozens of the district’s job openings. There is a particular shortage of teachers certified to serve the one-third of Providence students who are English Language Learners. Stimulus funding should be used to attract a diverse cohort of qualified educators to apply for hard-to-fill positions, and to help existing teachers pay for the cost of obtaining new training and credentials.
As Treasurer, I co-chaired the task force that developed the statewide school construction program, which has already funded more than $1 billion in school repairs in less than three years. Despite this progress, there is much more work to do and we can use these federal funds to put a lot of carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other trades men and women to work making our schools warm, safe, dry, and equipped for 21st century learning.
With tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders still out of work, we should allocate federal stimulus funding to expanding adult education programs as well, to help displaced workers transition to new, more stable careers. Priorities should include support for apprenticeship programs where workers can gain on-the-job training, expanding CCRI’s RI Promise scholarship program to adult learners, bolstering the Real Jobs RI program, and reducing barriers to participation for all programs by supporting childcare and transportation costs for participants.
Like Destiny, all Rhode Island students have the ability and the right to make up for the disruption of the past year. But this will require state leaders to be wise in how our federal aid is spent, with education as a top priority.
Seth Magaziner is General Treasurer of Rhode Island.