By ARDEN BASTIA Just about a month into new leadership, Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh, new Superintendent Lynn Dambruch, and new Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey reflect on the challenges facing the district, their goals, and
Just about a month into new leadership, Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh, new Superintendent Lynn Dambruch, and new Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey reflect on the challenges facing the district, their goals, and future plans.
The School Committee, in a unanimous vote, selected Dambruch and McCaffrey to lead the district after former Superintendent Philip Thornton accepted the position of Cumberland Public Schools Superintendent, and left earlier this month.
Only a few weeks on the job, Dambruch and McCaffrey are looking forward to tackling the problems of the district and bringing pride back to Warwick schools.
In an interview last Friday, Netcoh shared that she doesn’t “see any challenges because there’s a new administration, because they’ve been part of the district, so they know what the challenges are and they’re already prepared to tackle them.”
Both McCaffrey and Dambruch have put in a number of years in the district.
Dambruch, formally the director of elementary education and assistant superintendent, has worked in the district for 36 years. She was a classroom teacher before becoming principal at Robertson Elementary School, a position she held for 18 years. Dambruch was also a building representative for the Warwick Teacher’s Union.
McCaffrey has worked in the district for 25 years. He was a student teacher at Warwick Veterans High School, a classroom teacher at Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools, and the director of the Warwick Area Career and Tech Center. McCaffrey also spent time as assistant principal at Gorton Junior High School. He will retain his current position of director of secondary education while in his new role as assistant superintendent.
“They have a perspective from the classroom to district leadership, which can only benefit the district,” said Netcoh.
Netcoh has “already seen that it’s easier for teachers to collaborate and speak to [Dambruch and McCaffrey]…it’s really promising that it’s off to a good start.”
Dambruch and McCaffrey also see their experience as an asset to the district.
“Moving forward, I think the school committee was interested in having leaders who grew up through the ranks in Warwick, and who can be a collaborative leader,” said Dambruch. “I lead with passion. Whatever I do, I do with passion and compassion.”
One challenge for the new Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent is remedying the dip in student enrollment, and boosting the Pathways program. According to former Superintendent Philip Thornton, the school district has lost 1,200 students since 2016. One possible solution to solving the enrollment issue is to invest more in alternative programs like the Pathways programs, which hold the potential to attract students from other districts. Currently, Warwick Schools offers different pathway programs at Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools. At Pilgrim, students have the opportunity to take part in biotechnology, lifesaver, performing arts (either band and orchestra or chorus and chorale), Studio 107, and visual arts. At Toll Gate, students can choose either biomedical science or computer science pathways.
Netcoh would like to see some new programs come into the district, and would also like to see better advertising of what Warwick offers.
“Bill gave a very good presentation at the budget hearing as to why the schools could use extra money in the budget,” she said. “Our Career Center is loaded with career programs, not like North Kingston, that has a few classes in business and they get to call it a pathway, Warwick offers the exact same classes. Just because we didn’t bundle it fast enough and call it a pathway, we were shut out.”
Currently before Rhode Island legislation is a bill to restrict students from transferring to other districts to take part in Pathway programs offered in their home district.
“Lynn and Bill are well aware of this issue and are going to work towards keeping more and more students in Warwick and maybe bringing other students along,” said Netcoh.
Netcoh suggested taking a similar route as Coventry and North Kingston, using social media, television, and radio to advertise the Pathway programs offered.
She also suggested investing in programs truly unique to Warwick, like taking advantage of the 39 miles of coastline in the city and reinstating the marine biology pathway.
During the budget hearing on May 24, former school committee chairperson and former city councilor, Rob Cushman, brought up the U.S. News & World Report high school rankings. The report ranks 24,000 high schools across the country. According to the report, Pilgrim High School ranks 9,586th with an overall score of 46.32 and Toll Gate High School ranks 11,580th with an overall score of 35.15.
“You’re a taxpayer, we’re more than happy to listen,” said McCaffrey. “We’re happy to listen to any concerns that you have. You know, it’s not us. It’s not our school department. It’s the city’s school department and we’re here to serve you.”
McCaffrey sees the report as a starting point for him and Dambruch.
“This is what our data on achievement is showing, but this is our starting point,” said McCaffrey. “We want to set goals for ourselves over the next five years, in the short term and long term. The U.S. News & World Report, we’re aware of it. We’re also aware of where we stand as a result of SATs and where RIDE ranks us as well. We’re going to put all of that on the table so the school committee can see everything, they can look at the data that’s out there on our high school and middle schools. We want to show this as a starting point.”
For Netcoh, however, the high school ranking report “doesn’t show the full picture,” she said.
“Warwick is a good system that has gotten an unfair rep,” said Netcoh. “Test scores do not tell the whole story. Rankings from U.S. News & World Report are not the gospel and should never be cited or quoted.”
Netcoh pointed out that in Rhode Island, Classical High School ranked number one in the report. “Kids have to take a test to get in there. If we made one school, Pilgrim or Toll Gate, take a test to get into that school, we would have the highest scores in the state.”
Dambruch and McCaffrey are also working on implementing a new curriculum, another possible solution to the declining enrollment.
“We are required to have a green curriculum, which is a top rated curriculum,” explained Dambruch. “An independent organization called EdReports, and they rate all the different curriculums out there. We did have red curriculum, which is not a high quality, standards-aligned curriculum.”
Dambruch is hopeful that a stronger curriculum will help with student achievement from kindergarten to grade 12, as well as help administrators redefine the vision of a Warwick graduate. Dambruch and McCaffrey plan to put together a committee to look at curriculum and student achievement. Dambruch said they plan on doing interviews for the committee in August, and go from there.
“It’s not just about academics,” said Dambruch. “It’s problem solving, it’s being creative. We’re building a new district strategic plan, and everything we do is going to be focused on student achievement, which includes social emotional support and learning as well.”
“Bill and I are collaborative leaders, that’s our style,” said Dambruch. “I do believe the school committee was looking for that type of style, you know, someone who can work collaboratively with the union, and listen to teachers.”
Even thought they’re only a few weeks into their new roles, Dambruch and McCaffrey have made it a goal to keep open communication between the school department and the city.
Already, the new Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent have met with Mayor Frank Picozzi to discuss the future of the district.
“Lynn’s made it a point to keep a strong relationship with the city side,” said McCaffrey. “Although the charter breaks us out as a different governing body, we’re all one city and we need a good relationship with the city and they need a good relationship with us for us to be successful.”
McCaffrey said it’s “not uncommon” for the pair to be working until late at night, to support teachers and students.
“A lot of teachers email me directly and I have no problem with that,” said Dambruch, who is taking a page out of the previous Superintendent’s book. “Phil always give his phone number out, and that’s fine. Parents email me, and I get right back to them. I think it’s important to be communicating with parents and listen to their concerns and what they really think about what’s going on in the district.”
For Dambruch, the changes aren’t going to happen “with a big boatload of money”, but instead “doing a little bit extra” for “the school system so close to my heart.”
While a boatload of money wouldn’t hurt the district, Dambruch and McCaffrey are more focused on staying accessible and visible for faculty, families, and students.
“It’s all about taking pride back in Warwick,” said McCaffrey. “We are a great city. We have good schools, and we want to showcase that. Give us some time and we’ll get that out there. But it’s about pride. I want this system to be successful.”