By JOHN HOWELL Looking back at his tenure as Warwick Superintendent of Schools in an interview Friday, Philip Thornton singled out school consolidation as the major challenge he faced and successfully completed and high school scheduling as a challenge
Looking back at his tenure as Warwick Superintendent of Schools in an interview Friday, Philip Thornton singled out school consolidation as the major challenge he faced and successfully completed and high school scheduling as a challenge going forward.
“There was a lot of issues to tackle,” Thornton said recalling the system he was charged with leading when hired six years ago. He called school consolidation “first and foremost.”
Consolidation of elementary schools, frequently the center of a neighborhood, was sensitive topic. The conversion of John Brown Francis School in Governor Francis Farms to the Warwick Early Childhood Learning Center was especially controversial. Then there was the consolation of secondary schools with the closure of Gorton and Aldrich Junior High Schools and Warwick Veterans High School. Vets was converted into a middle school, as was Winman. Elementary schools that had been grades K-6 became K-5. Junior High Schools, once grades 7 and 8 became Middle School with grades 6-8.
“So that wasn't an easy thing. But we worked through it, and got it done,” Thornton said without elaborating. Thornton was appointed superintendent in October 2015.
This Tuesday, at a public meeting that lasted barely twenty minutes, the Warwick School Committee unanimously appointed assistant superintendent Lynn Dambruch superintendent. As her first act as superintendent, she named director of secondary schools William McCaffrey as assistant superintendent. The appointment was unanimously approved.
Last Thursday, the Cumberland School Board approved Thornton for a three-year contract as superintendent, a role he served in prior to coming to Warwick. Thornton will assist with the transition in Warwick. He said Wednesday he expects to start in Cumberland on July 1.
Thornton, who lives in the Edgewood section of Cranston said part of his interest in the Warwick position six years ago was to be closer to home and his family. Now with two of his kids in college and the third in high school, he has moved to a smaller house and is ready to return to Cumberland.
Looking at his years in Warwick, Thornton said he built a strong administrative team and throughout his tenure, sought to make decisions that were “student centered.”
He cited the addition of AP courses as just one thing to improve student outcomes.
As an example of a student learning issue that the district addressed, Thornton said, “some students received coursework that was at the proficient level, some students got honors or AP, then some students were relegated to courses that were less than proficient, but then given the same state test, to have to pass, and that's not okay.”
To address the situation, Thornton said all students get coursework that’s at least proficient.
Chromebooks are now commonplace in classrooms as are technological enhancements including flat panel promethium boards in what Thornton calls “the whole 21st Century classroom concept.” Accompanying the hardware has been an increase in WiFi.
“All of those things we tackled,” he said.
Was the district better prepared to handle the pandemic and distance learning with the technology?
Thornton said the district had the basic building blocks, but it wasn’t easy.
“It made a lot of advantages, but it's still a work in progress,” he said. He said the department is getting more Chromebooks for kindergarten classes; touch screen Chromebooks and promethium boards for elementary schools.
By this fall, he said most classrooms would have a promethium board.
“So that's really a great turnaround from 2015,” he said.
From every indication, Thornton thinks schools will be fully back in person this fall on a regular schedule. He thought there might be some masking.
As for positive changes resulting from the pandemic, Thornton envisions the possibility of the district offering extra coursework after 2 p.m. for high school students on Zoom.
Thornton was given a three year contract at $185,000 when he came aboard that was extended for two years and then renewed for a single year last July, seemingly signaling he was being pushed out. In an unusual move, one that Thornton said he has not seen elsewhere, he was excluded from teacher contract negotiations. He was unable to report on the status of contract talks. The teacher contract expired last August.
Thornton has met regularly with Mayor Frank Picozzi and continued to do so after word of his pending selection in Cumberland was reported. Picozzi has suggested that the teacher contract, which is such a large part of the school budget, be ratified by the City Council. Such a condition would require a change in the City Charter. Thornton knows of no other Rhode Island district where the teachers’ contract is subject to council approval.
As for challenges unmet, Thornton said, “I think one big one is how we run the high school schedule.”
He said most Rhode Island districts have converted to a block system of classes, whereas Warwick has a seven period rotation of 48-minute classes. The block system enables students to pursue the classes they want.
“You can really explore topics, maybe do a lecture for 10 minutes, have primary source documents, have a short video clip, have kids problem solve,” he said.
“Most districts did that. Unfortunately, in Warwick, it's in the teacher's contract,” he said
After an extensive study with recommendations for the change, Thornton said unfortunately the School Committee didn’t take it up.