Smithfield parents petition against Common Core

Smithfield parents petition against Common Core

SMITHFIELD - School's out for summer, but a fight about classroom learning and Common Core State Standards is heating up.

A group of concerned parents under the moniker "Collapse the Core" have been circulating a petition calling for the Smithfield School Department to opt out of Common Core, standards adopted by the Rhode Island Department of Education and set to be implemented throughout the state as well as 45 states nationwide.

The petition, signed by almost 200 people at earlier this week, has gotten the attention of school officials. School Committee Chairman Richard Iannitelli said Common Core will be discussed at the committee's meeting July 7.

But the discussions will not likely end there.

Three vocal Common Core opponents, all registered as independents, are among the 10 who have declared their intent to run for the three open School Committee seats in November. (See related story on page 8.)

Daniel Snowman is one. A physics professor at Rhode Island College and a classroom teacher for more than 20 years, the father of two William Winsor Elementary School students and a toddler said combating the Common Core and educating others as to its demerits "is the full reason" he is running for public office.

"Parents are enraged," he said.

Rema Tomka, who Snowman called "the driving force behind producing" the petition, is also running for a spot on the board, as is Jennifer Blanchette, who commented on the petition that she is against both Common Core and the Race to the Top initiative.

Tomka said she has chosen to homeschool her three children over sending them to Smithfield schools because of her opposition to Common Core.

Snowman, whose wife is a public school teacher, said he loves public schools and respects the School Committee, but feels teachers "are getting bullied by administrators."

Common Core starts as young as kindergarten preparing students for career and college readiness, something Snowman said he and other Collapse the Core members find "super offensive when you feel like it's the kids who the ones that are pawns in this whole thing."

The first line of the petition reads: "We, the undersigned taxpayers of the town of Smithfield, Rhode Island, believe that the purpose of education is to educate a populace of critical thinkers who are capable of shaping a just and equitable society in order to lead good and purpose-filled lives, not solely to prepare for college and career."

Tomka claimed the elementary school reading list has removed many books, like classics "Amelia Bedelia" and "Encyclopedia Brown," published before 2009, relying instead on informational texts.

"It doesn't foster that 'I want to go out and read, I want to go out and learn, this is fun'" mentality, she said.

She said Common Core also changes the way math is taught.

"It's a major overhaul," Tomka said. "Two plus two equals five is an acceptable answer if you can explain it. It's about knowing the reasoning, not knowing the answer."

School Committee Chairman Iannitelli said the upcoming talks on July 7 will make for at least the fourth discussion of Common Core in the past year, including a forum held in March that brought Rhode Island Department of Education officials together with parents and teachers.

Iannitelli said he believed teachers vouching for Common Core that night put many parents at ease, adding "you could hear pretty much a collective sigh of relief." After all, he said, good education stems from quality teachers, engaged parents and kids interested in learning.

Common Core does not change the curriculum, he said. Instead, classics by Mark Twain and William Shakespeare will be supplemented by non-fiction reading, like technical journals and contracts, he said.

Iannitelli pointed to two consecutive years of Smithfield having two "commended" and two "leading" schools by RIDE standards as evidence the town is "headed in the right direction."

Still, Snowman said, Smithfield is "a hotbed of activity in the push back."

With 282 members, Smithfield has the largest Facebook presence of the Rhode Island Collapse the Core groups.

The second largest is in Cumberland, where the resident Collapse the Core spokeswoman Kerry Feather said she and Donna Connell have seen the Facebook page grow to 123 members since they launched it last year.

She says while parents from every Cumberland school, including Blackstone Valley Prep, are represented, the total doesn't reflect many more who contact her privately but won't join for fear of retribution. Many of those are teachers, she says.

"It's terrifying to me that our children are the test cases for something that hasn't been tried before," she says. "If it were me, I'd just try it in a district or two, but instead they're gong whole-hog with this."

Feather, an instructional designer at Brown University who used to do career counseling with students, has two children at Cumberland Hill Elementary and a third heading into preschool.

She says her complaints about the Common Core curriculum are many, starting with bulky math problem-solving techniques that place more emphasis on the process than actually achieving the right number.

She and Common Core opponents are unhappy, she says, to see geology and social studies dropped from elementary school classes and so little time allotted to fiction reading.

Her group's first goal was spreading the word, but they've moved on to round two, urging state legislators to follow the leadership of some other states, including Oklahoma, Indiana and South Carolina, and simply opt out of Common Core.

Her own tangle with Common Core came over 4th-grade math problems. That led to research and contact with Snowman.

"When you start to research it, you start to see the real issues on a whole new level," she says.

She points to its detractors, including the highly regarded Sandra Stotsky, who's credited with the Massachusetts curriculum that propelled Bay State schools to the nation's top-ranked.

Considering that textbooks and upcoming state tests were developed specifically to support the curriculum, she agrees the mission "is daunting."

"There are times I go to School Committee meeting and come home and I'm exhausted."

She concedes, "It's scary to be up against something so big."

Meanwhile at home, she and her husband are trying to make up for what they see as a loss of social studies lessons by posting a map and challenging her son to find states and capitals on a map. "We're trying to play games to give him what he's not getting in school," she says.

Valley Breeze Editor Marcia Green contributed to this report.