Blogs | Ethan Shorey

Pawtucket grad rates going up, up, up

School officials in Pawtucket are celebrating this week after the latest round of data from the state shows another leap in local graduation rates. The four-year graduation rate in 2014 is 80 percent, up from 63 percent rate in 2011.

The four-year rate at Tolman High School was 79 percent, the rate at Shea High was 88 percent, and the rate at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts was 92 percent. Shea's rate in 2011 was 68 percent, while Tolman was at just 60 percent. Shea's rate jumped five percentage points over last year, while Tolman's jumped eight points.

To compare numbers to another urban district, Woonsocket also had a rate of 63 percent in 2011 but has seen that number drop to 58 percent.

Pawtucket Supt. Patti DiCenso, who was hired as head of schools last year after working to boost graduation rates as high school performance officer since 2011, said she was happy and "really proud" of the results. This was a "community effort" by a lot of people who have remained committed to the cause, she said.

DiCenso gave much of the credit for the improvement to the writing of school plans that focus on "boots on the ground" rather than funding supervisory roles and consultants to monitor schools from central office.

"Teachers met to write the plans, picked their principals, own the results," she said by email. "It's not that simple and there are always naysayers, but naysayers keep us grounded. Helps us to stay the course as we re-examine our practice."

DiCenso said it's been especially satisfying having seen how downtrodden local teachers were when she first arrived the Rhode Island Department of education sent the district into "transformation" intervention status. Teachers were "feeling like failures," said DiCenso, and it's been great to see pride restored.

Improvements in prior years were largely attributable to school administrators "cleaning up data" and tracking students, said DiCenso. The jump this year is true evidence of how hard work on initiatives and programs is paying off with real results.

The superintendent said she was somewhat surprised at how much Shea High jumped, from 68 three years ago to 88 percent this year, but said Principal Donald Miller and his team have done a tremendous job implementing a host of initiatives like credit recovery, enrichment and ramp-up programs, all while "staying on top of their data" and tracking down students.

Tolman High School, formerly "dubbed the dropout factory of Rhode Island," is also proving to be a success story, said DiCenso. That school started at a much lower point than Shea, she said, and achieving improvements has been a "much heavier lift." Like Miller, Principal Chris Savastano has worked wonders to transform the culture at the school, she said, and a highly successful freshman academy is getting students engaged early.

The numbers at Shea put the school up there with many of the "high-powered suburban schools" in the state, said DiCenso, proving that her goal of making this district not only the best urban school district but one of the best districts in the state is attainable.

DiCenso credited the "unsung heroes" in the Pawtucket district who teach students in the Diploma PLUS and Pawtucket Alternative Learning Program.

"Principal (Linda) Gifford and her staff are true partners in the Tolman and Shea success stories," she said. "They save lives every day."

The trio of Gifford, Miller and Savastano have worked so well together at embracing the idea of including the ALP program in the schools' upward climb, said DiCenso. The program is no longer considered just "a place where kids go," said DiCenso, but one where they can be successful.

As DiCenso sees it:

• We must love all kids, even those kids who challenge us in every way.

• We must have hope that all kids can learn - failing grades reflect our practice more in some cases than their performance.

• We must believe that when we give respect we get respect. We must hold ourselves to that as well as the kids.

• We must challenge kids beyond their comfort zone. Pity is intolerable. Rigor with love is necessary to move kids without developmental barriers but environmental gaps.

• We must challenge ourselves to be better. We will be better.

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Teachers met to write the plans, picked their principals, own the results.