School Committee candidates discuss major issues in the district, including Common Core standards

School Committee candidates discuss major issues in the district, including Common Core standards

SMITHFIELD - With nine School Committee candidates running for three at-large seats, Smithfield voters have a lot to consider when they go to the polls on Nov. 4.

Out of the nine, there are three Democrats, three Republicans, and three independent candidates in the race, who all have different ideas of what major issues the school district faces right now, including upgrading infrastructure, advancing the STEM program, providing students with the latest technology, and dealing with the controversial implementation of the Common Core standards.

On the Democratic ticket are incumbent Virginia Harnois, 75, of 8 Kane Road; Sheila O'Connor-Santos, 46, of 11 Sophia Lane; and Ronald Riley Jr., 48, of 156 Ridge Road.

Republicans running include Brent Barrows, 21, of 85 Williams Road; Rose Marie Cipriano, 67, of 38 Brayton Road; and Elizabeth Senik-Alsawaf, 50, of 492 Putnam Pike.

The three independent candidates are Jennifer Blanchette, 42, of 2306 Pinewood Drive; Daniel Snowman, 44, of 17 Cherry Blossom Lane; and Rema Tomka, 42, of 11 Domin Ave.

In a letter sent to all the candidates from The Valley Breeze & Observer, we asked each candidate to respond to two questions.

Below are the questions and the candidates' responses.

1. What do you see as the single biggest challenge facing the school district?

Brent Barrows: "Maintaining the highest quality of education in Smithfield is our challenge - and it is the responsibility of the School Committee to decide how to provide the best education for students within our authority. Now, there are several issues that must be addressed in order to make this happen. First, our schools are in need of upgrades. We must invest in infrastructure so that children have the resources they need to learn. Additions and renovations are a must, such as the science wing addition to the high school in 2004. Second, offering advanced courses in science, technology, engineering and math are essential not only to adequately prepare students for college, but to prepare them for the competitive workforce. Finally, the safety of students and the security in schools should be our top priority at all times."

Jennifer Blanchette: "The biggest challenge facing the school district is the push of the Corporate Education Reform Movement. Education reform imposes common mediocre standards on school districts. It demands unprecedented hours of computer-adaptive standardized testing for students. It prescribes teaching methods in the form of accountability, dictates professional development, and connects student test scores to teacher evaluations, leaving teachers little autonomy. It takes the control and decision making on education choices for our schools out of our hands and puts us in the seat of complying. The school district must work hard to keep the integrity and quality of our schools, and evaluate if submitting to state mandates is in line with our goals."

Rose Marie Cipriano: "The single biggest challenge facing the school district is two-fold: addressing the aged elementary school building needs and advancing the STEM program at the secondary level. The four public elementary schools have substantial repair and structural replacement needs now and over the next five years. Continual code upgrades, health, safety and optimum learning environments must be addressed. Equity for every town elementary student means looking at other options to four elementary buildings. We need to reduce the cost of excessive annual building renovation/repair needs to focus on enhancing student learning.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives need accelerated integrating through more advanced level courses at the middle and high schools. Future job and career skills are rooted in STEM options. These impact professional development, curriculum revisions and equipment purchases which are budget responsibilities."

Virginia Harnois: "One of the many challenges that confront our school district is technology. If you own a computer, you are aware that keeping up to date with the latest innovations is expensive and timely. The Smithfield schools have kept up with the changing technology to the best of their ability. However, new equipment and software to help students learn appears on the market daily. The district would like to place a personal device, "One on One Initiative," in the hands of every 3rd- through 12th- grade students similar to the State of Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Our students will be required to use a computer virtually in any profession they enter. It would not be in the best interest of students if they were denied the adequate tools to prepare them for their futures."

Elizabeth Senik-Alsawaf: "The biggest challenge is always to have the best possible teachers and keeping them. There should be no cutbacks whatever school or grade it is. If a teacher leaves and is not replaced, that class may be jeopardy of ending and students will be added to another class, which ends up with too many kids in a class."

Daniel Snowman: "Without question, the major issue facing our schools is the forced implementation of the Common Core. To support the Common Core is to support educational malpractice. My focus remains: Exposing and rejecting the Common Core Standards; returning us to sanity with a massive reduction in the use and misuse of standardized testing; protecting the privacy of our children; and eliminating Standards-Based Grading in our schools."

Rema Tomka: "The biggest challenge facing schools is the corporate takeover of public education. The current education reforms remove local control of the curriculum taught in our schools and parental ability to guide their children's education. Educational reform also comes with numerous spending mandates for technology, testing, curriculum, and professional development which may not be sustainable longterm, and which have not been shown to be beneficial to education."

2. Several candidates who are running are openly in opposition of the Common Core standards program. What is your stance on this issue?

Brent Barrows: "While many candidates are openly in opposition of the Common Core, it is important to know that the School Committee has no control over standards adopted at the state level. The School Committee candidates running on this issue alone are running for the wrong office. In order to 'kill the core,' they should be running for the state legislature. As a School Committee, we should always have the highest standards for our students so that they will have the best chance at success in college and the workforce."

Jennifer Blanchette: "I am opposed to the Common Core state standards, and also the Race To The Top initiative, which is the program that imposes the standards. Race to the Top imposed, among other things, common standards, common assessments (standardized testing), data collection, and calls for a mandate that we do not allow for a cap on charter schools in our state. The Common Core standards were developed without actual teachers or educators, and did not include any early childhood education experts for development of standards for elementary grades. Countless experts in the field of mathematics and English language arts have found the standards to be lacking, and even dangerously weak, predicting American students will experience a serious setback in their education if we continue to utilize these standards. Our schools here in Smithfield have an excellent reputation built from years of providing a superior education. I support finding alternatives to the Common Core program so that we can continue to provide this to our students."

Rose Marie Cipriano: "Common Core is dictated by the state. The School Committee has no authority to change it. Non-compliance with state regulations could result in loss of state aid. I support higher standards for our Smithfield students through curriculum and instruction that provides more than base level expectations set forth in Common Core national standards. We need to hire and provide relevant ongoing training for our faculty and staff. Successful Smithfield state testing will thereby show performance well beyond base level expectations for college and career preparation."

Virginia Harnois: "I support the Common Core standards. It must be understood that the state of Rhode Island Department of Education has mandated that all school districts in the state will adopt the Common Core standards. To disregard or eliminate them would be in violation of state law. Standards have always existed in the educational world. They have had various titles, standards, objectives or expectations. Up to the adoption of the Common Core standards, the state had the GS/LE (Grade Span/ Level Expectations) that Smithfield implemented. These standards have been replaced by CCS. Contrary to popular comments, CCS is not the curriculum. The development of the curriculum to reach these standards (objectives or expectations) was developed fully by the Smithfield teachers."

Elizabeth Senik-Alsawaf: "I approve the Common Core because I believe it is a standard that was adopted because some states were doing poorly on test scores and some states were doing very well. So a standard was put into place to ensure all states meet a certain criteria that is adaptive and creates a challenging environment that meets the needs of students in an emerging global community while preparing them for the workplace. It is my understanding that an average student will do well with Common Core, (mainstream students), and for the student that requires additional attention, Smithfield has an excellent Individual Education Program, known as IEP. The students who rank high will begin to see more AP classes in the next few years. There is also a waiver process that allows a student to opt out and still graduate."

Daniel Snowman: "What do we want from our schools? Do we really want to create maladjusted kids that are great test-taking robots? Do we really believe a standardized test can encapsulate the potential of a child? We have so much to be proud of in Smithfield, yet a basic assumption of the Common Core is that our schools are in utter disarray. I refuse to buy into this notion. Smithfield is blessed with excellent teachers, amongst the best in the state and country. No longer should our teachers or children have to deal with the constantly shifting sands of educational reform. It is time for teachers to be treated as professionals with the freedom to inspire our children with a lifelong love of learning. Let's get out of their way and let them do the unthinkable ... teach."

Rema Tomka: "I am against the Common Core state standards based on the fact that they were not developed by educators, and both experts in higher education and child development experts agree that they are developmentally inappropriate and will result in a substandard education for our children. I believe that there is much more to education than being declared "college and career ready" and that education should encourage students to explore and develop their individual strengths and interests through exposure to a wide variety of experiences and literature."

The Observer did not receive responses from O'Connor-Santos or Riley.