School changes in 2013

School changes in 2013

An enthusiastic Cumberland High graduate dances across the stage of the Providence Performing Arts Center to receive his diploma from Principal Alan Tenreiro as Supt. of Schools Philip Thornton looks on. The change wasn't without controversy but students generally gave a thumbs up to the graduation change in venue their new principal insisted upon. (Valley Breeze photo by Bruce McCabe)

CUMBERLAND - Considering all the changes in the past 12 months, a top-10 list for Cumberland schools seems in order this year.

In truth, changes began in 2011 when the school board secured Supt. Philip Thornton, followed up by assistant Bob Mitchell, and then the high school's new leader, Alan Tenreiro.

When last January rolled around, and a new budget plan was in the making, it seemed the groundwork had been laid.

Students lagging in math skills were sent to mandated after-school tutoring with the expectation of increased skills and higher test scores.

Comments about the coming Common Core State Standard curriculum seemed to pepper every conversation, and a feisty school board tackled issues that had defeated others before them: Shortening the winter vacation schedule, changing the morning start time at the high school, finding new leadership for the high school pool and the after-school programming, challenging town leaders to commit more dollars to schools, supporting mandated - not voluntary - afterschool math tutoring, and continuing discussion on standards-based grading.

In committee meetings, members meanwhile slogged through dozens of outdated policies, revising some and simply discarding others, while a steady parade of department chairpersons sat down to answer detailed questions about curriculum, textbooks and future goals.

* Administrative changes saw Beth Coughlin step up to principal of North Cumberland Middle School to replace Richard Drolet, who took a job in Massachusetts. She had been an assistant principal at McCourt Middle School.

At the high school, two physical education instructors were promoted into the roles of deans of students and culture at the high school: Scott Carpenter and Christopher Skurka.

They report to two more new leaders at the high school, Adolfo Costa and Jessie Ann Butash, the new assistants to Principal Tenreiro.

While Costa and Butash focus on teaching and learning roles, Carpenter and Skurka took on a series of roles including discipline.

* Budget talks took on a different and unexpected tone when the Town Council gave unanimous support to fulfilling nearly the entire funding request, approving a $1.4 million increase on top of the last year's $1 million boost.

The move provided the cash for a series of programming upgrades, including extended virtual classroom programs at each middle school, a full-time band teacher at the high school for the first time in years, a math interventionist for the two middle schools, added physical education time at the elementary schools to bring them up to state requirements, and the new high school principals.

* The high school start time proposal consumed hours of research and debate by a school board committee chaired by Craig Duffy. The idea was to change the start time for the high school later to align the first bell with normal teenage sleep patterns.

But in the end, school board members couldn't justify the extra $450,000 it would take to add eight buses needed to make the scheduling work.

Every school system they reviewed that has given the teens a later start time has documented improved test results, they noted.

Look for the issue to come up again during budget time because members dropped the idea only with great reluctance.

* So how many new principals would be willing to dismantle a beloved hometown tradition in his first year on the job?

That's just what Tenreiro did last spring when he announced plans to move the graduation ceremony from Tucker Field to the Providence Performing Arts Center.

The protest was vigorous for a while, but he stood his ground and in the end, many said, achieved a more dignified conclusion to students' 13 years in Cumberland schools.

* Teachers and administrators came to a contract agreement well before the start of the year, departing from what's often been 11th-hour negotiations just as students were ready to return to classes.

The three-year contract included wage freezes in years one and two, rolls back some of their benefits, and described a new process for filling openings that weighs more than a teacher's seniority.

Under the new plan, stipends for master's and doctoral degrees were cut in half and two were eliminated - the so-called "plus-30" or bachelor's plus-30 hours of coursework, and master's plus-30 hours.

* Taking action to lessen the impact of the February vacation that seems to come so close to the Christmas break, committee members took away three of the five days this year and hope that in 2015 students will get a single week off in March rather than both the February and April breaks. The calendar is on hold awaiting word from the state about when new assessments will be scheduled.

Problems related to Cumberland being out of step with other districts will be lessened, Thornton suggested, if others make good on their talk of doing the same.

* The district seemed to have solved its CHS pool problem by leasing the facility to a company that operates several area pools along with swim clubs. Muir Aquatics of Warwick took over management of the Cumberland High School pool in July, relieving the School Department of much of the expense, and presumably, all of the headaches associated with the 39-year-old facility.

Marshall Muir, the 33-year-old operator, is a native Australian who launched a new competitive swimming club, community swim lessons, open swim times for the public, adult classes, and recreational activities.

Cumberland High's own Clipper swim team was assured of its home pool from 2 to 4:30 p.m. daily in addition to meets.

Under the terms of a contract, Muir's rent is $28,800 the first year, $31,200 the second year and $33,600 in the third year.

* As the year was ending, the school board was poised to ease up on the Standards based grading system for high school report cards by allowing traditional grading combined with a breakdown of proficiency within each content area.

Chairwoman Lisa Beaulieu said the controversy was creating too much of a distraction at a time when the system is adopting the challenging curriculum of the Common Core State Standards.

Look for the Policy subcommittee to rewrite the policy that mandates it while work proceeds on a new style of report card that will keep the traditional A,B,C grading method along with details that pinpoint a students' strengths and weaknesses.

* The high school was on its way to a formal Re-accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges following a preliminary letter that highlighted some areas for improvement without the harsh criticism the school experienced 10 years ago from this group.

* new Security doors were being installed across the district in places where large glass panels leave the class vulnerable to an intruder.

Town Council approved a $600,000, five-year loan to the school department that will be repaid in part using the housing aid reimbursement based on the work.

In Cumberland, doors in need of replacing - some 286 to begin with - were identified during a walk through every school, said Thornton.

Every school has some issues, he said, but many are in the Ashton and Community elementary schools where older construction saw the routine use of doors with large square windows on top.

Replacement doors will be metal with a narrow strip of glass running vertically only about 3 inches wide. And every lock that can't be activated by teachers from within the classroom will be changed out.

During phase 2 of the project, some schools, such as McCourt Middle, will see vestibules reworked to provide more secure entrances.

Additionally, exterior school doors are getting a new keyless system that allows access to designated teachers and staff. The system also records who's coming in and going out.

Moreover, cameras have been installed in all the schools and are monitored in the front office.