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Smart Cities: Providence, RI

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On a 1999 whirlwind tour of all that appeared to be heading in a positive direction, I visited Providence, Rhode Island. Fresh off a turnaround (and push out) in San Antonio, superintendent Diana Lam had a promising turnaround plan focused on principal leadership. "[Lam] told us early on that we were going to be her focus, that she was going to give us a great deal of professional development that was going to enable us to be facilitators in our buildings for instructional change," a principal in Providence said. "She didn't expect us to do it alone and she was going to support us all the way."

Three years later, the New York Times said, "In Providence, with its notoriously distressed schools, elementary school test scores have risen substantially during her three years as superintendent, with 22 of the 23 elementary schools showing improvement in reading, and 19 in math. Yet the teachers' union gave her a resounding vote of no confidence last fall." Lam left for NYC in 2002 as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning.

A decade later Providence Schools continues efforts to implement an "aligned instructional system," is hostility toward options, but is beginning to experiment with blended learning.

Fifteen schools belong to the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools. In 2008, the state legislature gave Rhode Island mayors the ability to authorize charter schools. The Rhode Island Mayoral Academies has four schools with 1200 kids. Director Mike Magee said, "We are building out two approved networks to over 4000 kids with more to come in new regions of the state." The three schools of the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy are among the best in the state and receive support from the Charter School Growth Fund. After a bruising battle, Achievement First will open a downtown charter. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras was one of the driving forces behind bringing AF to RI and chairs the board. They received 1,150 applications for the first 190 spots in K-1.

Central Falls, just north of Providence, has a district-charter collaborative highlighted on NBC news.

On that same whirlwind trip 14 years ago, I met John Deasy, the energetic new superintendent of Coventry Public Schools, a dozen miles southwest of Providence. These days Deasy is grappling with bigger challenges at LAUSD.

Blended Rhode Island. "We certainly are excited about the work that is growing in RI--especially because it has been very organic," said Commissioner Deborah Gist. Since holding their first statewide blended learning conference a year ago, Gist said, "Things have picked up all across the state with teachers hosting unconferences, our Twitter chat and lots of cool work occurring in a number of districts."

Shawn Rubin is the Director of Technology Integration at the Highlander Institute where he manages the Institute's blended learning and technology integration professional development programs. Rubin notes forward movement since the blended learning conference last year:

  • EdUnderground is a hands-on laboratory for early adopter teachers in which they can discover, explore, create and experiment with technology integration strategies, blended learning models, and other innovative tactics using hardware, software, and maker products. (Read more here.)
  • EdTechRI is monthly edtech meetup organized by teachers and meant as a way of getting teachers and products to come together around feedback and beta testing. They work with the over 300 edtech products that exist between NYC and Boston, most of whom struggle to find real teachers to test and engage with their products.
  • The second Blended Learning Conference in April doubled in size from the first year as "more schools in the state are looking for opportunities to connect around this work."
  • Well attended Flipped Classroom Unconferences each Tuesday night in July.
  • EdChatRI is one of the leading edu-twitter chats that pulls educators from across the country every Sunday night at 8pm. It was founded by two early-adopter principals (Don Miller & Alan Tenreiro) from two different districts in the state.
  • Providence Career and Technical Academy will use blended learning to help meld their Career and Tech courses with their academic courses.
  • With a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, Highlander Charter School serves as a blended learning lab school. Next year they will offer tours and PD.

"The real power of what we have going on in RI is that it's all grassroots and driven from the educator side of things," said Rubin. "We don't yet have a strong startup community here but our educators love to collaborate around new ideas and test and tinker in any corner of the state that they can."

"RI's size makes it a unique environment for educator collaboration as we have close to 50 districts and LEAs all within a 45 min drive of each other," said Rubin. "Because of this we have had tremendous success motivating a large number of early adopter teachers, principals and tech admins to get engaged through twitter chats, meetups and conferences."

"Rhode Island may be small, but the state is taking big strides towards expanding online learning and transforming the education system for its students," said Keeping Pace in April. "In 2012, Rhode Island laid the groundwork to open its first fully online schools through the Statewide Virtual Education Act (S2276) and the ensuing Regulations of the Board of Regents Governing Virtual Learning Education . The first statewide blended charter school has been approved to open in September 2013."

The Village Green Virtual Public Charter High School is a blended learning model for 9th and 10th graders, with the intention of expanding to include grades 11 and 12. "The school is renovating a historical building in Providence. Students will use desktop computers in two Learning Centers, meet in several conference-style classrooms and conduct projects in a Design Space.

Pleasant View School won the first Innovation Powered by Technology Model School Grant. PBN said, "The school will use the grant for extensive professional development for teachers and to purchase equipment to create three computer labs and provide 110 laptop computers for student use." The blended learning plan includes an extended day, personalized learning, and flexible scheduling. A recent Providence Monthly story featured Pleasant View and their support from Rubin and HIghlander.

On three campuses, The Met serves almost 900 students and anchors the internationalBig Picture network of 102 student-centered competency-based schools. As noted Saturday, "Radical personalization is the core innovation of the Big Picture school model--it was flex before we knew what to call it. Their approach to internships remains a best practice."

Providence edtech companies include ABCYa.com and Digication. Several startups--EdTrips, NBAMathHoops, STEM2O and Codery-- came out of Betaspring or Founder's League. The Highlander Institute is incubating Rubin's startup, Metryx. TechAccess of RI is one of the nation's leaders in Assistive Technology.

State of affairs. Under Commissioner Deborah Gist, Rhode Island has put in place many new policies and initiatives that will improve teaching and learning for years to come. Since 2009 and aided by the $75 million Race to the Top grant and the $50 million Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge grant, Rhode Island has made real progress:

Human Capital

  • Began annual evaluations of all educators, based in part on student achievement
  • Ended use of seniority as sole basis for personnel decisions
  • Raised the bar for entry into teacher-preparation programs
  • Began an induction program to help beginning teachers
  • Implemented a new certification system linked to evaluation results

Common Core

  • Developed curriculum aligned with the Common Core State Standards
  • Prepared more than 6,000 educators for transition to the Common Core
  • Acted as a Governing State in development of new assessments (PARCC)

College-career readiness

  • Expanded access to AP courses - now offered in nearly every high school
  • Revised Career and Technical Education regulations, enabling students to enroll in programs of choice statewide

Quality options

  • Developed a new system for school accountability, based largely on growth and on closing achievement gaps
  • Advanced digital learning through the Wireless Classroom Initiative and the Innovation Powered by Technology grant
  • Developed the Education Performance and Support System a data system to provide information to all educators on the achievement of their students
  • Developed the Rhode Island DataHUB to bring together education data across state agencies for reports to the public
  • Established the Office of Statewide Efficiencies, saving millions for districts on transportation, construction, and purchases
  • Designed and championed the Funding Formula for State Aid to Education, in which funding is based on district capacity and student need

Gist also chairs Chiefs for Change, the eight most innovative state superintendents and commissioners.

Brown. Founded in 1764, Brown University has been called the #1 College in America for Happiest Students. That could be because students work with an advisory to design an individualized program of study across multiple departments culminating in a concentration, "an in-depth study centering on a discipline or disciplines, a problem or a theme, or a broad question." Concentrations promote deeper learning "by encouraging conceptual and methodological study on a sophisticated level. Such in-depth study allows students to gain command of an area of knowledge sufficient to equip them to engage in meaningful creative efforts in that area."

Warren Simmons took over the Annenberg Institute for School Reform from Ted Sizer in 1998 and has sustained a focus on high engagement strategies for improving urban education outcomes.

Wrap. Providence struggles with historical urban challenges and has been slow to embrace a portfolio approach and an innovation agenda. Big Picture seems to have more influence in Australia than local schools in Providence. Despite opposition, new schools and the capacity of mayors to authorize will change the landscape of the city and state.

The blended learning collaboration between Highlander and Pleasant View could lay the groundwork for a new innovation compact. Homegrown teacher-led efforts are a promising.

Rhode Island benefits from forward leaning leadership and has grants to back it up. The test will be two years from now when grant funding is gone and Gist's contract is up for renewal.

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