“Attached is a copy of the remarks I made to the Middletown School Committee of January 23, 2020, which were referenced in the letter you published today that was written by Retired Marine Corps Capt. Gregory Huet,” Barbara A. VonVillas, Middletown Town Councilor, wrote to What’s Up Newp this morning.

“It seems even more relevant today with the news reports of anticipated  ‘thousands …[of jobs]…over the next decade” at Electric Boat”, VonVillas wrote.

Presentation to Middetown School Committee by Barbara A. VonVillas on January 23, 2020

“Good evening.    Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.

I am not here as a Town Councilor but rather as an advisor to CESU to share with you a relevant topic of discussion regarding the future education of the children of Middletown and Newport.

I have sat in your seats – as a parent of Middletown students, as a teacher of Middletown students, as an administrator in 3 states, and as a Middletown School Committee member so, more than most, I understand the heavy burden you bear.

When voters elect public servants to office, they expect us to separate our personal feelings and interests from the equation and manage the governing responsibility like a business. So S.C. members are charged with providing physical structures and educational umbrellas that are intended – theoretically – to provide the best education   possible for students. We believe that you are committed to doing that.      

Unfortunately, moving from the role of parent and teacher to overseer sometimes changes the equation         so that, in the commitment to provide what we regard as the best we can offer, we lose sight of the future needs of the students in our care.

We are not here to talk about the facilities, which you are doing your best to maintain while their natural aging requires increasingly more resources.

We are not here to talk about the abysmal test scores that should not be laid at the door of teachers but, in many ways, are the result of inconsistent state standards and mandates. Teachers will do what the administration expects them to do, and administrators will comply with state requirements.

But you are the watchdogs of the organization, and you must go beyond educational structures and requirements to address the needs of your students – ALL your students – in order to prepare them – ALL of them – for an uncertain future.

Most of you know that I have personally been an advocate for school district unification since 2009.     Having spent 6 years in MA immediately after Ed Reform, including 2 years as a Curriculum Director in one regional district and 4 years as the Deputy Superintendent of the largest regional school district in MA, I know what effective state standards look like and what a good high school provides for its students.

I also know that the number of programs a high school can provide is largely dependent on its enrollment.    The money will only go so far and, when push comes to shove, you set priorities. Having been a teacher at Middletown High School for 18 years in the 70’s and 80’s – when the enrollment was twice what it is now – I know what a good high school can provide for its students – ALL of its students – something that I do not believe is happening now.

CESU commends you for providing high quality programs for your college bound students.    We expect that their test scores are also commendable.  However, not all your students will go to college. Some do not have the resources;   some have not yet developed the maturity to know what they want to do; some are more suited to a hands-on approach.

The point is that their lack of interest in going to college doesn’t make them any less worthy of good preparation for self-sufficient lives. You have an obligation to provide an education for ALL the students so that they can be productive citizens and ensure that this town maintains the same quality of life of those who came before them, and you can’t do it without making a leap into the future, because more money alone – and you are limited in those prospects – will not solve the problem of inadequate preparation of ALL your students.

The future of local employment is uncertain.  However, considering the absence of affordable housing, it is unlikely that high-paying jobs will be abundantly available on Aquidneck Island for the college-bound students you are providing with the most options.    

What will always be available are the jobs that provide the foundation structure for any community – and what is most needed now in Middletown AND in Newport –    are the hands-on workers who build your houses, repair your plumbing, fix your car, maintain your roads, prepare your meal at a local restaurant, and provide all the services that make your lives easier and better.      These are the students who are not getting the attention they need – and the inadequacy of their education – not money – is the cause of this failure.

As a professional educator who relies on logic and data, let me provide evidence to support the need for you to consider a new pathway.

A recent press release said that the Quonset Development Corporation in North Kingstown – close enough for a commute – says that the companies there have 250 open jobs. At least half of the current listed postings require only a high school diploma or its equivalency.

 Locally, one of this area’s daily online newsletters recently advertised, and I quote, “Now Hiring: 90 plus local job opportunities that are available right now.”     A review of the employment opportunities listed included 47 jobs – more than 50% – that do not require a college education. What they do require is a high school diploma or equivalency, a good work ethic, and some experience with hands-on work.

However, future employees are not granted the opportunities for work-related experiences in school that would enable them to fill these positions or, if they are lucky enough to get hired, to actually be successful. They need what you can’t provide – within the current system. You could do it before. You can do it again if you will open your minds to the possibilities.

We ask you to look at the numbers. Middletown provides 3 sequential programs – primarily aimed at the college bound.   Newport provides 10 programs, primarily aimed at the hands-on worker. Combined, they could provide 13 different programs that would serve the needs of ALL types of students in BOTH of the schools. 

Compare that to other schools. Portsmouth High School has a larger enrollment, but it only provides 4 programs – again aimed at the college bound while Chariho Regional High School, with a larger enrollment, offers 13 programs that service students of ALL interests.

Compare this data to academically successful MA schools with even larger and more varied enrollments. They provide between 10 and 13 programs for students of ALL interests.

So what does this tell us?  That 10-13 is the desirable number of sequential programs for a good high school to offer to ALL students, and sufficient enrollment makes those schools able to do so.

This is just a brief picture of one benefit of unification for students. There are many others, but this one is my passion because it could have a major impact on maintaining the quality of life of this community.

If the balance for you – in your roles as School Committee members –  is on the side of the education of ALL your students, we ask you to consider the possibilities”. 

Barbara A. VonVillas
Middletown Town Councilor

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