In Portsmouth: ‘An opportunity to hit the reset button’

Commissioner of education expresses optimism on learning to CTE students at PHS

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/8/21

PORTSMOUTH — Local high school students had questions about the state of education in Rhode Island, so they went right to the source last week.

Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode …

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In Portsmouth: ‘An opportunity to hit the reset button’

Commissioner of education expresses optimism on learning to CTE students at PHS

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Local high school students had questions about the state of education in Rhode Island, so they went right to the source last week.

Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education, was invited to connect via Zoom with students in Jenah Morrell’s Child Development 3 class at Portsmouth High School. The class is offered as part of the school’s Academy of Education, Child Development, and Human Services, a career and technical education (CTE) program that’s also open to students outside the district.

One of the program’s students, Addie Page, came up with the idea of inviting Ms. Infante-Green, saying she was interested in learning more about the evolution of teaching from someone “in the upper levels” of education.

“I think there’s a lot of evolution that hasn’t come that I’d like to see,” said Addie.

For instance, she asked the commissioner her opinion on homework: With all the after-school activities students are now engaged in these days, how much take-home work should they be given?

“That’s a very loaded question,” Ms. Infante-Green said. “I’m of two minds because I’m also a parent.”

The amount of homework a student receives should be enough for review, or to dive deeper into a topic, she said. “My fourth-grader was learning multiplication — she needs to practice — but for me, homework should be something of value that reinforces what you learn during the day.”

It should also be “fun,” Ms. Infante-Green said, noting that some homework should involve research around it. At the same time, it needs to fit into a teacher’s timeframe, she added.

‘Reset button’

Schools need to be thinking differently about education as a whole, she said, especially in light of COVID-19.

“Even though this has been a horrific year and everybody is tired, I still feel this is an opportunity for everyone to hit the reset button and do some amazing and creative things in education,” she said, adding that Rhode Island wasn’t “in a great place as a state before the pandemic, education-wise.”

While it’s still not clear what impact the pandemic has had on learning locally, not every student has suffered academically, she said. Still, studies have shows that so far, the biggest negative impacts have been felt in the elementary grades and in math, the commissioner said.

“If you’re differently abled, you were definitely impacted in a very different way. If you’re living in poverty or you’re a minority, you’re even more egregiously impacted by this pandemic,” Ms. Infante-Green said.

COVID, however, has presented educators with an opportunity to think about school differently, she said. 

“We have been doing school the same way for the past 100 years,” she said. She recalled a chat with one student who told her he had to miss math class because of a job. “When you have to make a decision, and you’re in poverty, there is no decision. You have to work. Why couldn’t that kid take the class online?”

The commissioner said she’s a big believer in students and parents having a strong voice in the educational system. Last summer, she pointed out, the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) offered a summer school for the first time — both in person and virtual. 

“The students that I met with helped us design the courses. That’s a big deal. They helped us design what they wanted to learn,” she said.

What she does

Another student in the class, Addison Vogl, was Zooming in from Florida and asked the commissioner exactly what her job entails.

One of her tasks, Ms. Infante-Green said, was reviewing and offering her opinions on pieces of legislation that impact education. She held up a copy of a controversial bill, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Morgan of West Warwick, that would restrict the way Rhode Island public schools teach the role of race in American history. Rep. Morgan’s bill targets critical race theory, which she claims argues that every facet of society must be viewed through a racial lens. Critics, however, say the measure would quash important teaching about issues such as institutional racism or sexism.

“Somebody wants to prohibit you guys from learning anything decisive,” the commissioner said. “I’m reading this and saying, ‘What the heck is this?’ I can’t let something like this move forward without my objection. We don’t have the right to limit what kids are learning.”

When asked about the most challenging part of her job, she said it’s dealing with so many different perspectives. “How do I get people interested in the work that we do? Some people are stuck on one thing and that’s all they’re interested in,” she said.

The other hard part is ensuring that RIDE has accountability for its work. “I’ve been trying to change that. I have to be held accountable, too,” the commission said.

Praise for teachers

Keegan Sullivan, a senior, told the commissioner she will be studying elementary education in college, and hopes she can positively impact future students’ lives, whether it’s through in-person or online teaching.

Ms. Infante-Green, a former teacher herself, was pleased to hear it. “The teachers in Rhode Island — or everywhere — can either make or break a child,” she said. “You spend more time with your teacher during the day than you do your families. Coming into the profession will make you a hero, as far as I’m concerned.”

PHS Principal Joseph Amaral, who took part in the Zoom call, agreed.

“Every kid is an individual. Some come with real challenges, some come with trauma, some come from great support from their families,” he said, adding the challenge of teaching is connecting with students and taking them to the next level.

“You’re like a craftsperson; you’re putting your stamp on the student. That is the awesome responsibility you have as a teacher. It’s probably the most noble profession that you can choose.”

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