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With help of bond money, many RI school districts going beyond repairs

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CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Many Rhode Island schools are under construction or soon will be.

According to RI General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, administrators in 29 cities and towns have been given the approval to receive funding from the $250 million bond money voters approved last November.

The money will be used for repairs of aging buildings, such as leaky roofs and broken heating systems. But many districts are going beyond just repairs to complete renovations of the traditional schoolhouse.

“Our schools were designed for an economy that no longer exists, for a world that no longer exists and in some ways, not in all ways, but in some ways, an educational model that is no longer up to date,” says Ken Wagner, former state Education Commissioner.

It was his vision, as the initiator of the facilities investment plan, that the schools would become more than just warm, safe and dry. They’d also become equipped for 21st-century learning. Something educators and administrators say is a necessity to accommodate current teaching styles. 

“Our schools were designed for a time when students were learning in one classroom all day long, often in rows often on the same page at the same time and that’s changed,” said Principal Bryan Byerlee of Garden City Elementary School in Cranston. “We don’t teach that way anymore and kids don’t learn that way anymore.”

Byerlee said his teachers are often forced to educate students in areas of the building not made for teaching.

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“Hallways aren’t meant for teaching small groups, hallways aren’t meant for assessing, hallways aren’t meant for group projects, but that’s often what we have to go to,” Byerlee said.

It’s a new style of teaching focusing heavily on collaboration among students. It’s called Blended and Personalized Learning, a means of implementing the bigger goal of Social Emotional Learning, where the focus is on meeting students’ needs and shifting the traditional roles from teacher-focused lectures to student-centered learning.

“The student needs to be directing the learning, and the teacher is providing the supports – sometimes the information, sometimes the correction, sometimes the questioning, sometimes the encouragement,” Wagner said.

In order to allow for collaboration and group work and hands-on learning, the former commissioner says walls have to come down in many of RI’s school buildings. 

“It’s not just academic learning. We learn by doing, we learn by talking, we learn by moving around we learn by collaborating and as soon as you put motion and doing into the mix then you need more space,” Wagner said.

Several of the schools submitting plans to the RI Dept. of Education are modeling their buildings after Forest Avenue Elementary School in Middletown. 

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It was the first in the state to implement a design intended to accommodate 21st-century learning. The walls of the hallways of the kindergarten and first-grade wing were taken down a decade ago creating an open-spaced learning center. The few classrooms that remain, have barn doors separating the rooms in order to create a large space if needed and windows replaced walls to create the opportunity for more natural light.

The goal was allowing for collaboration, a cornerstone of 21st-century learning. 

“I feel like there’s more collaboration than ever before,” says teacher Camille Guerin.

That’s the measuring stick for students at Forest Avenue School according to principal Beth Hayes. 

“We know test scores aren’t the whole child, we’re looking at our 21st-century learning skills that we know are so important for kids to have as they head into a job market that’s being created right now,” says Hayes.

But that’s alarming to some parents concerned about their children’s education. 

“You lose a sense of privacy, a sense of independence and the ability to have the opportunity to think independently and formulate your own ideas,” says mother and former educator, Rema Tomka.

She says she’s concerned that this new learning style may have ambitions of creating unity, but fears it could create uniformity instead.

“What was once a byproduct of being a well-educated person is now the focus. So, working in a group is more important than being able to think critically about what you’re presented,” Tomka said.

The process of transforming RI’s education system began in 2013 when then-Commissioner Wagner launched the Social-Emotional Learning construct across schools statewide.

Most districts, like Cranston, seeking to use the bond money to reconstruct its buildings to adapt to the new style will need to seek voter approval in their own municipalities in order to proceed with the projects.

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