Innovation Ecosystem

The challenges of leading an urban core school system in RI

A conversation with Pawtucket Interim Superintendent Cheryl McWilliams

Photo courtesy of Cheryl McWilliams

Pawtucket Interim Superintendent Cheryl McWilliams.

By Louis Giancola
Posted 2/3/20
A conversation with Pawtucket Interim Superintendent Cheryl McWilliams offers insights into the challenges and opportunities of leading an urban core school system in Rhode Island.
What are the percentages of English Language Learner students in Pawtucket high schools? How are efforts around athletics integrated into the educational curriculum? What are plans to expand the use of personalized learning applications using new computer software programs? How important are the early education efforts during the summer months in Pawtucket that are being supported by United Way of Rhode Island to improve outcomes?
One of the significant approaches that sets Pawtucket apart from other municipalities is the work on housing code enforcement activities to protect families and children from lead poisoning hazards in housing. These efforts recently received a boost in federal funds through efforts led by Sen. Jack Reed. Consistently, research has tied childhood lead poisoning to lower scores on standardized tests. Moving forward, capturing and correlating the data between reduced incidences of childhood lead poisoning in Pawtucket and improved educational outcomes will be important to highlight, as well as the role being played in this effort by the Childhood Lead Action Project.

PAWTUCKET – What is it like to be a leading educator in a school system that is home to many newcomers to Rhode Island and that has some low grades on the R.I. Department of Education scorecards?

I had met Dr. Cheryl McWilliams, the Pawtucket Interim Superintendent, at the Rhode Island Foundation’s Education Summit in December, and was impressed with her positive attitude, optimism and compassion for her students. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Making it happen in Rhode Island.”]

I wanted to understand how she was approaching the challenge of educating students from diverse and, in many cases, disadvantaged backgrounds.

When Rhode Islanders think of Pawtucket, they think about the soon-to-be departing Pawsox or Slater Mill. Pawtucket is known as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Slater Mill was the first fully mechanized textile mill in the country [and it was also the home of first strike by workers in 1824, mostly young women, over low pay].

In the early 20th century, it was a thriving city with some two-dozen hotels and thriving textile mills. The Great Depression ended all that and Pawtucket began a long, slow decline.

One constant was that the city was always attracted newcomers, initially from Ireland and Italy, but more recently from Central America, the Caribbean Islands, the Azores and even Liberia. The early newcomers sought work in the textile mills while more recent arrivals were attracted to low-cost housing and compatriots from their countries of origin.

Driving through the downtown today, Pawtucket resembles many American cities, especially those that have lost their manufacturing job base, with its empty storefronts, tattoo parlors and laundromats. Besides losing the Pawsox, the local community hospital, Memorial, also has closed, in part because it had become largely reliant on government Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement payments.

Born and bred
Dr. McWilliams is a native of Pawtucket. She and her five siblings were products of the Pawtucket public schools and all went on to successful careers. Her dad was an electronics technician by day and a musician who played at dinner theaters at night. She has raised her two sons and one daughter in Pawtucket and lives in a house just up the street from the School Department office building. She seemed proud of her city, thankful for what it has meant for her and her family.

Dr. McWilliams told me: “Even in elementary school I had an understanding of how important education was and that I wanted to be a teacher.” Growing up in a musical family and singing in the church choir, pursuing education as a music teacher made sense to her. Her main instrument was her voice. Although she enjoyed teaching music, she felt she could contribute more to the system in a leadership role, so she obtained her master’s degree and ultimately her doctorate.

She was the principal of the Potter-Burns Elementary School for 10 years before becoming an Assistant Superintendent two years ago. In July she was named Interim Superintendent of Pawtucket Schools and, at this point, plans to be a candidate when the School Board begins a search for a permanent Superintendent. Unlike some interims, she doesn’t act like this is a caretaker role. She is the leader of the system and feels accountable for setting and achieving the goals that she and the school board have set.

Challenges and opportunities

What are the challenges, or as she would say, opportunities, before her? The district has nearly 9,000 students enrolled in grades Pre-K through 12. McWilliams pointed out that, unlike many districts, the enrollment is relatively stable.

• 31 percent of the students come from households with family income below the federal poverty line, close to that of Providence, with 37 percent, according to R.I. Department of Education data.

It’s important to recognize that the federal poverty guidelines define a meager existence. I suspect that many of the students’ families are struggling to make ends meet, as evidenced by the fact that 73 percent of students qualify for the free lunch program.

30 percent of the students are black, 36 percent are white and 26 percent are Hispanic. The remaining students are multi-race, Asian or Native American. Some 17 percent of the students have Individualized Education Plans.

• Approximately 30 percent of students across the grades being tested are not meeting grade-appropriate English Language or Math Proficiency. The four-year graduation rate is 79 percent.

• Finally, two middle schools and one high school were designated as requiring Comprehensive Improvement and Support by the R.I. Department of Education. This designation is applied to schools in which performance is severely lagging.

In comparing Pawtucket’s schools to others in the state, it is fair to say that, similar to other urban core schools in Rhode Island, they lag in comparison to the state averages. These statistics are meant to help define the challenges/opportunities faced by the school system’s leadership, its principals and its teachers. If this were a business, or even a hospital, this would be a turnaround situation.

Experience, knowledge and commitment
If experience, knowledge and commitment are sufficient to improve the performance of the Pawtucket schools, McWilliams can make it happen, she believes. She loves her town, cares about her students and teachers and has confidence that test scores can be improved.

We started our recent conversation with a discussion of the Pawtucket School System Mission: “Continually improving educational excellence and global citizenship while practicing compassion, courage and collaboration.”

McWilliams seized on the word “courage” as an essential requirement to making the necessary changes to how we approach education. “Teachers need to have the courage to reflect on their practice and the willingness to change their approach to education.”

McWilliams wants every student to be ready. “Whether students go to college, land a good job, or enter the military, the most important [takeaway is to learn how] to be a good citizen,” she said. To do that, she believes that everyone has to be held to a high standard. She believes that the Common Core Standards and the Every Student Achieves Act set a reasonable standard for what every student should and can achieve, regardless of their background.

Her philosophy is serving the needs of students and families by supporting principals and teachers to find the best path for student mastery of the required skills and ultimately, student success. The standards cannot be compromised, but the paths to achieving that mastery may differ from school to school and classroom to classroom.

McWilliams emphasized the need for professional development. Teachers need to keep up with best practices and learn from each other about what works to bring students along. She has initiated a training program, in collaboration with the Equity Institute, to sensitize staff to the unique needs of the different cultures of the students. She also emphasized the requirement that the schools be prepared to deal with the social-emotional needs of the students.

When I asked about whether she felt the resources were adequate to achieve her goals, she played down the need for more resources. “Sure, everybody wants more, but we’re OK,” she said. The average class size is 23, which feels is manageable, although she pointed out that the R.I. General Assembly is talking about setting a standard of 20.

When I asked about teacher assistants/aides, she said they are assigned on an as-needed basis, except when a specific student requires one as a part of their Individualized Education Plans. McWilliams said she did not think that language barriers served as a major obstacle to achieving success.

Slow, steady progress

McWilliams is not a leader who looks for excuses or is preparing to defend not meeting goals. She believes slow, steady progress is possible if everybody is rowing in the same direction. She believes in the ability of her students to learn and her teachers to teach. She sees opportunity where others might see challenges.

Just as our health is determined mostly by income, access to safe, affordable housing, and lifestyle, so, too, outcomes in education are determined by more than just what happens in the classroom.

But a good education is also a path to better health and improved well-being. The poor outcomes of our urban core schools in Rhode Island and elsewhere is a major impediment to a better future for so many students. That’s why the efforts of the Pawtucket schools, and other urban core schools in the state, to educate students from disadvantaged backgrounds, is so important.

That’s why I will be reporting on their progress and why I hope you will follow along with me.

Louis Giancola, the former president and CEO of South County Health, is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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