Guest Contributor: Jessica Jennings
Full disclosure: I am a parent of a kindergartner at Asa Messer Elementary School. I didn't have to go on a tour today hosted by the school's principal, Denise Missry, but I wanted to.
One year ago I was on the same tour at Asa Messer, but I was a prospective parent. My daughter was 4, and my husband and I were unsure of where we would send her for Kindergarten. We had heard things about this-and-that school, scary things about public schools in general and conjecture and fear from people around us. In an effort to combat the myths trying to enter our psyches, we decided to tour every school that we were considering – both public and private – to get a feel from the inside out of which school would be a good fit for our daughter and our family.
After all the touring, Asa Messer was our clear first choice. During today's tour, I was reminded why we felt so confident in our decision.
The tour began in a spacious and bright Pre-Kindergarten classroom. There was a child playing with an all-wood dollhouse nearby, and many other kids spread about the room playing in tidy and well-organized "centers." It was a calm but engaging environment. Ms. Kelly, the lead teacher, talked with us about the special nature of her classroom. It is an integrated classroom which means that 8 children in the classroom are "typically developing" and the other 7 have a disability. Disabilities include developmental, speech, hearing, vision and social/emotional issues.
Asa Messer is one of a handful of public elementary schools that offers free Pre-K* (both half and full day). Providence Public Schools does not have funds specially designated to Pre-K general education, but it does offer academic programming for special education students beginning at age three. Because of this funding and the inclusive model used, the District is able to offer Pre-K to all students (theoretically, that is, as there are limited spots), starting at age 3 for children with disabilities and age 4 for typically developing children.
Ms. Kelly matter-of-factly explains the beauty of her classroom. Her 15 Pre-K students learn from each other – socially, emotionally and otherwise – but they are also learning about accepting differences in a fundamentally profound way. She beams, "They teach me, too."
We visit Ms. Tirrocchi's first grade classroom next. Unfortunately the room is empty as all the children are in art class. Looking around the room, I spy an easel on which is written "Opinion Writing." There is a phrase about stating what you think, followed by a directive to write 3 reasons why you have that opinion. The foundations of argument and debate? Critical thinking started in first grade? I then remember a proud Ms. Tirrocchi during last year's tour showing me several of her students' writing samples. They were little essays full of the basics of critical thinking/writing. I was proud, too, and I didn't even know these kids.
In her absence, we learn that Ms. Tirrocchi spent considerable time with the Highlander Institute (a sister organization to Highlander Charter School) learning best practices for implementing "blended learning" in the classroom which she in turn shared with the entire teaching staff and administration at Asa Messer. All of Asa Messer now uses blended learning, which I can only describe in a pedestrian way as using technology in the classroom so that students can benefit from more effective smaller group face-to-face time with teachers. As we saw it implemented at Asa Messer, the students rotate in small groups from a session with the teacher to a center with academic computer programs that not only reinforce each child's learning but also help to differentiate learning for children who are at differing academic levels.
We then enter Ms. Denofio's Kindergarten classroom. The classroom is large, cheery and colorful. Children's artwork hangs from the ceiling and the room is quiet but busy. Instead of desks, there are small tables with four chairs at each table. My daughter sees me and waves. I give her all my dramatic but silent facial signals to get back to her work.
There is a small group of four or five students working with Ms. Denofio. There are several other smaller working groups seated throughout the classroom. Some students are on iPads and computers working on "sight words" or addition. There is another group sitting with the teacher's assistant who is having them read a very simple story that contains their new sight words for the week. All Kindergarten classrooms benefit from having a teacher's assistant who actually teaches. Although there is a group of about ten of us visitors in the room, the children are surprisingly focused on their work. There is palpable engagement.
We then see the music and art rooms. Along with all children attending music class once a week, 3rd and 4th graders are able to sign up to learn an instrument and participate in the school band. We head to the art room where we are greeted by an energetic art teacher as she readies a project for an incoming class. She proudly announces a new kiln in an adjacent room, a shiny addition to her tools for making. Children in the older grades who have an hour long art class are able to use it. All children have art class once a week.
As we leave the art room, we encounter a patient group of first graders waiting in the hallway. They politely say hello and wave and smile back to us. They are one of Messer's ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms. The school has a student population that is 43% English Language Learners (ELL), that is, 43% of Messer students do not speak English when they enter the school. There are 4 classrooms for every grade level, and every 1.5 of those classrooms are designated ESL. The school is as culturally diverse as the neighborhood in which it is located.
We check out the library, gym and cafetorium (a cafeteria/auditorium in one), all of which are large, bright and clean. Students have library once a week and gym/health 3 times a week. The cafetorium has a working stage which has been used for theater classes given in partnership with Trinity Repertory as well as school band concerts. The school and its facilities are well-maintained.
Several children say hello to Ms. Missry as they pass her in the hallways; Ms. Missry says good morning, calling them by name. We learn that Asa Messer is a relatively small elementary school compared to others in the District, and that it has a younger population than most due to the addition of the Pre-K program. The school enrolls children grades Pre-K through 4th whereas most Providence Public elementary schools are K-5.
When Messer started its Pre-K program 2 years ago, its 5th grade was moved to the newly opened West Broadway Middle School across the street, and the two schools formed a pre-K through 8th grade "campus," a beneficial arrangement that is unique among Providence Schools. Asa Messer 4th graders have priority enrollment at West Broadway Middle School, allowing the school community to stay together through both elementary and middle schools. The campus model allows grade cohorts to stay together longer and promotes continuity in community. This model is something we didn't know about when we enrolled our daughter here but certainly consider a bonus now.
The best part of the tour for me is picking up all the signs of excellence in leadership. But I don't really need such signs – I'm now a parent whose child attends the school. I know first hand that the classrooms hum along to a similar vision, that the school is coherent and well-run, and that, as is obvious during her tour, Ms. Missry is fully committed to her work as principal.
While she expresses clarity when she talks about the school and its direction, Ms. Missry also comes across as flexible and striving. Having worked with her this year with other parents to grow the Parent-Teacher Organization as well as other initiatives, I can attest that she is. Her combination of strength of vision and openness to new ideas is inspiring.
Asa Messer Elementary School holds a school tour for prospective parents every year. If you've missed the tour or are unable to make it, you can set up an appointment with Denise Missry to see the school, or email asamesserPTO@gmail.com for more information.
* Asa Messer's Pre-K program is an integrated, inclusive program that requires a screening and application process. In order to schedule a screening appointment or to request more information, please call Mindy Mertz at 456-9100, extension 11325.
2016 PROVIDENCE SCHOOLS REGISTRATION INFO
- Priority kindergarten enrollment dates are available until March 14, 2016. Your child must be age 5 by September 1, 2016, to be eligible for kindergarten enrollment. Call the Student Registration & Placement Center at 401-456-9297 or visit 325 Ocean Street in Providence for more information.
- For a list of requirements for registration, go to http://www.providenceschools.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&ModuleInstanceID=260&ViewID=7B97F7ED-8E5E-4120-848F-A8B4987D588F&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=1249&PageID=113