NORTH SMITHFIELD – The longtime passing grade point average of 70 is now on track to be lowered to 65 at North Smithfield schools in light of difficulties this year’s students have faced due to restrictions from COVID-19, a score on par with other districts across Rhode Island.
The change was recommended this week by Asst. Supt. and Curriculum Director Clare Arnold, and a majority of School Committee members have already expressed full support for the plan.
“Make no mistake: this year is a difficult year for learning,” Arnold said before introducing the proposal. “It’s been 70 forever. In most of Rhode Island, 65 is a passing grade.”
Arnold noted that while the current initiative is to lower the grade for just one year, she hopes to have future conversations about making the change permanent.
Vice Chairperson Jean Meo quickly expressed her approval of the concept.
“I think that given the circumstances of this year, and given the input and advice of the educators, I can certainly be in line with a 65 grade-point-average,” said Meo. “That’s just my opinion.”
Committee member Peg Votta said that under current circumstances, failing a kid with a 68 GPA would be, “unconscionable.”
“I think we all are in agreement that we want to do everything we can for our seniors,” Votta said. “The 65 – most of the other school districts are doing that already – and this is just an incredibly difficult time for students.”
Arnold said members of the district’s administrative team felt that the change would amount to a small adjustment that could help a lot of North Smithfield students who are trying, but struggling.
“The students that have a 66 average are working,” Arnold said. “You can’t just do nothing and get a 66.”
But the lower passing grade, she said, will have an even greater impact for students just below that benchmark.
“It really helps the student with the 63 … with the 62. They’re so close, whereas when it’s 70 they’re so far away,” Arnold said. “I think it’s going to make a significant difference for our most struggling students.”
Chairman James Lombardi agreed, and told Arnold to move forward with the initiative, although an official vote won’t be taken until the school board’s next meeting. The issue, he noted, must be placed on the committee’s agenda for specific vote to avoid the chance of an Open Meetings violation.
The topic was just part of a discussion on 2021’s crop of seniors, who, committee members noted, are currently missing out on a number of milestones, from dances to extracurricular activities. While students in grades pre-K through 6, 9th graders, and students with IEPs are currently attending North Smithfield schools four days a week, 7th through 12th graders remain on a hybrid two-day-a-week model.
Supt. Michael St. Jean noted that recently, staff has worked to identify students who might be struggling with distance learning, and return them to the classroom. The effort resulted in an additional 30 7th and 8th grade students attending in person four days a week, and efforts are now underway to identify students who are struggling psychologically, emotionally and academically at the high school level.
“We’re still targeting,” said St. Jean. “We’re bringing back more and more students.”
The superintendent noted that North Smithfield schools have done well compared to neighboring communities in curbing the spread of COVID-19, a phenomenon that could be attributed to the school buildings’ recently installed ventilation systems.
St. Jean noted that during a recent check-in with surrounding communities, he learned that 18 teachers in Burrillville were under quarantine.
“Smithfield – their numbers have been spiking as well,” St. Jean said. “We have been spared so far, quite a bit, compared to the districts around us. We’ve been able to maintain a steady pace.”
“We don’t want to jeopardize what we’ve already accomplished,” St. Jean added. “I really feel positive about the direction we’re taking. COVID is dictating how fast we can move.”
For the seniors, Committee member William Connell pointed to the importance of socialization.
“I can understand the pressures and the main thing is to keep the ship going, and keep it steady,” Connell said. “I hope we can come up with some interesting senior-type events that can replicate what they’re missing.”
St. Jean said the district is planning to allow senior athletes to have one parent attend games in person, despite recent statewide restrictions on spectators, noting that parents of the district’s oldest kids are also missing out on milestones.
“We’ll probably get in trouble for this,” St. Jean said of the spectators. “We need to give our seniors something extra. Our teachers are trying very hard to give them a normal year as much as possible.”