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Edna Coia, Principal, Francis J. Varieur School – Pawtucket, RI

2015 Terrel Bell awardeeFrancis J. Varieur Elementary School is a K-6 elementary school in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Like many urban schools, Varieur has a high poverty, high needs student body. Despite these challenges, Varieur regularly exceeds expectations on state and local tests and was one of only two urban elementary schools to be commended by the Rhode Island Department of Education last year.

Led by Principal Edna Coia, the focus on student achievement does not waver. During her tenure as principal, Varieur has transitioned to the Common Core State Standards, PARCC testing, and new curriculum. These changes required teachers to learn the standards, implement new curriculum and new educational programs, adjust resources, and collaborate. Dr. Coia has worked diligently to find additional time for teacher collaboration and tap the expertise of teacher leaders in the school. Securing funds to provide Common Core-aligned resources to ensure that teaching is consistent across grade levels is another way Dr. Coia supports and inspires teachers and students.

Recently, Varieur was the setting for a study of student outcomes when student homework was differentiated. When the results showed that differentiated homework improved assessment results, grade-level teams recalibrated how homework was assigned.

A strong culture of reading prevails at the school. All students have goals for reading at home. Varieur uses the Accelerated Reading program to motivate and hold students accountable. In 2014, students read 13,208 books, an average of 36 Accelerated Reader books read per student. When math data showed a need for additional practice, Dr. Coia initiated a grant application to purchase a computer-based math practice program. Last year, students spent more than 9,000 hours practicing with this program.

The code of responsibility is structured into the Varieur school day. Students daily recite a commitment to “my learning, my success, my responsibility.” Teachers and staff also live by the same commitment to their teaching, their success, and their responsibility. In addition to displaying good behavior and strong character, students are expected to produce high quality work. In Dr. Coia’s words, “mediocrity and mere compliance are unacceptable.” High expectations apply to students, staff, and Dr. Coia herself. Teachers are expected to engage in professional development and share their learning with each other. All staff are expected to participate in events beyond school hours and are acknowledged for their time. Dr. Coia has an open door policy that invites students, families, and staff to raise any issues with her.

To help students maintain academic gains over the summer, Dr. Coia assembled teacher teams to prepare summer work packets. Teachers, staff, and PTA members voluntarily open the school over the summer, giving students ongoing access to books and technology. Students receive rewards upon return of the completed packets at the beginning of the new school year.

Communication to parents and families is frequent and timely. In addition to monthly principal letters, parents receive phone calls and monthly calendars with scheduled events and activities. They can access further school information through a phone messaging system and a community bulletin board. Parents and primary caregivers have access to progress reports, report cards, and parent-teacher conferences to ensure that everyone supporting a student can play a role in his or her success. Dr. Coia considers parents as educational partners. The school leadership team has created numerous opportunities to outline student behavior and academic expectations for parents and coaching them in how to help students at home. Academic Family Nights and Social activities are focused on educating families about assessments, Common Core State Standards, and on building a school community that engages families in their children’s learning.

Adept at partnering with local organizations and non-profit organizations, Dr. Coia secures donations of school supplies and weekend meals for children whose families’ food is insecure. Dr. Coia encourages staff to seek opportunities for small grants for students’ academic support and field trips so that all students will have equal learning experience and opportunities.

As a result of her success at Varieur, Dr. Coia was transferred to Pawtucket’s Baldwin Elementary School where, said Superintendent Patti DiCenso, Dr. Coia’s “expertise and leadership” were needed at the city’s largest elementary school.