"The key commonalities that unify students are, for some, academic struggles, inability to stay focused in a traditional school setting, and behaviorally disorders such as autism. Other common issue are hearing impairment, or lack of life skills, work skills or job preparation skills."
By Patricia Daddona PBN Staff Writer
Joseph M. Nasif Jr., is interim executive director of the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, is a nonprofit that serves severely handicapped of the Blackstone Valley who need educational programs outside of their regular school setting. The towns served include Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln, Woonsocket, Johnston, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Foster-Glocester, Burrillville and North Providence.
Nasif earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Social Studies in 1970 from Providence College , as well as three master’s degrees: in secondary school administration in 1976; in guidance and counseling in 1979; and in special education in 1982.
PBN: How did you first come to be involved in the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative and what are your goals as interim executive director?
NASIF: I first became actively involved during my nine years as superintendent of schools in Cumberland, since the member district superintendents act as the governing body for the collaborative (similar to the duties school committees have).
After retirement I was asked to fill in for four months as a principal for the West Bay Collaborative, which gave me an in-depth exposure to day-to-day activities in the classroom for severely handicapped students. The educational rewards of these two experiences as well as the personal satisfaction of witnessing student success convinced me to apply for the collaborative position.
Goals are: to strengthen and expand existing programs while examining new federal, state, and local mandates to insure we are in full compliance; and insure faculty, staff, students, parents, and member districts have easy and open access to all resources that we have to offer and that issues are resolved in a timely manner.
Other goals include conducting a needs assessment of member districts to identify our strengths and weaknesses; providing direct services to districts at their location for areas in which they need additional services but may not be able to afford full-time personnel; and expanding professional development opportunities open to all districts throughout the state.
Finally, we aim to increase enrollment at all NRIC sites by working with member districts to insure the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative is the school of school of choice for out of district placements and expand “virtual learning” to include credit recovery, advanced placement courses, nights and weekend virtual opportunities, professional development, summer school.
PBN: Why did it make sense to offer educational programs and services under the geographical umbrella of northern Rhode Island? What are the key commonalities that unify students?
NASIF: At one time, the state of Rhode Island had five separate collaborative groups, each serving particular regions in the state. By separating the state into regions, it was felt that more could be accomplished and that collaborative groups could concentrate on a defined area with defined needs so as not to spread themselves too thin. Now, there are there are only three collaborative groups throughout the state.
The key commonalities that unify students are, for some, academic struggles, inability to stay focused in a traditional school setting, and behaviorally disorders such as autism. Other common issue are hearing impairment, or lack of life skills, work skills or job preparation skills.
PBN: What is the Virtual Learning Academy?
NASIF: The NRIC provides districts with virtual learning (online) courses for Grades 2-12 aligned to national content standards. These courses can be used for students who are assigned to alternative programs, students who are special needs or at risk, home bound or home schooled students, students who have dropped out of school, or those in need of credit recovery (to make up failing grades). Virtual learning is also used for those who wish to take Advanced Placement courses if their district is not able to offer them because of financial constraints. Virtual learning is offered during the school day, before or after school, nights, weekends, etc. with access anywhere there is a computer. Teachers or advisors are available to monitor student progress and provide assistance.
PBN: What is your favorite success story from the Regional or Specialized Alternative programs and how critical are these programs in helping students with disabilities?
NASIF: There are many success stories here, but one from the Regional Alternative Program especially stands out.
A 19-year-old student from a member district who was a senior, failing most subjects, and who was disruptive and a significant behavior problem in his traditional public high school came to us during his junior year. All attempts to educate him as a freshman and sophomore were unsuccessful. He went from a large high school where he felt he had to be king of the mountain to a smaller school where he was in a class with eight high school students with nothing to prove and no one to challenge. Junior year started with minimal progress but as time went by, behavior improved and requirements were being completed, and there was a feeling of mutual respect and caring between the faculty and staff and this young man. If there was open time in his schedule he would go down to the elementary grades and assist the teacher with activities or projects. These younger students looked up to him as a big brother and a bond was created.
Senior year arrived, grades continued to improve, but it was uncertain whether this young man would have sufficient credits to graduate and whether he would complete the portfolio requirements that his district and the state mandated. He was determined to complete all requirements to prove to his mom and girlfriend that he could change, be successful and graduate with a diploma from his hometown high school. With his determination to beat the odds, the intensive support from NRIC and his home district, all requirements were completed on time and this very proud young man was presented his high school diploma by the director of student services from his home town at a ceremony held in June, 2013.
He was also one of two student speakers at the NRIC Annual Dinner Meeting attended by well over 300 individuals. He speech focused on the assistance, care, understanding and support that was provided to him during his two years at NRIC as well as the techniques used to change his behavior, set goals for himself and make all of us proud. He concluded his speech by saying he felt an obligation to give back to the collaborative and was so thankful for everyone’s assistance that he wanted to go back to school, become a teacher assistant and return to NRIC to help struggling students just like him.
After the meeting I told him that if he really meant what he said, the collaborative would provide him with a scholarship to take the teacher assistant course at no charge. He took the next available course, completed his practicum and graduated from the course in the fall of 2013.
As he always says, “No one ever gave up on me even though there were times I gave up on myself. I am so proud of what I have accomplished.”
These programs are a lifeline for the neediest of students to experience success in a small group setting without the distractions of a large comprehensive school. Students become part of a family to achieve one goal: to maximize the potential of each and every individual.
PBAN: What’s new on the horizon for the collaborative?
NASIF: The future seems bright. Enrollments are on the rise with a goal of 100 by the end of May 2014. We have 88 students from 11 member districts. The Transition Employment Center has redesigned its activities to better prepare students for the world of work and has over 50 partnerships with local businesses, which provide our students with internships. The Oral Program that services deaf and cochlear implant students has become a model for the state and services students from Woonsocket to Westerly.
We will continue to offer Teacher Assistant Training courses as we did in 2013, yielding more than 160 new teacher assistants, and we’re expanding driver training education for special needs students in cooperation with the Community College of Rhode Island. We plan on doing more direct service to districts at their location by proving behavior intervention teams, social services, adaptive physical education assistance, technology services, etc.
In 2014, we are looking to become the statewide provider of Flipped Learning, a program in which teachers create lessons and post them online, where the students access an intensive 25-minute teaching lesson at night or after school. They learn the concepts and come to school the following day to discuss the lesson they were taught the night before at home. During regular class time students will discuss the lessons, clarify issues and answer questions, and provide feedback to the teacher.