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28 September 2017

Rhode Island: Students' Request for Screen-Free Time Included in Cumberland Schools' New Strategic Plan

Students’ request for screen-free time included in Cumberland schools’ new strategic plan
by Ethan Shorey, Valley Breeze Managing Editor, 20 September 2017

CUMBERLAND – Cumberland High School students, tired of spending too much time looking at electronic screens, are asking for “screen-free days” in the future, and school officials say they’re inclined to oblige.

The request from students is a key takeaway from a new three-year strategic plan unanimously approved by the School Committee last week, a “working draft” that school officials say is designed to improve Cumberland schools over the next three years.

The focus statement for the 2017-2020 strategic plan is “We believe. No excuses. Only results.”

Everyone in the local school community rallied around the “We believe” statement in particular, said Supt. Bob Mitchell.

According to Mitchell, the strategic plan calls for the Cumberland School Department to be a “top five” district in Rhode Island across all levels within three years. Local schools are “knocking at the door already on a couple of levels,” he said.

Mitchell told The Breeze he and other school officials found the input on screen-free days surprising, but said it makes sense. School officials, like students, still believe in Chromebooks and other forms of technology, he said, but understand the desire not to become “overly reliant” on devices.

Students said in their responses to a strategic plan committee that they love their schools but need a break from technology, said Mitchell. The opinion has been reinforced lately with studies showing that too much screen time has a direct link to increased anxiety and depression.

The superintendent said a screen-free day, perhaps every two weeks or once per month, seems doable.

“Who would disagree with that?” he said. “It makes a lot of sense.”

Mitchell said he recently noticed how little time he himself is free of screens in a given day. He realized that his time working out at the gym is the only time he’s really away from his phone.

Particular areas of concern from other “constituent groups” during a yearlong development of the strategic plan include:

• For administrators, consistency of communication and transitions across all grades.

• For parents, communication and transitions from grade to grade and school to school.

• For certified staff, finishing what they start.

• And from the community, district communication about priorities.

Consultant Peter Langton said the strategic plan is not meant to be “published and put away,” as Mitchell likes to say, but is an active document that will constantly be evolving while providing a clear path forward.

Langton said the plea from the high school students for screen-free days was perhaps the most important feedback offered by stakeholders in Cumberland schools.

Communication was the biggest theme from all other groups, said Langton.

The steering committee on the strategic plan ended up with 157 unique opportunities for improvement, said Langton and Mitchell.

The strategic planning process focused on four key areas: School structure and organization, wellness and the whole child, communication, and proper funding and fiscal management.

One of the goals in the strategic plan is to look at possible redistricting of schools that are “busting at the seam,” said Mitchell, perhaps realigning some of the town’s neighborhood schools. It’s never an easy proposition, he said, especially because parents move to certain areas based on the schools their children will go to.

School officials must equally distribute the student population to best meet their needs, he said, while ensuring high quality education in every classroom.

Everything Cumberland schools do should be data driven, he said, based on research and evidence. Each school, in helping the district reach its goals, should set reasonable learning targets.

In focusing on the wellness of children, depression and anxiety “are skyrocketing,” according to Mitchell. School officials have a responsibility to address the situation, starting with looking at the issue of excessive screen time.

Also a target for school officials is breaking down “the divide” between north and south Cumberland. “There is definitely something there,” he said, and school leaders should do what they can to “break down those barriers.”

On finances, the strategic plan calls for continued work on increasing funding to schools. The schools have made some progress on funding, but are still behind where they should be, said Mitchell. School officials should look at new ways of being resourceful and finding grant opportunities, he said.

The strategic plan is a “call to action,” and school leaders and staff must inspire each other and hold each other accountable on achieving the goals, said Mitchell. The plan is to talk about the document again and again over the coming years as leaders define steps to take each year in achieving the ultimate goal for the district.


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