From the Superintendent: Second Chances

by | Oct 27, 2023

By Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D.

As a result of last week’s commentary, I had many conversations about grading and zeroes. I’m genuinely humbled anytime something I’ve written sparks further reflection and dialogue. I was inspired to write further based on what I heard from others and talked about in the past few days. 

One of the questions people raised with me was the idea of the “real world” regarding grading and evaluation. Some of the feedback I got was that this kind of consideration (giving someone the numerical equivalent of a failing grade instead of a zero) is not consistent with what students will face when they graduate and have a real job. I humbly disagree. 

I don’t remember how old I was when I learned to ride a bike; I remember the experience. My dad would run behind me on a side street behind my childhood home, and after a while, he would let go. Undoubtedly, I fell many, many times, but I got back up on my bike and tried again. My dad would reset his position behind me, firmly holding the seat, ask me to start pedaling, and ultimately let go so that I could learn the correct balance. Skinned knees, scraped knuckles, and bruised ego aside, I can ride a bike today. I repeated those exact steps with my two boys and passed that life lesson on to them. They both can ride a bike, and I hope they will use the same method with their children someday. 

Consider this as well: driving a car. I feel fortunate that I passed my driver’s test on the first try. The lessons came from my Driver’s Education teacher, my parents, and being in cars with others. Some of my friends did not pass their driver’s test the first time . . . but today, they are licensed drivers! How? When they failed their driver’s test, they were given precise feedback about the parts of the test they did not do well on. One of my friends, who struggled with three-point turns, asked his parents to take him driving and literally spent hours practicing only three-point turns. He maintained all the other skills he was proficient in and perfected a three-point turn, passing his driver’s test on the second try. 

My final example is something we can all relate to paying taxes. If you fail to pay your federal taxes, the Internal Revenue Service does not give you a zero and asks you to do better next time. The IRS gives you a six-month extension, including a financial penalty, and expects payment by October 15. 

The “real world” is full of second chances we experience as adults. I’ve had uncomfortable conversations with employers during my professional career when I’ve made a poor choice. The reality of any leader (educational or otherwise) is that having hard conversations with employees shows where the institution’s values are. The situation is a rarity when a single incident ends someone’s employment. 

My favorite musical is Les Miserables; I’ve seen it several times and know most of the words by heart. When cooking, I like to put on the 25th Anniversary Concert edition to keep me company. Those who know the story know that the redemption of protagonist, Jean Valjean, comes from the altruism and kindness of a Catholic bishop, who lies on Valjean’s behalf. 

Valjean had served 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his family. Upon his release, his “yellow ticket of leave” shows his employer that he is a former convict, and thus, Valjean is paid less than the other workers. The bishop shows mercy and invites him in for a warm meal and a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing some silver in the middle of the night. When caught by the local police, they bring Valjean back to the bishop. 

The bishop realizes that the real injustice is the fact that Valjean lost 19 years because he was trying to aid his family. The handful of silver Valjean was caught stealing could not come close to making a difference for the years he spent in prison. In fact, the bishop gave Valjean two additional candlesticks in front of the police that Valjean “forgot” when he left. This fictional second chance would be the transformation Valjean needed, and he would pass that gift on to others throughout the remainder of his life. 

Second chances allow us to pay it forward and make others’ lives better, even in the real world. 

Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.


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Mary Madden
Mary Madden
October 28, 2023 7:13 am

A grade of Zero is an arithmetic death sentence that puts a student’s grade in jeopardy of ever recovering.
The analogy I have used, similar to Dr. Ricca’s tax example is of the bar exam. How many successful attorneys took the bar exam more than once?
We want our young people to WANT to continue learning and improving, not smite them with a fatal blow to their progress.

October 29, 2023 4:34 pm

Yes, grades ought to help us grow. Here’s the best thing a student taught me when I taught freshman writing (part-time, largely 1962-2010): “I’ll never catch up!”

So as of obout 2000 (I learn slowly), because academic writing (like bicycle riding) is a skill that each student needs to be ready to be graded on, I stopped making my students’ papers worth equal percentages of their final grade. (After all, do good Dads care how often a kid wobbles before he catches on to balancing a bike?)

Instead, given my written advice on each essay and class discussion of a pretty good one, all were small-group-critiqued in class. But I gave no grades before mid-semester when everyone who’d done the work got a A. (Still, I promised to pressure anyone who wasn’t carrying his/her share of the work to withdraw from the course — never had to.)

After mid-semester, when all had helped each other to learn the basics, really challenging assignments all earned not A’s but darned decent grades that, I hope, each student understood.

(Yes, we grow too soon old and too late smart.)

October 30, 2023 6:43 am

An adage in sports within itself is it’s a life’s lesson. Interesting quip I always thought, but for whom. As someone who coached little league for 6-7 years both in East Greenwich and on the Kenny Manufacturing Fields located on Jefferson Blvd. I was there as a spectator and to advise. Nurture young individuals to play as a team, letting them know each must rely on the other above all as a single unit. My ego was of little importance in comparison. Whether it was drafting (first choice) a child from a foreign nation, whose parents didn’t want him to play and who could not throw a baseball, I was there to instruct of the many facets of the sport and what comprised a team. Such instruction embodied what happens on the field and as well as off. It was all I was looking to attain. It paid of as the season progressed so did the child and there wasn’t a year we didn’t make it to the finals in each league.

One of the more compassionate NFL Hall of Fame Induction speeches I ever heard came from Larry Little. He was a former guard first for the Chargers subsequently the Super Bowl Championship teams with the Miami Dolphins. About to quit in High School as he rode the bench mainly throughout, his coach took him aside and told him before he walked to think “winners never quit, and quitters never win.” 

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archers hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”


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