School Committee: Chris Willi
For Chris Willi, being elected to public office is all about giving back to the community.
“I’ve always done something community oriented,” Willi said, adding that sometimes that ‘something’ is through his work and sometimes through volunteer endeavors.
On Block Island he has served as harbormaster, recreation director and as athletic director for the school. An avid fisherman, he owns and operates his own business, Fishworks, on Ocean Avenue. He is the father of two small children (with wife Jessica), who will soon be old enough to attend the local school themselves. Also the father of a 15-year-old daughter who currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Willi says issues pertaining to the education of students of all ages in today’s world are complex.
Schools, he believes, need to equip children both academically and socially for the challenges of adulthood. As a member of the School Committee, he wants to help the Block Island School function at its best, through programs that function well and efficiently, so that the student body is well served.
As the athletic director for the Block Island School, Willi developed the first sports handbook. That handbook outlined all of the rules and regulations of sportsmanship for each of the teams and made it clear what the requirements were for team membership.
He also enlisted the school’s sports teams onto leagues within Rhode Island and Connecticut. This type of league involvement was important, he said, and it had been lacking. The league component, he believes, improved the morale of the students participating in sports.
“They had a goal,” he said in retrospect. “Their record mattered.” The basketball team won a championship in 2001 under his tenure.
Willi believes sports should be a healthy part of a school curriculum, but he is adamant that it should not overshadow academics. Sports, he believes, open opportunities for students to learn to work with others on a team, to share responsibility, and to experience life off the island. Sports can also build esteem, but he is quick to add that league sports should not be part of a student’s life if academics are suffering.
“There has to be a balance between athletics and academics,” he said. “Everybody can be on a team, but is it good for a kid to play if he or she is failing three classes?”
Willi says that when he himself played sports in high school, responsibilities were understood to begin with family. The second most important responsibility was to personal academics and the third was to the sports team.
As a School Committee member, Willi hopes to bring those values into the school. He thinks it is important that the School Committee be ready to fix problems, not ignore or table them. Maintenance is one issue he uses to highlight his thoughts about this: At Heinz Field, for example. He believes that since the town has invested substantial money into improving that field, the town must also be responsible for maintaining it. Otherwise, he questions, “Why did we upgrade it in the first place?” He would like to see a plan in place for how the field could be regularly trimmed and mowed.
Ongoing maintenance is also important at the school itself. By keeping buildings and grounds in good shape, he says, the town can save money and costly rebuilds in years to come.
Facilitating what works
When it comes to the curriculum itself and the students’ academic life, Willi believes it is important to do some research. He is curious about what other school systems do, for instance, to build successful IEP programs. (An individual educational program for students with special needs.)
The same goes for school management. He wonders what other island schools do and how they juggle administrative issues.
The concept of using distance learning, which was used for a time in a shared academic program with Westerly High School and later dropped, also interests him. He sees it as a way for the school to expand academic opportunities to students in a “creative and innovative manner,” he said.
He worries about decreasing class sizes as students enter the middle and high school years. An important issue he would like to investigate is why Block Island parents choose to take their children off island at this stage.
“Is there a breakdown in the school program that needs to be addressed, or is it simply a socialization issue parents believe is necessary?” he asks. “If it is the latter, what can the school do to better serve that need?”
Willi, who is 42 years old, grew up in Newport. He has been on Block Island since 1992. He has a bachelors in wildlife biology from the University of Rhode Island. His father served in the military and the family lived in many different places, including Japan and California.
He likes the fact that Block Island in the summer months hosts an international community of visitors. He thinks it is important for young islanders to get to know and understand other cultures, and perhaps through the eyes of those very visitors, better understand how they are connected to the rest of the world.