Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mayor for a day

September 22, 2010
Cranston Herald
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

NEW JOB DESCRIPTION: Mayor Allan Fung poses with the authors of a book that outlined possible job responsibilities that the mayor might have on a day-to-day basis.

The pre-kindergarten students at Learning Brooke Early Childhood Education Center had a special guest in their classroom on Monday morning. Stemming from a series of conversations between the teachers and their students this past summer about ways in which to help the community, Mayor Allan Fung was invited into the classroom so that the students could learn more about what his job entails.

When the mayor arrived, he was first taken on a tour of the building, which services children from 18 months through kindergarten. At the end of the tour, he was welcomed into the pre-kindergarten classroom, where the students were waiting in anticipation of his visit.

The children had worked cooperatively to create a book for Mayor Fung that showed their ideas about what responsibilities he might have as the mayor of Cranston.

“We’re very interested in learning more about the broader community,” said owner Brooke Brown. “They’re very interested in studying local architecture and learning about our community’s dignitaries. The first step in doing that was to invite the mayor to come.”

The school prides itself on its emergent curriculum in which the teacher’s role is one of co-learner. They guide the students’ learning through a series of conversations and questions that help to bring about the next topic of study.

“That is why this summer, as the children began to discuss ways to help the community, the teachers listened. They took notes as children discussed ideas and then read those notes back to the children proposing that we choose some of those ideas to make it a reality to help others,” explained Brown.

Fung read aloud from the book that the students had made, stopping to recognize each child when their page was read, and to comment on their guesses about his job responsibilities.

When one student hypothesized that Mayor Fung might live at his work, he joked that sometimes it feels that way. Another student guessed that Mayor Fung probably smiled a lot in his job.

“I do smile a lot. I try to be happy all the time,” Mayor Fung told the children, as he smiled.

Many of the students’ guesses were not far off from reality. They discussed the fire and police forces, the city workers, schools, grounds and maintenance with the mayor. They were fascinated by the topic of paperwork and the amount of paperwork he must have as the mayor. They asked questions about the people he works with on a day-to-day basis.

“I have a lot of helpers in my job,” said Mayor Fung. “In my office alone, I have six helpers. I also have 200 firefighters, 150 police officers, more than 600 city workers and more than 1,000 school teachers in the city.”

In addition to learning about Fung’s job, the children wanted him to see the results of a food drive they had sponsored over the past two months as part of the community service project that they developed.

The children have been collecting and sorting the food, which will be donated to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

“It means a lot to me that you did that, it will help a lot of people and it will help me help others,” the mayor said.

Brown said that the students’ exploration of their community is far from over.

“Naturally the children are not finished and continue to be interested in other aspects of the community. We are not sure where our inquiries will lead us next, but this is an exciting start,” she said.

Police partnership works to keep schools, community safe

September 22, 2010
Cranston Herald
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

POLICING THE SCHOOLS: At the Glen Hills Elementary School open house, Lieutenant Bob Brothers explains the new model of community policing that Cranston uses.

As part of a joint effort between the Mayor’s Office, Cranston Public Schools, the Cranston Police Department and Ward 6 School Committee member Andrea Iannozzi, the city’s Police Department will have a representative at all of the school open houses during the back to school season this fall.

"As part of our Community Policing initiative, we feel it is important that parents get to meet members of our police department who have direct involvement in their neighborhoods,” said Mayor Allan Fung.

At the Glen Hills Elementary School Open House, Lieutenant Bob Brothers introduced several members of the police department who are responsible for the Glen Hills district. He spoke about the new community-based police department model that the city has begun using, which divides the city up into four different districts.

He stated that the new model gives a sense of ownership for the police officers that are consistently responsible for a particular area of the city. He said that it also creates a strong partnership between the community and the police, and it provides geographic accountability as well.

Lieutenant Brothers stated that the police department is down by 15 officers, with no relief in sight for several years to come.

“We need you as much as you need us,” he said.

“A lot of times, people want to get involved but are skittish,” he continued, noting that by putting names to faces people may be more comfortable being involved.

School Committee member Iannozzi said connecting the schools with the police force is part of an ongoing commitment to keep the community safe.

“Mayor Fung and I both began our legal careers as juvenile prosecutors in the Attorney General's Office. We have used our experience to protect Cranston's children, from fighting the influx of sex offenders at Harrington Hall, to cracking down on narcotics in our schools, and now ensuring that our school communities know who their local police contacts are,” she said.

Glen Hills Principal Jay DeCristofaro warmly welcomed the community police into the Glen Hills community.

“We are fortunate to have an excellent relationship with the city, and especially with the police department,” DeCristofaro said.

Mayor Fung emphasized the importance of such a relationship.

“School Committee member Iannozzi understands the importance of having local law enforcement work hand in hand with our School Department to ensure that both parents and students have a strong rapport with the people who are out their protecting their neighborhoods,” he said. “At the secondary level, we have seen the benefits of the School Resource Officer program. These officers interact primarily with students and faculty. This program will now give a chance for parents of all school age children to get to know members of our fine department as well.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cranston weighs in on cyberbullying commission

September 16, 2010
Cranston Herald
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

The Special Senate Commission to study the problem of cyberthreats and cyberbullying held its first meeting on Sept. 9 at the State House. The meeting was open to the public.

Among those serving on the panel was Dr. Jacqueline Striano, assistant principal at Western Hills Middle School.

According to Striano, presentations that shared current research, information and specific student responses to cyberbullying were made by Scituate’s Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lawrence Filippelli; by Dr. Robert Gable, Ed. D., Director of the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program and professor of education at Johnson & Wales University; and Dr. Stacey Kite, biology professor at Johnson & Wales who serves as a representative of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The presentations included recommendations to parents and community members as to how to be on guard and proactive in their efforts to protect their children from computer related bullying and sexting issues.

Cyberbullying involves the use of various forms of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to harm others. It may be simple, such as continually e-mailing someone who has said they want no further contact, or it can include threats, sexual remarks or posting false statements as fact intended to humiliate someone.

“Dr. Fillippelli presented the group with the alarming information as to how quickly information moves in cyberspace, using the analogy of a Polaroid camera from the 1980s through which one picture can quickly be destroyed and today's handheld phones that can share photos and texts with thousands of users within seconds. “‘Technology moves so fast,’ he said, that ‘in schools today we are preparing students for technologically related jobs that don't yet exist,’” said Dr. Striano.

Striano also noted that Fillippelli urged adults to be "PESTS," which stands for protecting students, establishing online guidelines, securing private information, tolerating no excuses, and snoop (scanning their children's online sites and information).

Other committee members, including Cranston Senator Bea Lanzi (D-Dist. 26), expressed alarm at the numbers of students who do not report instances of cyberbullying for fear of social isolation and retaliation.

"We have to do something in our schools," Senator Lanzi said.

Senator Tassoni (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Smithfield) agreed, saying, that the commission hopes to start a dialogue that can eventually enact that change.

“Repeatedly making threats or posting humiliating information about another child online is unacceptable and online harassment can spill over into other kinds of harassment, with deadly consequences,” he said. “I think this commission has the potential to be influential in developing suggestions to increase tolerance and promote understanding among our young people.”

According to Dr. Striano, the educators, professors and senators all agreed that there must be an educational approach to inform students that cyberbullying will not be tolerated.

In addition, committee members stressed the significance of involving the students and teachers themselves in further actions and activities, as they are on the front lines.

“There must be student involvement for ‘buy-in’ to any new initiative,” said Dr. Fillippelli. “We can't beat them in the technology race. Our stance must be education and prevention.”

The study commission is expected to report its findings and recommendations to the Senate by the end of next March.

Wall family make good deeds part of their routine

September 16, 2010
Cranston Herald
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

IT’S IN THE BAG: Sebastiane and Teagan Wall show just a few of the backpacks they’ve already collected for kids in need. Their next backpack/duffle bag drive will be in May, and their next coat/hat/mitten drive will be in November.

Sebastiane and Teagan Wall like to put the needs of others before their own. Each year, the sisters, along with their parents Dan and Jane, host a variety of collections for those in need.

Two years ago, the family began a backpack/duffle bag drive to benefit the children who are in the foster care system. Jane Wall works for the Department of Children, Youth and Families, doing home studies for foster and adoptive families, and is a case manager for children in foster care.

“There are 4,400 kids receiving services from DCYF; 2,200 of these are in out-of-home placements,” Jane explained. “I’ve moved too many kids with their stuff in trash bags and grocery bags.”

The first year the family decided to host the drive, which they’ve nicknamed Baggage Claim 4 Kids, they announced their intent to family and friends and to their Woodridge Elementary School community, since the girls are in the second and third grades at the school.

They chose the month of May for the drive, since May is National Foster Care Month.

“The first year we collected approximately 100 backpacks and last year we collected about 125,” said Jane.

The Wall family has been able to extend their drive to the West Coast, since Jane has colleagues and friends there who host a drive as well. The drive on that coast produced about 50 the first year and 75 the second.

“Once we even gave a bear, some clothes and some coloring books with a backpack,” said Sebastiane.

Her mother agreed that the girls are wonderful about giving to anyone when they see a need.

“I feel good because we are helping people, mostly kids, and even though we don’t want to give our stuff away, we like it when we’re giving them to other people,” said Teagan.

With the backpack drive being such a success, the Wall family decided to try their hand at a coat/hat/mitten drive in November, at Thanksgiving.

“We host a Thanksgiving potluck, and one year we asked everyone to bring a dish and a coat,” said Jane. “The day after Thanksgiving, there’s a ‘Have A Coat, Bring a Coat, Give a Coat, Get a Coat’ event on the State House lawn, and we brought the coats there. We had so many coats, they asked us what agency we were from.”

“We usually bring hats and mittens with the coats,” Sebastiane added.

The Wall family has also participated in many other drives, even if they’re not hosting them, such as Project Undercover, which provides socks, underwear and diapers for those in need. They’ve donated toiletry items to CCAP. This past summer, they made a lemonade stand and had all of their profits go to the Cranston Animal Shelter.

“We raised $14 because a lot of people didn’t want change back,” said Sebastiane. “Then we donated some of our allowance too. We bought towels, cleaning supplies and toys for the animals.”

Jane notes that with the state of the economy now, more families than ever are being hit hard, creating an unprecedented need.

“For me professionally, it’s been nice to be able to raise awareness. Some people say they never thought about the need for kids in foster care to have a bag to transport their belongings, but once it was on their radar screen, they were more than willing to give,” she said.

Sebastiane and Teagan said that they like to do something for someone else approximately every other month.

“We like to do it, we like to make a bit of a difference for someone else,” said Jane. “And we like that we can do it together.”

For more information on Baggage Claim 4 Kids, or to donate a gently used backpack, duffle bag, coat, hat or mittens, contact the Wall family at

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Student by day, race car driver by night

September 9, 2010
Cranston Herald
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

NEED FOR SPEED: Bobby Pelland, pictured here in his Cranston home, is a student at Cranston West and a Rookie of the Year racecar driver on the weekends.

Bobby Pelland seems like any other student at Cranston High School West. But, at the end of the day when many of his classmates are hanging out with friends or working their after-school jobs, Pelland can be found at the races.

Venture out to Seekonk Speedway racetracks on a Saturday and you’ll find Pelland in his late model race car, racing, with his family cheering him on.

At 17 years old, Pelland is a rookie in the racing circuit, having only started racing two and a half years ago. However, he’s risen right to the top of his racing division, taking the Rookie of the Year award his first year out, and now is just a few laps away from taking it again in his new division.

“I finished second in my third race of my rookie year,” Pelland recalls. “At age 16 I was the youngest in my division. Some people race for 10 years and only win one or two. It’s hard.”

Pelland didn’t have any interest in racing during his younger years, even though his father was also a race car driver.

“But then they changed the racing age to 15, and that was when we first heard him talk about it,” said Pelland’s mother, Paula.

Now, it’s how Pelland spends all of his spare time when he’s not in school or studying.

“The average upkeep is two nights a week, unless you have a wreck the week before,” said Pelland.

He has had a couple of wrecks, his car becoming airborne and crashing, but nothing too bad so far.

According to Paula, it’s difficult to watch her son race and not be nervous about him crashing, even having a husband who is a racer as well.

“I get nervous when he races. I’m used to it with my husband, but it’s totally different when it’s your son,” she said.

Each Tuesday and Thursday evening, Pelland and his dad drive to the race shop in Cumberland where the car is kept, and work on it.

“We go through four tires a week,” said Pelland, noting that each tire averages $150 to replace, and other expenses include traveling and gas, which costs $10 per gallon.

He is not completely on his own to cover the expenses he incurs when racing. He has several sponsors, and as he gets better, he hopes his sponsorship will increase as well.

“There are two ways you can get sponsors,” said Pelland. “You can show them a resume or you can be approached by someone with a team who asks you to race for them, [called getting a ride].”

He is hoping to get a ride and be able to race on a team for a sponsor in the near future, and is looking into colleges now as well.

“We’ll see where this takes me in the future,” he said. “I’m young and I have plenty of time.”

For the time being, Pelland is focused on the start of the new school year and his racing. He is going to try racing in the American Canadian Tour next, which is a step up from where he is right now.

“That’s the best drivers I can race with, having the kind of car I have now,” Pelland said.

Although he is one of the younger racers in his division, he’s happy there. Currently there are two other racers Pelland’s age, and the rest are in their 20s and 30s.

“My dad has always told me that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. I could be racing mini races with kids my age, but I like it where I am,” he said.