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.

Heroes of Sept. 11 inspire McGrath's art

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

REMEMBERING THE HEROES: Marion McGrath poses next to her depiction of Father Myke Judge being carried out of the wreckage on Sept. 11, 2001. The painting has been on display in several states since its completion.

Generations of families have known Marion McGrath as the director of Carriage House Day Care center, which is located on Shaw Avenue in the Edgewood section of Cranston. Thousands of children have passed through the center’s doors since it opened.

Still, more residents know McGrath for all of her hard work and advocacy as an Edgewood resident.

However, few people realize that McGrath is a talented painter whose paintings have been featured in exhibits up and down the east coast.

Having grown up in the World War II era, with two sons who were policemen, McGrath was drawn to the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001 in a very personal way.

“I was watching the Today Show and saw those planes crash. I saw the people jumping out of the towers,” she said. “I was drawn to every image at that time. I couldn’t leave the television set sometimes. I’d turn it on in the middle of the night. This was such a tragic event for our country.”

McGrath was struck by the fact that the policemen and firefighters at Ground Zero were “ordinary men doing extraordinary things.”

She saw a photo of several firefighters pulling the lifeless body of chaplain Father Myke Judge out of the wreckage and knew she had to paint that image. The priest had been ministering to the injured and dying firefighters when he suffered a heart attack and died.

McGrath said she visualized what she wanted to do for her painting and asked her art instructor, Delores LaCassio, if she thought it could be done.

“She said I could do it,” McGrath said, and with that, she began painting.

From the start, McGrath felt the images flowed easily onto her canvas. Although she never knew Father Myke, McGrath said she’s learned so much about him since she began her painting.

She painted the images of the exhausted men carrying Father Myke Judge, and then in the shadows behind, a cross can be seen and a ray of light shines through the smoke and soot. McGrath purposely left the background gray, never adding any colors to the rest of the painting.

“That ray of light touches each and every one of them in the picture,” McGrath said. “I wanted to depict that even in this wicked tragedy, we still have faith that something better will come along.”

As word got out about McGrath’s painting, people stopped in to watch her progress. When the painting was done, she kept it on exhibit in Fort Meyers where she spends her winters.

As the anniversary of the tragedy approached, however, McGrath wanted to take her painting to New York City and show it to the Franciscans and the firefighters who had known Father Myke.

“One of my fears was that it would be so reminding of the event, that I had great anxiety about how it would be received. I didn’t know if it’d be received well or if it would be too emotional, too reminding,” she said.

“It was a very emotional meeting,” she recalled of her visit to Ground Zero, the Franciscans and the firehouse. “They looked at the painting in the trunk of my car and said, “This is not like all the rest.”

Word of the painting traveled and McGrath was asked to display her painting again, this time in Boston at the St. Anthony Shrine for the Sept. 11 commemorative prayer service being held there in 2002. She was also featured in a documentary out of England.

Currently, the painting is in McGrath’s home here in Cranston, where she keeps it in between exhibitions.

McGrath had no interest in learning to paint until she took her very first painting class in October 1999.

“My sister-in-law, Barbara was bringing this artist to Fort Meyers for a class. She needed 10 people to sign up for the class in order for it to run, so I signed up,” McGrath said.

McGrath remembers some frayed nerves at the thought of going to a painting class with no prior painting experience.

“I had nightmares for three nights before,” she said.

Once in the class, there was a great deal of information and technique to take in, but McGrath was a fast learner.

She has since completed several more paintings, which are displayed in her home and at Carriage House. Although she’s proud of all her work, few have the emotion and meaning that her 9/11 paintings have.

“By having done this painting, it’s brought so many people into my life that I wouldn’t have known before,” said McGrath. “I honestly believe that things were meant to be and this is what I was meant to be doing.”

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cranston schools set the bar for energy conservation

September 2, 2010
Cranston Herald
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

EAST HAS ENERGY: Cranston High School East is one of 12 school buildings in the city that has received the Energy Star Conservation award for 2010. Thanks to the school department’s work in energy conservation, many school buildings are receiving updates from $400,000 in federal funding.

All eyes are on the Cranston Public Schools energy program as the new school year begins.

Thanks to the work of the energy management program run by Karen Verrengia and carried out by the custodial staff across the district, CPS has been hailed as a leader in the area of energy conservation, since showing the district a cost savings of more than $2 million from the time the program began in 2006.

Cranston recently received word that 12 CPS buildings have gone through a rigorous qualification and selection process and are slated to receive the prestigious Energy Star Conservation award for 2010.

Those school and district buildings are: Chester W. Barrows, Edgewood Highland, Norwood Avenue, the William A. Briggs building, Sprague School, Edward S. Rhodes, Stone Hill, Daniel Waterman, Western Hills and Park View middle schools; as well as Cranston High Schools East and West.

The Energy Star standard certifies an energy-efficient facility and rates those buildings in the top 25 percent of all facilities nationally, based on the EPA’s National Energy Performance Rating system.

According to Verrengia, two buildings per year received the sought-after award in 2008 and 2009. At the time, the buildings were the first school buildings ever to qualify for the award in Rhode Island.

The buildings that received the awards at that time were Daniel D. Waterman, Chester Barrows and Edgewood Highland Elementary Schools.

“People across the country are tracking what we are doing here in Cranston and they want to know how we’re doing it so that they can do it in their districts too,” said Verrengia, noting that she frequently receives e-mails and phone calls asking for advice on energy management.

Verrengia herself was recently recognized with a merit award for her work in Cranston by the Environmental Protection Agency.

This past summer, six different school buildings across the city qualified for and received needed energy updates from more than $400,000 in federal stimulus money. The buildings are Western Hills Middle School, Cranston High School West, Hugh B. Bain Middle School, George J. Peters Elementary School, Glen Hills Elementary School and Hope Highlands Elementary School.

Some of the projects included lighting system retrofits, and the installation of energy efficient sensors, which regulate heat and electricity. Edward S. Rhodes Elementary School also received a lighting retrofit as part of a separate financing agreement with National Grid.

These updates will show immediate payback in the form of energy cost savings across the district.

In total, 16 buildings will be receiving lighting retrofits with two more on the horizon, utilizing a variety of financing options and grants from National Grid and HUD.

Verrengia noted that Building Operator Certification (BOC) training focuses heavily on energy star qualifications and tracks buildings to make sure they are in line with those qualifications.

“Everything they teach [in BOC] parallels everything I do and try to achieve,” said Verrengia.

Last year, Cranston hosted a Building Operator Certification training class in which several of the district’s building foremen participated along with building operators from outside of Cranston. Verrengia sat in on the trainings.

This year the Rhode Island Association of School Maintenance has asked Cranston to host a re-certification class.

In turn, National Grid has agreed to sponsor the class, which will be held at the Park Cinema. CPS is utilizing an agreement that the city has with the cinema, which allows them to use the cinema for free for events.

The course will take place on Friday, Oct. 29.

Welcome back, Cranston

Cranston Herald
September 2, 2010

All text and photos by Jen Cowart

A WARM WELCOME: Sixth-grader Chris Shorey, a new student at Glen Hills, walks down to his classroom with Commissioner Gist and Principal DeCristofaro.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist loves the first week of school.

“The first week of school is my absolute favorite time of the year. It’d be impossible for me to stay away from classrooms during the first week,” she said on Tuesday as she toured Glen Hills Elementary School.

Gist said she wanted to be in the Cranston schools for the first day of school, and that Superintendent Peter Nero was very welcoming when she phoned and asked him if she could spend some time with the Cranston students.

Chester Barrows first-grader Claire Dancause and her big sister, Annemarie Dancause in third grade, had the opportunity, along with their mother, to walk to school with Commissioner Gist and Superintendent Nero.

Gist met the family at their home and took the daily walk to school with them. Once at Barrows, she spent nearly an hour in the schoolyard, greeting Barrows students and their families on their first morning back.

“She spent about 45 minutes visiting with parents and talking to them,” said Principal Paul Heatherton. “It was a great way to start off the school year.”

From there, Gist and Nero headed over to join the Glen Hills Elementary School community as their families began the school day. Gist spent time greeting the families in the lobby and then took a tour of the building, stopping into several classrooms along the way.

As she walked, she spoke to Principal Jay DeCristofaro about several of the school’s programs, including the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports program (PBIS), which integrates positive school behaviors with the prevention of bullying. Many of the school’s teachers participated in intensive PBIS training over the summer.

Gist stopped to speak to classrooms and visited with individual students, kneeling down next to them and asking about what they were working on. She also made time to meet and greet some of the students who were new to the school in each of the classrooms they visited, asking them where they were from and if they were excited about the new school year.

As she walked from room to room, Gist would stop and introduce herself to teachers and students who were passing in the hallways, complimenting them on their behavior or wishing them a good first day of school.

When she visited Jody Joseph’s first grade classroom, Gist told the students how lucky they were to be in a classroom filled with books, as she loves to read.

As she spoke to the third-graders in Michelle Cornelia’s class, Gist was sure to spread the word though, about what she considers to be the most important job of all: being a teacher.

“Most importantly, I used to be a fifth grade teacher,” she told them.

Both Nero and DeCristofaro, who are former CPS teachers, welcomed Gist to join them in any one of the Cranston classrooms, any time she gets the urge to teach a lesson in the future.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Who's who and who's new in Cranston Public Schools

Cranston Herald
August 26, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

This year Cranston Public Schools has welcomed several new administrators to positions in Cranston. Taking the helm at Chester Barrows Elementary School is Principal Paul Heatherton, who took over mid-year last school year. Prior to arriving at Barrows, Heatherton was the assistant principal at Park View Middle School and a special education teacher at Hugh B. Bain Middle School for seven years before that.

Heatherton is excited to start his first full year at Barrows. He’s got a new PTO board and is hoping to tap into their enthusiasm as well.

“The PTO has ideas; I have ideas, so we’ll see all that we can do together,” said Heatherton. “We’re hoping to start a new school-wide theme of going green for our focus this year.”

Heatherton was excited that he has over $20,000 of new technology equipment coming into the building for students due to the fact that five of his staff members participated in the E2T2 technology training offered to the district this school year.

“We were in dire need of that,” he said.

Just down the road, over at Edward S. Rhodes Elementary School, Principal James Zanfini has come on board since the retirement of long-time principal Kenneth Blackman.

Zanfini has taught the past 10 years in Lincoln and brings with him a strong background in the elementary curriculum.

“I’m passionate about primary education,” he said. “It’s so important to reach elementary students in those first foundational years.”

Principal Zanfini is excited about continuing on with the work that Blackman began with his staff at Rhodes.

“I’m already impressed by the dedication of the teachers at Rhodes,” Zanfini said. “There’s a strong community of leaders on our staff. They’ve been working on science initiatives and technology training this summer.”

Zanfini is hoping to continue the momentum at Rhodes, moving forward doing what’s best for the children.

“When I lay my head on my pillow at night, I need to know each day that I did what’s best for the children. It’s not a job to me, it’s a gift,” he said.

After elementary school comes middle school, and there’s a new face over at Western Hills Middle School greeting the students this year.

Dr. Jacqueline Striano arrived at Western Hills in the late spring of 2010, finishing out the year there, after transitioning from Cranston High School West.

“I have been at Western Hills since last spring, and I love being a part of this colossal intellectual community,” said Striano. “From what I can see, Western Hills is a place that values inquisitive young minds, fostering an environment that is safe from bullying and intimidation and a building that continually strives for excellence.”

Striano has spent a large part of her summer working on scheduling, but has taken time out to travel on behalf of her students, visiting Lexington and Concord to do some research for the eighth-graders studying the American Revolution this year.

Prior to arriving in Cranston, Dr. Striano worked in both Connecticut and in Boston as a teacher and as an administrator, having taught special education, serving as a department head, and running an alternative school.

She enjoys connecting with her students, engaging in things they enjoy and connecting with their parents as well.

“I eat lunch with [the students], and they quiz me on historical trivia; usually, they win! I also try to keep up with another group of avid readers who come to my office and say, ‘We think you will like this book, read it with us,’” Striano said. “It is gratifying to see young people eager to learn and to work with parents who support their initiatives. I also enjoy talking to our Cobra Parents who inquire about curriculum, learning and how to work together to ensure that our students succeed.”

Park View Middle School welcomed a familiar face to a new position last spring. As the school’s former physical education instructor, Mike Crudale took over as assistant principal when then-Assistant Principal Christopher D’Ambrosio left the position to go to Cranston High School East.

Prior to arriving at Park View 15 years ago, Crudale was a faculty member at Western Hills Middle School for two years.

“I’m very excited about being in a new position in a school that I’ve been in for so many years,” said Crudale.

There is a time and place for everything, and Crudale, who is known for his antics on stage at school events, promises that he’ll continue to participate in school-wide activities.

Cranston High School West had the pleasure of welcoming Kim Magnelli as their new assistant principal this past spring. Magnelli began her teaching career when she student taught at Western Hills in 1991, and was hired there in 1994 as a math teacher. She worked at Bain briefly and then returned to WHMS in 1997. She was appointed assistant principal in 2005 and remained in that capacity until the spring of this year, when she moved over to Cranston West.

Magnelli is anticipating a great school year at West.

“I am looking forward to the challenge of the high school, and also being able to assist my former students from WHMS and their families,” said Magnelli.

West isn’t the only high school in town seeing a new face in administration.

Over at the New England Laborers/Cranston Public Schools charter high school, there is a new executive director as of Sept. 1.

Richard Pecorelli, former assistant director and recruitment coordinator since 2008, has taken over for Dr. Mike Silvia, who has now retired.

“I’m excited about taking on this position,” said Pecorelli.

Prior to arriving at NEL/CPS, Pecorelli was a math and science teacher in the Cranston middle schools.

“I also taught science here for one year before taking on the assistant director position,” said Pecorelli.

Central Administration, located in the Briggs Building on Park Avenue, has welcomed a new, but not so new, face to Cranston Public Schools this year as well.

Jeannine Nota-Masse, a long-time Cranston Public Schools employee until 2008, has returned to Cranston, taking on the position of Executive Director of Educational Programs and Services.

Nota-Masse began at Cranston High School East in 2001 as assistant principal and worked in the area of discipline for five years. For the next two years she worked as assistant principal in the area of Guidance.

“I really liked seeing the other side of the job,” Nota-Masse said. “I really loved it.”

In 2008 she left Cranston to take a job as the principal of East Greenwich High School, where she worked for two years before seizing the opportunity to return to her hometown this year.

“I’m surrounded by a team of people looking to make Cranston the best possible school district it could be,” Nota-Masse said. “The job is going to be challenging and there are going to be times when I’ll be learning things I may not be familiar with, but there’s a certain comfort level of working with people I’ve worked with for almost 10 years.”

Nota-Masse acknowledges that CPS is going through its own struggles financially, but emphasizes that the administrators in the district truly want to see the school system succeed.

“This is not just a job for the people here, it’s a vocation,” she said. “I have a lot of faith in what we do here, and I believe that the people of Cranston deserve the very best.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bain staff hits the street to meet new students

Cranston Herald
August 26, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

HITTING THE STREETS: Bain Principal Tom Barbieri and his staff take a moment to pose for the camera before continuing on to the next house.

With summer winding down and September fast approaching, many teachers have begun setting up their classrooms. Others are enjoying the remaining carefree hours with their families.

But for many faculty members at Hugh B. Bain Middle School, it’s time to hit the streets and introduce themselves to the school’s new families.

For the second year in a row, Principal Tom Barbieri has asked for volunteers from his faculty and staff to accompany him on his walks through the neighborhoods of Stadium, Gladstone, Peters and Woodridge Elementary Schools.

For the second year in a row, the response has been overwhelming.

This year, Barbieri, along with 20 staffers and Family Center representative Grace Swinski, walked through the streets of Cranston for three nights in a row, three hours each night. They endured temperatures reaching almost 90 degrees.

“It’s what’s best for the kids,” Barbieri said. “A good principal reconnects with parents and students before school starts. It eases the transition so that there are no surprises.”

Barbieri knew he’d be embarking on the initiative, but was blown away that so many teachers offered to help.

“One teacher left her beach house in Charlestown to come up for one day to participate in these walks at night,” he said.

Doors opened to welcome Barbieri as he rang the bell at house after house. The new seventh graders were ready and waiting, having been given a head’s up by student council members.

“This gives them the chance to see that we care about them even outside of school,” said Bain +2 coordinator Brittany Sandbergen. “They see that we’re not just a part of the school.”

The exercise also allows teachers to get a first hand look at where their students are coming from.

“This gives us an appreciation of the walking distance these kids travel and the obstacles they might face on the way to school, before they’ve even gotten to me,” said reading teacher Kristie Butler.

Barbieri agreed.

“When you’ve walked these neighborhoods and then these kids are in front of you when you’re teaching them, you can advocate for them because you know, you have a good sense of what they’re going through,” he said.

At each house, Barbieri tried to connect with the students, asking them if they were ready for school, if they had completed their reading and math packets and read their two summer reading books.

Each family also received an invitation to Bain’s back-to-school hot dog roast which was scheduled to take place on Aug. 25 from 5 to 7 p.m. Barbieri asks the faculty and staff to support that event as well, even though it too, is an unpaid event.

He knows from past experience that many staff members will be there, using the opportunity to connect with families and students.

“These walks will help us make connections even before next Wednesday’s hot dog roast,” said Butler.

The staff acknowledges that middle school is a different world than elementary school, which is all the more reason to make these connections prior to the start of the school year.

“When you send your child to middle school, you’re very apprehensive,” said Mary Hopkins, one of Bain’s seventh grade math teachers. “This shows families that we’re going to take care of their students, and that we really do care about them.”

Swinski has a dual role in the process. She has been a parent at Bain, and she walks to represent the Family Center.

“At the Family Center, parent involvement is our number one priority. This is so important to the families and to the children. They look forward to it, and during the school year, they remember these visits. It’s a nice opportunity to connect,” she said.

Last year, the staff members reached out to 90 families in the Bain community. This year, thanks to Swinski’s mapping skills, they surpassed that number on the second night out.

“Although we can’t get to every house, as much as we’d like to, we’re hoping to reach at least two-thirds of the families this year,” she said.

Principal Barbieri believes that pre-season initiatives such as the neighborhood walks and the upcoming hot dog roast are all part of building the school community and forming a school-to-home connection, even if it means volunteering one’s time.

“A major part of our school’s success is having a faculty and staff who are willing to go above and beyond,” Barbieri said. “To me that’s the definition of a professional.”

Growing up Muslim

Cranston Herald
August 26, 2010
Text and photo by Jen Cowart

AN AMERICAN FAMILY: Nancy Kattan stands with two of her four children, Zayne and Nora, at their family's home where in Cranston.

In many ways, the Kattan family of Cranston is no different from their neighbors. They have four children, three of whom attend Cranston Public Schools, and one who recently graduated from Cranston West. They have a swimming pool, they play sports, and they’re active in the community.

The Kattans are also a Muslim American family.

Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the world’s view of Muslims has changed greatly. It has made things difficult for many of the more than 2.5 million Muslim Americans estimated to be living across the country today.

Here in Cranston, however, Nancy Kattan and her husband Khaled are just trying to live their normal lives and raise their children.

Kattan, who was born and raised Catholic, met Khaled through mutual friends more than 20 years ago, when she was in her early 20s. She had a decision on her hands: to convert or not to convert to her future husband’s Muslim faith.

“It was about a two-year process, where I learned about his faith and tried to make sure that this was what was best for me and for God,” said Kattan, describing that time of personal reflection.

Ultimately, she decided that it was the right choice for her and she converted.

When she was 25, she and Khaled married.

“I am very blessed,” said Kattan. “My father had already passed away, but I know he would have been supportive of my decision, and the rest of my family was very understanding.”

Today, the family is in the midst of the month-long observance of Ramadan. Fasting from sunup to sundown is part of the holiday observance, and the Kattans get up in the middle of the night, before the sun, to eat a large meal. They take a mid-morning nap, and then go the rest of the day before eating or drinking again.

Observance of the Ramadan tradition begins during adolescence, so Kattan’s youngest child, 9-year-old Nora, does not need to follow the fasting rites as strictly as the older children and the adults.

The Kattan family enjoys the neighborhood in which they live and run a family convenience store business. Despite the challenges those in her faith have faced, Kattan says she feels as if the family is viewed more as a staple in the neighborhood than any kind of a threat.

“Everyone here knows us and I feel pretty comfortable around here,” Kattan says. “If I stay within the Cranston, Johnston and Providence metropolitan areas, I feel okay.”

It’s venturing beyond those lines where things can sometimes get a little bit tricky, says Kattan.

Kattan wears her Muslim head covering, called a hijab, daily, including when she is out in public; a practice that sometimes draws stares and rude comments.

“Funny looks are a daily occurrence for me, but not as many people will actually say anything,” Kattan said.

Oftentimes, when they do, Kattan will answer right back, drawing on her Italian sarcasm to give it right back to them. Most often though, she tries to ignore them and remain positive.

“I try to gravitate towards the positive people. If I paid attention to all the negative, I don’t know how I’d survive out there,” she said.

There have been a few bumps in the road for the Kattan children attending school in Cranston, but overall they have not had many problems. Education is a priority in their family, as Kattan has a degree in theater and a master’s degree in social work.

More often than not, if there are activities that her children are uncomfortable with at school, Kattan asks that an alternate activity be allowed instead.

“When one of my sons was in fifth grade, he was uncomfortable with making the gingerbread houses that the rest of the class was making. In our religion, food is sacred and we are blessed to have it. We try very hard not to waste it,” Kattan said.

Her son went up to his teacher and said that he did not feel comfortable wasting food on the project, and could he do something else instead.

“The teacher was so impressed and so happy that he felt comfortable coming to her, that she called me to tell me,” she said.

Sadly, it’s often the comments from other students that are most upsetting for the Kattan kids. Both Nora and Zayne have both encountered peers who have been less than friendly to them at school.

“There was a kid in my class who said something to me like, ‘Your family bombs buildings and kills other people,’” said Nora. “I told the teacher and she made him apologize to me, but I don’t think that was enough.”

Nora was also sad during this school year when she heard younger students picking on her kindergarten cousin about being Muslim.

“I don’t know how kids in the first grade know how to say such bad things about other people,” Nora said. “Where do they hear that stuff?”

As Nora approaches adolescence, she is excited about the prospect of wearing the hijab. She’ll begin transitioning soon, so that her friends and family will get used to seeing her with her head covered.

I’m going to start with a bandana for a year or two, so that they get used to seeing me, and then I’ll add the other piece,” said Nora.

Kattan is happy to see that her children are sure of themselves and their religion.

“They have a presence about them,” she said. “What about those kids who are shy or introverted? They’re the ones that are going to be targeted.”

Zayne does not hide the fact that he is Muslim when he is at school, but he knows of students in his school who do, for fear of being targeted.

Kattan admits to being frustrated at times with the targeting of Muslims in general.

“Five percent of the world make it tough for the rest of us to live,” Kattan said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to stand strong against the negativity and keep my children grounded.”

She also notes that television is one of the worst offenders.

“I’m trying to raise four children here in America,” she said. “And you turn on the TV and you hear senators talking about banning mosques everywhere – not just in New York City at Ground Zero – that’s scary.”

With all of the debate in the media recently surrounding the proposed Park 51 community center and mosque, Kattan has heard comments that frighten her, including a recent comment that true Muslim men beat their wives every day.

Kattan can attest that these ideas couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I don’t know why people feel that it’s okay to portray Muslims as barbarous. If you portray someone as less than you and as evil beings, then it’s okay to do things that are less than nice,” she said.

True religious Muslims, Kattan said, are peaceful people.

“In the Koran it says that if you’ve killed one innocent life, then you’ve killed all of humanity. So imagine anyone taking that kind of power into their hands. I’ve never ever, ever heard any Muslim say that was okay,” she said. “To blame a billion people for what one group of people did, who just happened to be Muslims with a political agenda rather than a religious one, is just wrong.”

In Kattan’s lifetime, both here and in her husband’s homeland of Syria where her family lived for seven months, she’s developed a philosophy of life that connects all cultures.

“People are people all over the world. They all want the same thing. Parents are the same everywhere. They want a good education for their kids, enough food, and shelter. When those needs are being met, most people are calm,” she said. “Unfortunately, not a lot of people are having their needs met and I think that fuels a lot of the problems in this world.”

For her family, though, life is good.

“I love Cranston. This is my home,” said Kattan. “I consider myself an American who happens to be a Muslim.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Local artist turns hobby into career

Cranston Herald
August 19, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

ON SHELVES NOW: Griffeth is now the illustrator of two published children’s books: “The Waterfire Duck,” and “Bubble Butt, the Challenged Sea Turtle.” Both books are written by Kiki Latimer of Hope Valley.

Bernice “Bunny” Griffeth spent most of her adult life working as a nurse who had a painting hobby on the side. These days, art has become more than a hobby.

Griffeth is a published children’s book illustrator and award-winning painter.

Since taking early retirement from nursing in 2006 in order to care for her grandchildren, Griffeth has been able to focus on her artwork and has unexpectedly found a new career path as an illustrator.

“I’d never stopped painting, but I never had a lot of time to devote to it when I was working as a nurse,” she said. “When I retired I started being able to spend a lot of time painting.”

Soon after her retirement, Griffeth wanted to draw some attention to her paintings, so she began researching and decided to create a daily painting blog ( through which she would showcase her talents. She began updating her blog every day.

She also uploaded six images to the Providence Journal<$> website, in the hopes that someone might see them and be interested in her work, although she didn’t have high hopes.

“I thought to myself, ‘Who is ever going to find me on here?’” said Griffeth.

Little did she know, local author Kiki Latimer had her next children’s book, “The Waterfire Duck,” all written and ready to go to publishing, she just needed a local artist to do the illustrations. Latimer began searching the Internet for someone who was familiar with Rhode Island’s Waterfire.

Latimer came across Griffeth’s paintings of local imagery on and knew she’d found her illustrator.

“We met once and we discussed a little bit about the book,” said Griffeth, who had recently won an award for one of her Waterfire paintings from the Watercolor Society. “After that we went back and forth over e-mail.”

Griffeth, who usually paints from the photographs that she takes, took about seven months to complete her paintings for “The Waterfire Duck.”

She is a fan of Waterfire herself, and had quite a collection of photographs of past Waterfires already, before she even knew she’d be illustrating the book.

Once the book was published in September 2009, local news outlets interviewed Griffeth and Latimer. They were asked to carry and light the Waterfire torches for one of the Waterfire nights that month.

“I had my grandson Joshua with me and he’d been with me at the first Waterfire I ever went to,” said Griffeth. “It was all very exciting.”

Soon Latimer was ready to publish another book based on local lore, “Bubble Butt: The Challenged Sea Turtle of Mystic Aquarium,” the true story of Charlotte the sea turtle, nicknamed “Bubble Butt” by the workers at the Connecticut aquarium due to an injury from a boat propeller that causes her to produce a large amount of gas bubbles in the water.

Latimer again contracted Griffeth to illustrate her book, which would be published in May 2010. Griffeth took several trips to Mystic Aquarium to visit Charlotte and take some photos of the soon-to-be-famous sea turtle.

“I wanted to make sure she was pictured in her real color,” she said. “She’s a green sea turtle, but she’s actually a golden color.”

Before she knew it, Griffeth had illustrated two books.

There’s been discussion between Griffeth and Latimer about collaborating on future children’s books, but nothing has been decided yet. Griffeth is also interested in illustrating for other authors, but ultimately as she sits in her home surrounded by her artwork, with her grandchildren nearby, she has just one immediate goal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cranston teachers become students with technology-based professional development

Cranston Herald
August 11, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

TEACHERS BECOME STUDENTS: Teachers fill the computer lab at Glen Hills elementary school, using technology to enhance their students’ learning.

When people think of teachers at this time of year, immediately their summer schedule comes to mind: two months of sleeping in and days at the beach.

What many people don’t realize is how many teachers use the summer as a chance to take advantage of professional development opportunities that directly benefit classroom instruction.

For the second summer in a row, many Cranston teachers were accepted to the Rhode Island Teachers and Technical Training Initiative (RITTI) through the Model Classroom Grant, part of a federal program called E2T2, which took place at Glen Hills Elementary School for two weeks in July.

“This program gives teachers two weeks of full-day training using technical tools in relevant ways to go along with the standards. They are trained in how to connect English/Language Arts with Science and Reading and Writing with Science through the use of technology,” said Fritz Benz, one of the program trainers from North Smithfield High School.

Initially, the teachers spend time delving into the state elementary science standards, learning exactly what needs to be taught at each grade level. They discuss ways of differentiating instruction to meet the needs of every student, and they are trained how to connect the most relevant technology tools to each unit of study at each grade level.

“We expose them to a whole variety of technology, and we get them to utilize that technology in ways that are relevant and meaningful for students,” said Benz.

During the second week, each teacher had to develop a unit or portion of a unit, centered on the state science standards, using technology.

Each unit will be entered into a database that all teachers who participate in the training will have access to, encouraging the sharing strategies across Rhode Island.

“The caveat is that each teacher who participates in the training also receives $4,000 in technology for their classrooms, which can include computers, digital video equipment and presentation technology,” said trainer Jean Carmody, a Cranston teacher.

Steve Sposato, a Westerly High School teacher and program trainer, explained that ultimately the goal of the program is to “get teachers to buy into and integrate whatever tools will facilitate kids getting hands-on technology experience.”

One of Cranston’s district math coaches, Linda Bello, was impressed by the presentations at the end of the two weeks.

“How they have developed their ideas and integrated technology is fantastic,” she said. “The kids will be responding to homework and prompts using wikis, and working on projects that are technology-based. Teachers have found new learning games for kids and linked them to their classroom websites.”

Carmody notes that the use of technology in the classroom allows kids to become further engaged in their learning and motivates them to learn at a higher level.

In addition to the benefit to the students, the teachers reap the benefits as well. They are able to spend two full weeks sharing ideas with other professionals, something they don’t often get to do as professional development opportunities are often few and far between, given the current fiscal crisis across the state.

“There’s a lot of teacher sharing, a lot of co-learning and socialized intelligence,” said Benz. “We want them to do more than just reproduce information. We want them to get the facts and utilize the facts and have a deeper engagement in their learning.”

The Cranston teachers participating in this summer’s training particularly impressed Benz.

“As somebody from outside Cranston, I have to say how impressed I am with the efforts of the teachers here. These teachers are fantastic,” he said. “They’re trying to get to another level for the kids. All of their focus is on the kids, and they really seem to be appreciative of the program.”

Benz noted that for every teacher who receives the training, there were twice as many applicants. He also stated that Cranston is a leader in the state of Rhode Island, piloting their science curriculum mapping work with the University of Texas’ Dana Center, and taking part in the RITTI/E2T2 training.

“They’re really taking control of the curriculum mapping information,” he said.

As part of the grant, the teacher participants are expected to bring back what they’ve learned and share it with the rest of their staff, teaching others.

“There’s a spirit of excitement and collaboration,” said Sposato. Carmody agreed.

“We’re encouraging them to think out of the box. It’s not just PowerPoint and Excel anymore,” she said. “There’s just no limit to what’s out there.”

Theater comes alive with 'Living Art'

Cranston Herald
August 11, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

TAKING THE SPOTLIGHT: Singing and dancing was a big part of this year’s “A Jungle Book” performance.

After five weeks of auditions, memorizing lines, learning songs and making new friends, the cast and crew of this summer’s Living Art Theatricks theater group performed another successful show this year.

There were students from all over Cranston performing the adaptation of Disney’s “A Jungle Book.” The students ranged in age from 5 through 17 years, according to the show’s producer, Jeff Buco.

“We had a lot of new kids this year and younger kids as well,” said Buco.

The group was started six years ago in order to bring theater to the children of Cranston by Buco and the show’s director, Michael Miele.

“Our goal was not just to put on a show and learn the fundamentals of theater, but to create friendships and a family atmosphere along the way. It’s more about the journey than the perfect show,” said Miele.

First-time performer, 10-year-old Samantha Mastrati enjoyed the journey very much.

“It’s pretty fun,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to memorize all the lines. I have a lot of lines; not as much as Mowgli, but a good amount.”

Mastrati played Buzzy the Vulture.

Two different actresses played Mowgli in this show. Hannah Sasa, a second grader at Hope Highlands, played Baby Mowgli, while Jayna McCarvill played the grown-up version.

"This was my first time in a show,” said Sasa. “It’s fun because you try out, and you get a surprise part, and you get to have fun with it.”

Sasa agreed with Mastrati that the hardest part of being in the show was memorizing all of the lines.

Sasa’s brother, Jordan, is heading into the ninth grade at Hendricken in the fall and has been in the Living Art Theatricks shows for the past three years as an actor. He transitioned this year into the more technical aspects of the show, working on the crew.

“This was fun. It really gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how you run the show,” he said.

Alex Sparks, a Park View student, played King Louie in the performance. He was a first-time performer as well.

“It’s really very fun, and you get to make new friends,” he said. “You get to play someone you can’t be in real life.”

The thrill of being in a stage performance in front of a live audience was expressed by many of the actors and actresses.

Robert Susi, an Oak Lawn fifth grader, was excited by being on stage.

“We get to be on stage in front of all the people, and they clap for you,” he said.

Susi has an interest in writing his own plays and has been working on several over the past few months.

Kaylee Dorr, age 10, explained some of the more technical, behind-the-scenes details that one might not think of when watching the show.

"The hardest part is getting in and out of costume,” she said.

Dorr plays an elephant and enjoyed all of the singing and dancing the best.

The performances were last weekend at Hope Highlands Elementary School, and the show seemingly went off without a hitch, although according to Miele, that’s not all that matters.

“It’s not about a perfect show or how it ends, but rather the friendships you make while getting there.”

Gill tournament 'rings' in a new year

Cranston Herald
August 11, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

A DAY TO REMEMBER: Jonathan Gill proposes to longtime girlfriend Bella Moses at the start of the golf tournament

The PS3 Ronald A. Gill Jr. Memorial Scholarship Foundation kicked off their fiscal year with the fourth annual golf tournament at Cranston Country Club on July 24.

The year’s tournament, which has been a sell-out every year, brought in 144 golfers this year and more than 200 people for the dinner, raising just under $13,000 for the scholarship fund.

The Gill Family began the Memorial Scholarship Foundation three years ago when their son Ron Gill Jr. was killed in a tragic accident while on duty with the Coast Guard in Alaska. Since its inception, the foundation had raised $70,000 in scholarship money as of June 30.

“We had more people than ever before, and this was our kick-off to start the new year,” said Ron Gill Sr. “If everything goes the way we think it will, we should exceed $100,000 next year.”

This year’s tournament was especially meaningful and yet very difficult for Ronnie’s family because July 21 would have been his 30th birthday.

“Although this event is a tremendous success and the primary fundraiser, I think you all know where we would rather be,” said Ron. “Never in a million years did we think we’d be spending Ronnie’s 30th birthday visiting him at the cemetery.”

A bright spot occurred on that day, however, when Ronnie’s brother, Jonathan, proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Bella Moses, on the golf green at the start of the golf tournament.

“That was a special moment; she was very surprised,” said Ron.

The golf tournament began with a full lunch sponsored by Shaw’s, and after a full day of golfing (despite a rain shower before the back nine), a full dinner was served at Cranston Country Club, another one of the foundation’s generous supporters.

Businesses and individuals around the state support the foundation events, donating services, raffle items, even golf tees for the golfers.

Mayor Allan Fung was ready to spend his day golfing for a good cause that afternoon.

“It’s a beautiful day for this fantastic event. I’m happy to be able to support the Gill family and foundation,” the mayor said. “They do so many wonderful things for Cranston and our students. I hope we raise lots of money for the foundation so we can help even more Cranston students in the future.”

The golf tournament is just the beginning, and two more events are close on the horizon.

On Saturday, Aug. 14, Christopher’s Cranston Deli and Pub at 1458 Park Ave. will be donating 20 percent of all proceeds from noon to 6 p.m. to the foundation, as well as tips from “celebrity” bartenders Barbara Dardeen and Tara Harrington.

On Sunday, Aug. 15, The Tavern in Framingham, Mass. will be hosting a “Meat Shoot” to benefit the foundation at 2 p.m.

“These are our two newest events,” said Gill. “Kelsey DeJesus, one of our scholarship recipients, always works so hard to come up with new ideas, and these were her ideas.”

Gill noted that Tommy’s Pizza also raised a great deal of money for the scholarship fund on July 6, when a portion of all proceeds that afternoon went to the foundation.

“They sold 226 pizzas alone that day,” Gill said proudly. “It was extremely successful.”

The Foundation has all of its usual events planned for the upcoming year, as well as a new event planned for Saturday, Sept. 17. Witzend will be holding a benefit concert at Cranston Country Club from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. A minimum $5 donation will be taken at the door and Cranston Country Club will offer free pizza, calzones and sandwiches until 10:30 that evening.

“The band has been around for years and they approached us and said they’d like to do a benefit concert for us,” Gill said. “They’re donating all of their time. If this goes well, it’ll become a regular fall fundraiser for us.”

Ed Hanley of the Cranston Country Club summed up the Gills’ dedication to their son’s memorial scholarship foundation and Ron’s never-ending efforts for the foundation when he welcomed everyone to the tournament.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming today. This man puts in 110 percent every year,” Hanley said.

For more information on the upcoming PS3 Ron Gill Jr. Memorial Foundation events, visit their website at

Bain fights the summer slide

Cranston Herald
August 11, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

JUST THE FACTS: Derek Masterson works closely with Nick Burns on mean, median and mode during the math portion of Bain’s summer SMART program.

Tom Barbieri has a dream that one day his school, Hugh B. Bain Middle School, will be open almost all year long.

This year, he began moving steadily towards his goal when Bain remained open for several days during school vacations for academic enrichment and recreational activities.

And this summer, Barbieri took another step forward as the school hosted a four-week program that again combined academics and recreation.

According to a story from Time magazine, a century of studies have found that “the average student loses about a month of progress in math skills each summer, while low-income students slip as many as three months in reading comprehension, compared with middle-income students.” Additionally, “By ninth grade, summer learning loss could be blamed for roughly two-thirds of the achievement gap separating income groups.”

Barbieri and his staff are trying to fight what’s been nicknamed the “summer slide,” or summer learning loss, by keeping students at Bain actively engaged all year long.

What started out as a random question about summer reading from a faculty member quickly became a real goal: keeping students academically engaged over the summer in preparation for the coming school year.

“We decided to ‘require’ our students to do something in reading, writing and math over the summer to keep them fresh for September,” Barbieri explained.

A packet of activities in the various subjects was developed, which was aligned with the Rhode Island Grade Level Expectations, and a letter was sent home to parents explaining the available options. The program was nicknamed the SMART program (Student Math and Reading Tasks).

Students could complete the packets on their own at home, or they could take advantage of free academic support at the school each morning over four weeks’ during the summer months.

The packets featured fun and engaging themes and activities.

The math packet was based on a Boston Red Sox theme (Barbieri is a steadfast fan) and had students learning about player statistics, ballparks, merchandise and franchise history.

The reading packet asked students to pick two recommended books from a list, or two other books of interest to the students while still at their level, and complete activities such as creating the front page of a newspaper, writing a movie script, writing a song, or creating a mobile about the book.

In addition, Bain+2, the extended day program housed at Bain during the school year, was offering a four-week Adventure Camp summer program as well.

Therefore, the students could participate in academic enrichment with Bain faculty members in the mornings, and then join the camp for structured learning activities and trips in the afternoons for a nominal fee.

“Why can’t school be different in the summertime? Why can’t we do some academics in the mornings and do fun activities in the afternoons, all around our state?” Barbieri asks.

“These are lifelong things our kids need to know about their own communities,” he said, citing some of the opportunities for afternoon activities that were being scheduled, including surfing lessons, trips to parks, aquariums and the local libraries for teen activities.

Barbieri emphasized that creating the summer SMART program and the accompanying packets was a partnership that involved many people, not only his dedicated faculty and staff but also faculty members from other schools as far away as South Kingstown Middle School. He also cited Brittany Sandbergen, the Bain+2 coordinator, as the backbone to the program, helping him to develop the schedule and much of the school to home communication. Sandbergen estimated that on a daily basis during the four-week program, approximately 70 students participated in the programs.

“And that’s just a start,” Barbieri said. “I’d love to see the whole school here.”

Sandbergen felt that parents were excited and heard them express appreciation for the program.

“One dad was so excited, he said he’d never seen a program like this before,” Sandbergen said.

Barbieri stressed the fact that time is of the essence when working with the students.

“We only have two years with these kids,” he said. “We need to start building relationships early and building leadership capacity, which will hopefully benefit them in the high school years and in our community down the line.”

Sandbergen agreed.

“Because so many incoming seventh graders are enrolled here, they’re getting to see teachers that they may have, see their principal, and the Bain+2 program. It eases their transition,” she said.

Barbieri tries to tour the building each day during the four-week program, popping into classrooms.

“It’s important for these kids to see that I’m here, too,” he said. “No one’s here because of the [hourly wage]; they’re here because they want to give those kids a good shot for September. It all started with one staff member, and this is what we should be doing for kids.”

Friday, August 6, 2010

For DeRouin, laughter is the best medicine

Cranston Herald
August 6, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

THE INVENTOR: David DeRouin hopes to spread laughter to others and improve their health at the same time with his new creation, the Press Here Button.

David DeRouin thinks the world needs to be a funnier place, and he’s trying to do his part, one laugh at a time.

According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter helps people deal with the stresses of daily life and can actually induce physical changes in the body. DeRouin is no stranger to stress, having worked in the financial industry for more than 17 years before making the decision in 2008 to get out. The following year, he sold his financial practice.

“The business life just wasn’t joyful for us anymore,” DeRouin said. Once he got out, DeRouin wasn’t sure where he was to go next. Many people might not take such a risk; leaving one job without having another to go to, but he feels that the decisions he made along the way have been with the help of some divine guidance.

Although DeRouin felt as though he was being called to do something different, he did not know what, and he began researching.

“Selling my practice gave me a lot of time to do things like reading and researching on how things work. I thought it would be great to come up with an invention or to create something,” DeRouin said.

Still, DeRouin seemed to be hitting a wall. He had yet to figure out what it was he was meant to be doing in this next phase of his life. And then, when he least expected it, an idea fell into his hands.

“One day I was working with a friend, and we were having a meeting, and we were at a creative road block. One of us said something, and we started laughing and laughing,” DeRouin explained. “By the end of the meeting, we were almost in tears. On the drive home I started to think to myself, ‘Could it be that simple?
Is it all just about finding the laughter in a situation?’”

Coincidentally, around the same time, DeRouin’s fourth-grade son, John, came home with an assignment for school that involved him creating a button for his project; one that people could press in order for him to begin his presentation. When DeRouin heard that, he knew he’d found it.

“That was a divine message that I needed to create a button,” he said. He began creating and researching, looking to see if anything like a button that emitted hysterical laughter when pressed already existed. To his surprise, one did not.

DeRouin began putting the finishing touches on the button he had created, but he hadn’t come up with a name for it, and he didn’t know what it should say on it in order to get people to actually press it.

Once again, a conversation with his son, John, pointed DeRouin in the right direction.

“John came in with his finished project, and his button simply said ‘Press Here,’ and that’s when I knew my button had to say ‘Press Here,’” DeRouin said. In about six weeks’ time, from beginning to end, DeRouin had created and submitted for manufacturing his Press Here Button. Before he knew it, the first shipment had arrived at his doorstep. Now, it was about how to get that button into the hands of those who needed it most.

“My goal in life is just to spread more laughter to individuals,” he said. He began working with Apple to create a mobile application for the iPhone, and established a website for online purchase and information about the benefits of laughter to go along with his button, He started sending buttons off to people like Ellen DeGeneres and people who are in the business of making people laugh, or as he likes to call them, “like-minded individuals.”

Ideally though, DeRouin would like to emphasize the benefits of laughter on ones’ health and wellbeing.

“This button allows you to tap into your sixth sense, your sense of humor,” he said. “Laughter is an amazing gift that we all possess and we need to be reminded to use it every day.”

In the meantime, DeRouin hopes that along with showing people the importance of laughing more often, he can also teach another lesson with his journey. “I want to be an example for others that it’s okay to leave a job or any situation that’s keeping you from enjoying life in order to pursue something else that will bring you happiness,” DeRouin said. “It’s not always easy to do, but with faith, confidence and determination, anything is possible.”

Raimondo teaches dollars and sense with financial literacy program

Cranston Herald
August 6, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

MAKING IT COUNT: Democratic candidate for General Treasurer Gina Raimondo gives a presentation on fiscal responsibility at the Kelley Gazzero Post in Cranston.

Gina Raimondo, Democratic candidate for General Treasurer, has made good on one of her first campaign promises, and the election hasn’t even taken place yet.

Determined to make Rhode Islanders more financially literate, Raimondo held her first “Money School” workshop last Wednesday night at the Kelley Gazzero VFW Hall in Cranston.

In front of a full room of guests ranging in age from high school to retirement and beyond, Raimondo introduced herself and her platform.

“I never ran for office before, and many ask why I am running,” Raimondo said.

“My answer is that the time is now in Rhode Island for change, and we need leadership that is honest and capable, and we need someone who knows what they are doing.”

Raimondo explained that in her life, she has seen a tremendous benefit from her own parents’ good financial planning and responsibility with money.

As one of four children, all of whom went to college, Raimondo’s family managed to live on one modest income, with her parents scrimping and saving from the moment their children were born.

“Today, it’s not that simple. We’re dealing with things like foreclosures, bankruptcy and adjustable rate mortgages,” she said.

If elected to the General Treasurer’s office, Raimondo, whose campaign slogan is, “New Leadership, A Fresh Approach,” promised to create a program, a Financial Empowerment Institute of sorts, which will arm the public with financial information and tools to stay out of debt and in control of their finances.

“We’ll go to senior centers, VFW halls and libraries and teach people what they need to know to take care of themselves,” she said. “These are programs to help people help themselves.”

Raimondo discussed issues affecting the finances of her constituents, which weren’t necessarily an issue in the past, such as the fact that people are living much longer than they are financially prepared for. Long-term care is just one of the topics that Raimondo has planned for future workshops.

She emphasized that good financial sense helps to keep the peace within a family.

“It helps young people think about what they need to do to be sensible with their money,” she said. “If the credit card companies are on college campuses, then the State of Rhode Island’s Treasurer’s office should be on college campuses too, teaching students not to sign up for credit cards because the interest rates are too high, or not to ruin their credit ratings at 19 years old.”

One parent from the audience expressed concern about her child making smart decisions on their college campus.

Raimondo said that parent is not alone; noting that 55 percent of parents with children aged 16 to 24 questioned their children’s ability to be financially independent without assistance from them.

She began going through a PowerPoint presentation about setting financial goals.

“There is a huge amount of power in the facts,” she said as she discussed assets and liabilities.

She continued on through topics such as preparing a budget, planning for college or retirement and managing credit cards and debt. Her biggest emphasis, though, was on saving.

“I’m big on saving,” she said. “You’d be surprised how small things can add up. Start saving today. Drink your coffee at home versus at Dunkin’ Donuts and you’ll see $500 a year in savings.”

Raimondo issued her audience a challenge: to try to go one week without spending any money, stating that such a challenge would allow people to see where their money was going and if they can uncover a savings technique that they could live with forever, to help them save money.

“Start now, start small,” she said as she closed her presentation. “I feel strongly that it is the government’s job to educate the people so that they can have the information to protect themselves.”

Lauren Poplaski, a sophomore at Wheeler School, was struck most during Raimondo’s presentation about how much the littlest things can count.

“The little things are just extremely important now,” Poplaski said. “I have to think twice when I go to Starbucks.”

Carriage House teaches 'future scientists'

Cranston Herald
August 6, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

The students at the Carriage House Day Care in Cranston recently completed a weeklong robotics camp.

Created and run by Assistant Director Tammy Donohue, the camp was one of several themes planned for this summer and was done in two phases.

“The first part of the week was the construction of the dinosaur, crab, mouse and scorpion using K’nex pieces and a battery operated pack,” Donohue explained.

“The second part of the week was utilizing the skills they had attained to engineer a car using a spring motor.”

The students participating in the camp were between the ages of 5 and 9, and they worked both individually and as teams to complete the projects. At the end of the week, demonstrations were held so that students could show their family members what they had been working on so diligently all week.

“Everyone worked in teams for the more challenging, more complicated projects,” Donohue said, stating that the younger students would look to the older ones for help on particularly tough parts of the projects.

Daniel Wong, age 9, found the hardest part to be snapping the pieces together, but was always willing to help a younger student with that very same part.

“There was great camaraderie and support for each other during the project,” Donohue said. “It was great to see.”

Using the directions sent by K’nex was beneficial, given the age range at Carriage House. The directions do not contain words, but rather are illustrated in bright colors for each step, and then in grayscale for steps that have been completed.

“It’s kind of like a wordless book,” Donohue said.

Phoebe DePerry, a former Carriage House student and current summer volunteer, was instrumental in overseeing the robotics projects. DePerry noted that many of the students do not often get to play with these types of hands-on building toys, living in such an electronic world.

“They spend a lot more time on Xbox and things like that, than I did when I was little,” DePerry, said. “It was very rewarding for them to see that they could make something move. I’m 13, and even I was excited when I got mine to move.”

Donohue explained that the students learned a great deal about physics and problem solving during the camp.

“Some added extra pieces to their turbo racers, and they found out that this made their cars too heavy,” she said.

Donohue said that participating in the camp allowed the students to not only construct and build, but to build their focus and concentration skills and to learn how to assess their progress during a multi-step project.

Director Marion McGrath was proud of the students’ work during the robotics camp.

“They’re amazing children; future scientists,” she said.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Glen Hills gets a taste of Rhode Island

Cranston Herald
July 29, 2010
All text by Jen Cowart

COOLING OFF: Caleb Radoccia and Sean Conley catch a break with some Del’s Lemonade.

After spending many weeks studying the United States and doing shoebox project presentations featuring the different states, the students in Amy Gearing and Sara Muschiano’s fourth grade classes at Glen Hills spent most of the month of June focusing their research on their own home state of Rhode Island.

Each student was given one of Rhode Island’s businesses, landmarks or locations to research. After getting their facts straight, they had to create a 12x12 card stock “quilt” square showing the information that they had learned about their little piece of Rhode Island, and present it to the class. Some of the topics included Hasbro Toys, Del’s Lemonade, the Rhode Island Flag, the University of Rhode Island and the Block Island Northeast Lighthouse.

The squares were collected and will be made into a giant quilt, which will be on display at the school.

As a culminating activity, the students were treated to a true Rhode Island feast. Sporting Rhode Island Day T-shirts that they decorated themselves, the students munched on clam cakes, red chowder and white chowder (with white being most popular) from Iggy’s Restaurant, followed by pizza from Minerva’s Restaurant. Dessert consisted of doughboys from Iggy’s and a Happy Rhode Island Day cake. To wash it down, five pounds of Del’s Lemonade was brought in.