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.”