2009 Award-winning stories

Verrengia's team saves schools $2M in energy costs
Cranston Herald
October 8, 2009
All text and photos by Jen Cowart
Rhode Island Press Association Award: Third Place Environment/Science Writing 
May 7, 2010

When Cranston Public Schools Energy Manager Karen Verrengia was hired in 2006, she set out to make the district more efficient. Fast-forward three years and Cranston has seen a cost avoidance of over $2 million.
Joel Zisserson, director of Plant Operations and Transportation for Cranston, believes the success of the program starts with Verrengia.

“Her role is to educate the custodial staff, the teachers and the principals so that they are aware of what they should be doing in the schools such as turning off computers and lights when they’re not being used,” Zisserson said.

Verrengia also meets with plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians to examine each school to identify areas of potential energy improvements. When she came to Cranston, energy guidelines became mandated and a cost tracking software was put into place.

Shying away from the spotlight, Verrengia is emphatic that it is more than that. It’s the behind the scenes action and the collaborative effort that makes the energy program tick. Albert Fullerton is part of that effort. As the senior custodian at Stone Hill Elementary School, he turns every other light off in the still-bright hallways.

Fullerton also shuts off the domestic hot water tank when it’s not needed and keeps classroom ventilators off at the appropriate times as advised by Verrengia. By 2:30 p.m. each day, the exhaust fans are switched to off.

Verrengia applauds Fullerton’s efforts. Stone Hill is one of four school buildings in the district that has earned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s prestigious ENERGY STAR for superior energy efficiency. The award signifies the building’s energy performance is in the top 25 percent of facilities nationwide.

The other schools currently receiving this award are Daniel D. Waterman, Chester Barrows and Edgewood Highland Elementary Schools. They will be presented with plaques at the November school committee meeting.

Achieving this status is no small task, considering that of Cranston’s 31 school buildings, several are over 80 years old and host antiquated heating, lighting and ventilation equipment. In all there is 1,755,082 square feet to manage.

“It’s a team effort and really a challenge, given that we have old equipment, old boilers and old thermostats,” Zisserson said.

Verrengia has identified this equipment – and how to efficiently operate it – in floor plans made for custodial staff to help them with their energy task. She also puts yellow stickers on switches that correspond to staff’s daily shutoff lists.

At Park View Middle School, foreman Gordon Kirconnell emphasizes that consistency is important in maintaining an energy efficient building. Park View has some of the oldest equipment in the district, utilizing two different types of heat, depending on where in the building you are. There is a domestic hot water tank in the boiler room that holds approximately 10,000 gallons of water. There is also a boiler to heat the swimming pool year-round. Most of the building utilizes oil and is steam heated, with the G wing using electric heat. Neither is particularly energy efficient, so Kirconnell has his work cut out for him.

“This building has been able to save money because of the people part of the program,” Verrengia says of the middle school.

Since 2006, Park View alone has seen a cost avoidance of $134,580, or 18.54 percent.

That savings is equal to taking 80 cars off the road for one year, growing 11,452 trees for 10 years and avoiding the release of 448 metric tons of CO2 into the air.

We really try to keep up with the daily maintenance of the HVAC equipment, the belts and filters,” Kirconnell said. “Everything we do is the same as what a smaller school would do, but on a larger scale.”

Centralizing things like coffee pots and microwaves into smaller areas despite the school’s size has been a major part of that.

“We shut off our exhaust fans nightly and I try to shut down the boilers when I can, otherwise they run and run and run. Big boilers equal big expenditures,” he added.

Most of the building’s lighting has been replaced with more efficient lighting and classroom lights have motion sensors to turn them off when not in use.

Kirconnell has also seen a difference in student interest in keeping the school eco-friendly, partly because of the National Education Energy Development program (NEED), under the direction of Joanne Spaziano. NEED students learn about different types of energy and how to be energy efficient.

"Energy efficiency extends beyond recycling. We use green cleaners in our buildings now,” said Kirconnell. “We have receptacles in the lunchrooms to recycle juice cans. We shut down our freezers and coolers over the school vacations and consolidate so that we don’t have so many freezers and coolers running.”

He credits Verrengia’s cooperation as a key component in making the energy partnership work.

“It’s nice to have support at a higher level,” he said.

Cranston High School West has the largest area to maintain, housing five buildings total. According to Verrengia, Foreman Joe Boutin, “runs the building like a fine tooth comb.”

In addition to cooling down the building’s steamy entranceway, Boutin has replaced windows and piping and has unused equipment turned off whenever possible.

“Natural light is good,” he said.

He is one of the participants in the Building Operator Certification Course taking place in Cranston over the next few months.

Boutin’s boiler room equipment at West is more updated than some of his district colleagues, and he has been able to adjust heating temperatures according to district guidelines by setting the buildings’ HVAC Energy Management System. Assistant Principal Lynne Burke has endless confidence in Boutin and his team.

“It’s a shocking thing when you see how few guys there are on a campus this big. They go above and beyond their call of duty, fixing windows, replacing locks,” she said. “Every nook and cranny, every space is labor intensive. The buildings are used at night and on the weekends and this all falls on them.”

West has seen an energy cost avoidance of $401,603, or 29.38 percent.

Verrengia is always on the lookout for areas to save. Many buildings have new lighting and take advantage of National Grid’s small business program that offers an incentive for lighting retrofits, which Zisserson says is a good start.

“Unfortunately we don’t have the money in the budget to put in all new energy saving equipment in every school,” he said. “We peck away at things, we all work together, and eventually we’ll get there.”

As a district, Cranston has seen an energy reduction impact equivalent to keeping 1,158 cars off the road for a year, saving 6,454 metric tons of CO2 from being released into the air and growing 165,092 tree seedlings for 10 years.

“Everyone’s small effort adds up to one big difference,” Verrengia said.

For more information on the Energy Management Program in Cranston Public Schools, visit the Web site at www.cpsed.net/energy.

WOW! Kids get excited about careers at the charter school

Second in an award-winning series

Cranston Herald
March 25, 2009
*This article also appeared on the website of the United States Department of Labor and Training (Washington D.C)
New England Newspaper & Press Association Award: Second Place Education Reporting February 6, 2010

Elaine French works as a receptionist at APG Security in Cranston, as part of the World of Work program, offered at the NEL/CPS charter school.

In this day and age, when so many people have good reason to complain about the generation of students graduating high school who can’t count back change, can’t fathom how to control their spending and have no work ethic, the NEL/CPS charter school is working hard to graduate a whole new type of senior: one who is head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to being out in the workforce.

When the New England Laborers’/Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy charter school opened its doors in 2002 it had just one curriculum track: the construction technology program. Over the next two years, as the school was evolving, it was determined several of the students who had entered the school were not suitable for the school because they did not have an interest in the construction technology program.

It was then decided the students would either have to return to their sponsoring schools, go out of district to another alternative educational program or the school could add a second curriculum track for those students who were interested in remaining in the school.

Thus, the World of Work program was created.

The WOW program, as described by WOW Program Coordinator Marilyn Coppola, is a comprehensive stand-alone program, a curriculum track established for those students who are interested in careers other than construction. In the past year it has gained quite a bit of notoriety across the state as being a unique, high-quality curriculum program, one that is slated to be duplicated in other areas of the state.

The program remains true to the foundation of the school’s mission and beliefs: the school community is small, the teacher to pupil ratio is 15 to 1 (a class size that’s conducive to learning) and the curriculum is hands-on.

When students enroll at the NEL/CPS charter school, they state their intent of either working in the construction field after high school and/or college or working in some other field. The WOW program helps them decide what kind of job they would like to have, helps to prepare them for how to put their best foot forward when pursuing a job and, finally, helps them keep that job once they get it.

If they need to leave the job, the WOW program even teaches them how to resign.

“[In ninth grade,] the school year starts with assessing the students to see where their interests are,” Coppola said. “Are they interested in people, data, or things? They’re at an early age when they can see where their interests are, what their abilities are, what they want to do and have a plan on how to get there.”

Next, the students research careers that are of interest to them. They do career searches using the Occupation Outlook Handbook and the National Department of Labor Web site. Coppola, a job placement specialist who has worked at the state level, is able to help students assess their interests and abilities, as well as teach the students the soft skills they need when applying for a job, such as resume writing, telephone skills and interview skills.

“It’s like a soft skills boot camp,” said the school board’s chairman, Michael Traficante.

“They get a whole semester of learning the soft skills that employers are looking for when hiring,” Coppola added. “Not only do we teach [typical curriculum topics such as math, English and science,] we teach work ethic, conflict resolution and financial literacy. That’s very important. We’re one of the only schools doing this as part of their degree.”

According to Coppola, the financial literacy classes “enable the students to understand the importance of managing personal finances, teaches them how to balance their checkbook, how to write a check and how to create a financial plan.”

The students are presented with hypothetical situations such as needing to buy a car or rent an apartment. They learn about percentages, credit card debt and keeping their personal information safe.

“With the economic crisis America is experiencing, financial literacy is a vital component,” Coppola said. “By incorporating financial literacy into our curriculum we are enabling our students to make prudent financial decisions in their personal lives that will contribute to the economic recovery of America.”

“I have worked for the Providence/Cranston Workforce Investment Board,” she continued. “So I know what employers are looking for. Our students rise above other students their age. They learn how to fill out a job application. They know what questions will be asked. They know to use a pen, to print, to read everything first. We teach everything, right down to as simple a thing as a handshake when walking in. If a student enters an interview well-groomed, speaking intelligently, showing respect for the industry, with a job resume with him, that makes quite an impression on an employer.”

To help prepare, students take part in mock interviews, with employers coming out to the classroom to rate the students on their interview skills. The students interview Coppola as well. She shows examples of a good interview and a bad interview. The students aren’t just reading about how to interview, they’re seeing it and doing it.

“An employer would rather hire someone with soft skills and no experience and train them, than hire someone with experience and no soft skills,” Coppola said. With the World of Work program, the students also have the opportunity to work part-time after school and obtain summer employment. There are field trips for the students to different industry areas as well.

“I didn’t have these opportunities when I went to school so I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life until college,” Coppola said. “The students have them here.”
Coppola works closely with Carol Corcelli, the school’s career placement specialist.

“My role is to help them find a job,” said Corcelli. “I go through mass mailings, contact the chamber of commerce and other networks. We find available opportunities, full- and part-time, to best match the students’ interests.”

Last fall, the school reported 96 percent of its non-construction career students were placed with area employers. Once the program received state recognition from the Governor’s Work Force Board and the Department of Labor and Training, the program’s placement numbers jumped; 93 students were placed in area jobs in the first six weeks of school, Corcelli said.

Because WOW puts the emphasis on work experience, students are able to work during daytime hours, not just nights and weekends. That gives them an edge, even in typical high school work environments such as fast food restaurants and donut shops. Many achieve supervisor status even before they graduate.

According to Corcelli, students are asked to complete a monthly assessment of how many hours they’ve worked and their rate of pay. Their employer assesses them as well. This follow-up process insures that the employer has a productive employee and shows the staff that the soft skills are still being used. Corcelli meanwhile keeps a spreadsheet, updated daily, that shows job leads, the contact person, the number of slots available, age requirements and any other pertinent information.

“I call the employers, tell them that that the student is work-ready. If there’s a problem, such as transportation, the employer can call me,” Coppola said.

Elaine French, senior at NEL/CPS, is just one example of a success story out of the WOW program. For the past six months, French has been working from noon to 5 p.m. every day as a receptionist at the APG Security/Sterling Investigations in Cranston; upon graduation, she plans to work full-time for the company.

“I answer the phones, do files, whatever they need me to do, I’m there,” French said. “I love it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. They’re going to help me pay for school when I graduate. I am thinking of going to CCRI or RIC. I’d love to have my own business someday.”

Thomas Underhill, executive vice president of APG Security/Sterling Investigations, has nothing but great things to say about Elaine and the WOW program.

“I have been extremely pleased with the relationship that has developed between APG Security and the New England Laborers’/Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy,” said Underhill. “Our company was provided with a placement from their program to see if one of their students could thrive in a high-impact office environment. Elaine French has far exceeded our expectations based on her abilities and willingness to learn. It is very rare to find a young person such as Elaine, who understands the importance of dependability, trust and hard work.

I know that Elaine’s attitude and fundamental work ethic will guarantee her position within the company and provide her the opportunity to succeed.”

The teachers are a critical part of student success and, therefore, appropriate staffing is a big consideration with the WOW program.

It is important to note that the charter school students, if not for this alternative education setting and the Work to World program, were at high risk for ending up high school dropouts. Instead, they are now highly successful in their coursework and their jobs and have the ongoing support of the school staff in both areas.

“All of the teachers here work closely with the students,” Coppola said.

“Personalization is everything. From administration right down to the teachers, we all feel that way. The students feel that they’re also here to be with people who really and truly believe in them and really care and want them to be successful. Some days it’s a challenge, for them and for us, but it’s done with an unconditional love, so that even on the most challenging days, we can rise above.”

Wendy Olson, a senior at NEL/CPS, speaks highly of her English teacher, Beth Martinelli.

“She’s had the most impact on me,” Olson said. “She’s brutally honest with me and that’s just what I need to hear.”

Olson works every day as a cook/driver/shift supervisor at Kingston Pizza in North Kingstown, putting in 30-40 hours a week.

The NEL/CPS students are still students, though, and still have extra-curricular activities to schedule around. Michael Baccaire, also a senior, says although he leaves school between 11 a.m. and noon each day to work as a busboy at Luigi’s Restaurant in Johnston, they manage his work and school schedules around his nightly basketball practices, too. Baccaire’s coursework includes English, a portfolio class (a graduation requirement for all graduates) and a Virtual Learning forensics class for science.

(The NEL/CPS Virtual Learning program will be covered in a future article.)

Baccaire credits John Santangelo, his business math, portfolio readiness and economics teacher, with his success at the school and at Luigi’s.

“He always tells me to never give up,” he said. “He has a lot of faith in me. He understands me out of all the teachers in the building.”

The WOW program has even begun to extend its reach outside the charter school. Recently, as a result of grant funding awarded, the WOW program began being offered at both Cranston High School East and West, under the direction of Coppola and Corcelli.

“There are currently plans in the works to expand the [WOW] program outside of the district with both Marilyn and Carol,” said Traficante.

Executive Director Mike Silvia said the program’s ultimate mission is to use the school as a test site, if there ends up being a mandate that this program be offered in every district in Rhode Island.

“Our mission is to redefine school to career transition. This program is the new way to look at that transition,” he said.

The school also tries to offer access to non-paid opportunities as well, further expanding student access to career fields.

“Some students also participate in community service by volunteering,” Corcelli said. “We make opportunities available to them and place them, [that type of work] is greatly encouraged. Job shadowing is available as well.”

The idea, Coppola explained is to not only get the kids jobs, but to get them careers that will be fulfilling and remain fulfilling in the long term.

“Anyone can find a job,” she said. “A career is doing something you love. When you love what you do, you never feel like you have to work again.”

Cranston Herald
May 6, 2009

NEL/CPS gives students a much-needed LIFT

 Final article in a series

LOG ON TO LEARN: Talia Ronci, a junior, gets ready to take an exam for her Integrated Math II virtual learning course.

The New England Laborers’/Cranston Public Schools charter school is unique in many ways, from the students who choose to attend there, to the staff that chooses to teach there, to the course offerings that are available there. One unique component to the school is the newly instituted Project LIFT.

Funded by the Rhode Island Foundation as a pilot program from October 2008-October 2009, Project LIFT (which is an acronym for Learning Information for Tomorrow) is “an academic credit recovery program which uses virtual learning as a supplement to the teacher’s instruction in a classroom,” according to NEL/CPS Executive Director Dr. Michael Silvia.

Students participate in virtual learning coursework using the program VirtualLearningAcademy.net in a computer lab under the instruction of teachers in the lab with them. The teachers are there not only to make sure the students are doing their coursework, but also to help the students if they encounter any stumbling blocks along the way.

Project LIFT was originally designed with the sole purpose of allowing seniors who were in jeopardy of not graduating the opportunity to recover graduation credits. The use of the program has spread; for example, students who are forced to take time out of school due to medical issues are eligible to use the virtual learning program. There are currently 76 students involved in Project LIFT. Students can participate in the program in all core subjects: math, English, history and science. Some students are taking more than one virtual learning course, but students cannot use virtual learning for all four core courses.

Virtual learning nevertheless has many benefits and is now considered a necessary part of student instruction.

“From Ohio to California, most states mandate that their students take at least one virtual learning class throughout their high school career because most colleges are now offering virtual learning,” said Silvia. “At some point, we’d like to move virtual learning into the freshman year to provide them with a variety of experiences and provide them with successes.”

Using the virtual learning model, students are automatically introduced to research skills on the computer. It can also be a great asset to those students with special needs and/or learning differences.

“The academy is hoping to be able to address barriers to education through virtual learning,” said Silvia.

Talia Ronci, a junior at NEL/CPS, is currently taking Integrated Math II as a virtual learning course.

“I read the text, solve the problems, and answer all of the questions,” Ronci said. “I like working on my own, [so] it’s better for me. I like learning by myself.”

Fellow student Chris Catauro, also a junior at NEL/CPS, agrees. He’s currently taking Algebra II as a virtual learning course.

“I find working on the computer easier,” Catauro said. “I go at a faster pace than a normal student, and I can go as fast as I want. If I have a question, I can ask a teacher without waiting. There are no distractions.”

Catauro has also taken economics and government classes as virtual learning courses.

“When there are online projects [for the classes] I do them as a Word document and add them as an attachment,” he explained.

Lucille Parrillo, a guidance counselor at NEL/CPS, agrees that the virtual learning program meets the different needs of the students.

“We mostly use it for credit recovery in the Junior and Senior years,” Parrillo said. “[But] we can modify it, it can be flexible to meet the needs of the students with special needs.”

VLA.net offers full-credit courses, as well as half-credit courses. A half credit course, Parrillo explained, could be used to fill a half-credit elective requirement for graduation for a senior.

For even more unusual circumstances, the virtual learning courses at NEL/CPS can be doubly helpful.

“If students transfer from another school district, it’s difficult to schedule a course in because of when they transfer, so they can schedule a virtual learning course and complete their coursework that way,” said Parrillo.

Virtual learning courses are beneficial to the instructors as well. Teachers can see where the students are in the course and can check the students’ work as soon as it comes in, explained Liz Reichardt and Cathy DiSegna, two of the virtual learning lab instructors.

“For the most part, the students are self sufficient, but we give them individual help as they need it,” Reichardt said. “The textbook is online, the questions are underneath. The mid-terms and finals are there. The interaction between the student and instructor is all done online.”

“We sit with them when they’re having a problem,” DiSegna added. “Some of the text is almost at the college level. For students on IEPs [Individual Learning Plans] or with learning disabilities, we need to help them.”

The virtual learning classes are timed, and if students are late they need to make up their time. The virtual learning programs also track how long the students take on a lesson. If a student rushes through a lesson, the teacher can tell.

“The program averages all their grades too,” said Reichardt. “I can look at a chart and know if they’ve completed a lesson, if they viewed a lesson and where they are in the lesson. When they sign on, they can see their grades.”

Parrillo notes that teachers can modify, add or delete assignments or exams in the program as necessary.

“For example, in the U.S. history course, there is a research paper at the end of lessons 30-36,” she said. “The teacher … took what he liked to make it more like what he would assign in the classroom and gave those requirements to the students. He knows these students and their abilities and he modified to meet their needs. He focused on what was the most important for the students’ needs.”

Is virtual learning taking the place of a student’s classroom education? Silvia is a firm believer it is not.

“We want virtual learning to be part of the classes, not to displace the classes,” he said. “We try to merge some of the ideas of virtual learning with some of the classroom work. It gives the student the benefit of the virtual learning course with the relationship with the teacher. We’re trying to develop the dynamic between virtual learning and the classroom so that it caters to the teacher in the classroom.”

According to Silvia, the sole purpose of Project LIFT is to help increase Cranston Public Schools’ graduation rate. District-wide, 10 percent of Cranston High School seniors do not graduate, according to the RI Department of Education.

It is the hope of NEL/CPS “as Project LIFT continues to evolve, that statistic should decrease on a yearly basis by three percent,” Silvia said.

In turn, he continued, “the success rate for placing students into a career should increase by 10 percent since many of the students will be potential high school graduates when applying for a job, rather than high school drop-outs.”