New school year brings fresh sense of stability in Pawtucket

New school year brings fresh sense of stability in Pawtucket

More than 200 volunteers from Fidelity Investments spent the day at Samuel Slater Junior High last Friday, making the school a more pleasant place for students and teachers. They landscaped the median strip, made wooden planters for the grounds, scraped and painted the walls and radiators, painted the teachers' room and replaced old windows. Above, volunteers work to remove old top soil and replace it with new, before planting flowers and shrubs. (Valley Breeze photos by Charles Lawrence)

PAWTUCKET - Students and parents should start off the 2014-2015 school year with a new sense of stability and confidence after a year that brought plenty of surprises, say school administrators.

While last year was marked by significant upheaval, including falling ceilings, staffing shortages, and a mid-year superintendent change to name a few, this year promises to kick off with the focus where it should be, said new Supt. Patti DiCenso, on learning and teaching.

School starts for students in grades 1-12 next Tuesday, Aug. 26. For kindergarten students, the first day is next Friday, Aug. 29.

Schools across the district have received extensive upgrades over the summer, said DiCenso. Though there is still plenty of work needing to be paid for through an upcoming school improvement bond, the threat of collapsing ceilings that plagued the district last year is now in the past, she said. Schools are "safer than ever before" after a host of "health and safety" upgrades, she said, and past problems with heating systems have largely been fixed.

The facilities at the biggest work sites, Goff Junior High and Winters Elementary, may not look great for the start of the school year, but final cosmetic touches should be done by the second week of September, according to staff. See a full list of repairs with this story at .

While the 2013-2014 school year started with many teaching and administrative positions still vacant, this year the school year starts with all key positions filled after retiring staff left earlier than usual, said DiCenso.

For the first time, the Pawtucket School Department will benefit from having a full-time "parent and community coordinator," said DiCenso. Lisa Fonseca, who is bilingual, is "full of energy" and a tremendous asset to the district. Fonseca will be on hand for the first day of school to greet parents and students and will run plenty of programs throughout the year, said DiCenso, including a new parent center.

Students and staff at the two city high schools start the 2014-2015 school year knowing that this will likely be their last year under state-mandated transformation process, said DiCenso. The scores and graduation rates at Shea and Tolman High School are already good enough to boost the schools into "typical" status, said DiCenso, and she sees no reason the "strong" improvement shouldn't continue.

"There's an overall sense of, 'we're going to do this,'" she said. "We have the best kids in Rhode Island, and that's where we're going."

One of the first plans DiCenso formulated after being named interim superintendent in the spring was to "repurpose" the district's math and reading specialists to get them into the field to support teachers and students. Those specialists will work "side by side" with the teachers this year.

"We're making this about moving the schools and having experts in the field," she said. "We're proud of that."

The shift of reading and math specialists is just part of an overall "pragmatic" or sensible approach to using "all of our resources in the schools," said DiCenso. Teaching "supports" are going "back in the building" where they belong to help pull up scores across grades.

Working under a "tight budget" once again, some principals and administrators were moved around this year to fill leadership gaps and save money, said DiCenso.

Despite all the building improvement projects, staff members were still able to run a full summer school to help avoid the "summer slide" that comes with too much time off, said DiCenso.

Some initiatives students can be excited about this year include a new U.S. Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program at Tolman, renewed participation in the Pawtucket Arts Festival in September, new community volunteer programs, and a new high school photography contest.

For more on the upcoming school year, including a district calendar, visit .

Fidelity volunteers are busy building and painting wooden planters for the school grounds.
Walls were painted and windows were replaced as part of the fix up effort at Slater Junior High by Fidelity Investments volunteers.
Robert Olivier brightens up the inside of the teachers' room with a fresh coat of paint.