DiCenso filled with pride, sadness as she announces retirement

DiCenso filled with pride, sadness as she announces retirement

District looking to promote from within

PAWTUCKET – Patti DiCenso, the superintendent credited with changing the educational game for Pawtucket students, says she wants to be remembered for working with others to make the city a better place for those young people.

DiCenso, 63, who was first brought aboard back in 2011 as a performance officer to help transform city high schools where graduation rates had prompted state action, jumping to superintendent of schools two years later, has announced her retirement effective at the end of the school year June 30.

Her announcement this week came as a surprise to many in city education, as she previously signed a new three-year deal that would have kept her in Pawtucket through 2021, but DiCenso told The Breeze the next phase of her life has come.

“It’s time to turn it over to someone else,” she said. “I’m glad I’m leaving while I still love it.”

Among DiCenso’s greatest achievements, say those who work with her, are achieving widespread school building upgrades, revamping curriculum and bringing in new math and reading programs, and investing in more supports for students in classrooms.

“She has done 15 years of work in a five-year period,” said School Committee Chairman Jay Charbonneau. “She’s also set the wheels in motion for the next five years of work.”

“Serving the children and parents of the Pawtucket School Department with my colleagues has been a distinguished honor in my life,” said DiCenso. “I am inspired daily by the great work that our students, teachers, administrators and staff do every day. After 36 years in education, now is the right time for me to transition to retired life to spend time with my family. This is beyond bittersweet, and it is with a heavy heart that I leave service with the Pawtucket School Department. However, I am looking forward to having more time to spend with my husband, children, and granddaughter in this new chapter of our lives.”

Charbonneau said DiCenso has been a “passionate, dedicated superintendent” during her time in Pawtucket and has at times absorbed an unwarranted and excessive number of personal attacks over such issues as school violence or meal policies. While “shocked” by her decision to leave now, he said he understands it, as she’s “100 percent dedicated to her family and her new granddaughter.”

“I think the time is right in her life,” he said.

The search is on

Charbonneau said he expects to call a special meeting in the next few days to consider appointing an interim superintendent. DiCenso has assembled a great leadership team, he said, and there’s no rush to replace her. An interim head of schools can be appointed for six months and a search can happen “at some point,” he said.

“There’s no rush,” he said. “It’s important for continuity’s sake to continue the momentum that she started and the progress that the district has experienced.”
Asked whether the district has learned lessons from the past about bringing in an outside superintendent without intimate knowledge of Pawtucket’s unique needs, Charbonneau said yes. He said the expectation is that there are more than enough qualified people in the district to promote from within.

“The city residents as a whole are excited and more than satisfied with the work that Patti’s done, so there’s probably a lot of appetite in the city to keep going in the direction we’ve been going,” he said.

The “enormity” of the position for a district of this size isn’t lost on anyone, said Charbonneau.

DiCenso has poured everything into the job and done it at all hours every week since she arrived, he added.

During the time she has been with the Pawtucket School Department, the district has increased its high school graduation rates by 30 percent, instituted full day re-kindergarten programs, invested tens of millions of dollars in and across all school buildings while successfully advocating for more than $200 million in additional future investment, fully renovated two elementary schools, established a dual language immersion program, “and forged an ongoing, cooperative relationship with the city,” reads a statement from the district.

Charbonneau said DiCenso has been a joy to work with.

“Her leadership has helped the Pawtucket School Committee achieve great things during her tenure. I’m proud to have worked with her as a member of this committee and as chair,” he said in a statement. “I wish her and her family all the happiness in the world as they enter this new chapter. The School Committee and entire Pawtucket School community will miss her passion for the children of Pawtucket.”

DiCenso said she’s proud of the way school and city officials have been able to change the way they’ve spoken to each other during her tenure, all in the name of improving outcomes for students.

She said she now owes it to her children, who have been living with her hectic career for more than three decades, to step back and really enjoy life.

“They feel as though they’ve lived it all, grown up with it all, and they want me to themselves,” she said.

As much as she loves the work and the students, and would have liked to see the reconstruction of Winters Elementary School through, she said she’s confident the groundwork has been laid.

“The way I feel is we’ve raised the bar that what was there before wasn’t good enough,” she said. “I’m confident that the team there knows the difference between taking it further and the status quo.”

DiCenso said she likes the idea of an interim superintendent as almost a test run. She noted that’s how she started in the position herself as she and others went through a full formal interview process.

Though she doesn’t get to say who gets the job, DiCenso said she too would be concerned about running an “intergalactic search” for an outsider. Hiring someone from far away with no real idea about working in a New England urban environment has already proven the wrong course of action in the past, she said.

DiCenso said this job has never been about her but about pushing others to the forefront, and that approach will now serve the district well. She said she feels safe in leaving with the systems now in place.

Grebien: ‘Huge loss’ for city

Mayor Donald Grebien congratulated DiCenso on her retirement.

“While this is definitely a huge loss for our school district and community, I am happy to hear that such a hardworking and wonderful individual like herself will now be taking the opportunity to spend time with her family,” he said. “I thank her for her leadership and for her vision for our city’s youth.”

DiCenso’s passion and dedication to local students could be seen through her results, said Grebien, from improved graduation rates to the additional career and technical pathways and opportunities to earn college credits.

“Patti always understood that in order to continue the improvement at the high schools and for academic success beyond, the emphasis needed to begin when the students were young,” he said.

“The School Department implemented full day pre-K and expanded the number of programs from 90 children in 2014 to over 300 children currently in Pawtucket preschools.

“Three state funded preschools which have attained Bright Star status were added. The superintendent had the goal to not only increase programs but ensure the programs were high quality and accountable. Seventy percent of all kindergarten students are at grade level or above, which is attributed to the high quality preschools in Pawtucket and 100 percent of the early childhood education teachers are certified in the Rhode Island early learning standards.”

DiCenso has managed many improvements for youth while remaining fiscally responsible, said Grebien.

“Together with my administration, City Council, and School Committee, the school administration used annual surpluses to create a capital improvement fund which allowed the School Department to improve school properties and support safe, dry, warm initiatives including the governor’s ‘shovel ready’ project state school building improvements,” he said. “The department also put into motion the $82 million RIDE-approved construction plan which includes health and safety projects district wide and two complete school renovations at Nathanael Greene and Potter-Burns.”

DiCenso leaves a district that is poised to succeed in the future thanks to her leadership, said Grebien, with many more upgrades to come.

The daughter of a lawmaker, DiCenso has always been politically savvy, said Charbonneau. She’s been the “real deal,” always showing herself to be the same person out in public as she is behind closed doors.

“The district is a far better place because of Patti DiCenso,” he said.