WESTERLY — A much cherished, long-running middle school charity and math program is continuing in a scaled-down form intended to emphasize its educational aspects and reduce non-instructional time.
The changes came at the behest of Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau who says the program, in its previous iteration, helped teach students the importance of getting involved and helping in their community but took too much time away from traditional lessons.
Parents, teachers, and former students of the school who had gone through the program lobbied for it during the School Committee’s Oct. 11 meeting saying they heard Garceau had ordered a complete stop to the project, which saw a specific team of seventh and eighth-grade Westerly Middle School students raise money, shop for food, and assemble and deliver food baskets to the Warm Center during the last week of school in December. During an interview Thursday, Garceau reiterated some of the comments he made during the October meeting and noted that upon his arrival to the district in July, School Committee members, parents, and other community members told him “fundraising in the district is out of control.” Prior to this year’s change, the Granite Team program, which is overseen by math teacher Rob Gouvin, involved students raising money during school hours — a violation of district policy, Garceau said.
The district, at the request of the School Committee and as part of Garceau’s mandate, is focused on “maximizing instructional time,” he said, adding that when he first learned of the program a teacher told him it required an entire week of instructional time to prepare for delivery of the gift boxes. The student fundraising component combined with the time commitment led Garceau to initially reject an application seeking approval of the fundraising. “It was never my position to end the program. In fact I was hoping to expand it beyond the one team but as originally described — taking the place of instructional time for the week was a concern,” Garceau said.
When he denied approval, Garceau said he also asked the teachers to modify the program and shared his own ideas. “We needed to move in a way that doesn’t impede instructional time,” Garceau said. “The solution the teachers developed does just that and eliminates fundraising during the day… I’m really happy to see it continue.”
Teaching students about charity and giving and the root causes of poverty are all important efforts but, Garceau said, they should not take the place of other learning. And, he said, efforts that involve students in charitable activities should include as many students as possible, not particular grades, teams, or schools.
“No one has denied the importance of charity in the community. No one has denied that the learning that can take place in such activities is valuable… but an entire week of lost instructional time, as valuable as this other work is, I can’t countenance,” Garceau said in October.
During an interview in Gouvin’s classroom on Wednesday, Gouvin and Westerly Middle School Principal Paula Fusco described changes that have been made to the program. Under the new approach, students in Gouvin’s seventh and eight grade Granite Team will spend part of their morning math period on Dec. 21 planning for a shopping trip that they will take to Stop & Shop later in the morning. The educational unit will require students to use proportions to determine unit rates for goods they might buy, learn about sales tax and which items are taxable, and discuss the difference between perishable and non-perishable items. The students will also pour through on-line advertisements and paper fliers to look for deals.
The new approach was developed by Gouvin and the three other teachers on his team.
“It’s a compromise I brainstormed with my three other team members… kind of a great concensus of using the instructional time toward the unit,” Gouvin said.
After the classroom session, teams of students will grab a shopping cart at Stop & Shop and fill their cart with $25 worth of groceries and then go through the checkout themselves. Seaside Pharmacy donated $1,000 to the program to help with the cost of buying groceries. The whole process, including the ride to the store and back to school, will take just one hour, Fusco said.
The shopping part of the activity helps students work on manners and how they relate to others in society, lessons the school focuses on daily, Gouvin said.
After school the students will put the items they bought in gift boxes, wrap and decorate the boxes, and help load them into a WARM Center truck that will come to the school. Parents and other community members will be invited to assist with the gift box process depending on how many students are able to stay after school, Fusco said. The gift box preparation will have a festive atmosphere with refreshments for the students and others who help. Previously students brought the boxes to the WARM Center, but Fusco said that part of the project was scaled back as part of the compromise.
A total of about 100 students, 50 from each grade, will participate. Eighth grade students who participated last year help teach the seventh grade students. “The eighth graders are my ambassadors,” Gouvin said.
Fusco said the attention paid to the program in October and the new outcome are also valuable lessons.
“We couldn’t do it the way we’ve always done it and we understand. We worked as a team and the kids saw us work as a team to come up with a compromise so that everyone will continue to have a great experience. It’s just going to look different this year and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Fusco said.
And she said: “I think everyone sees the value of the opportunity we’ve had in the past and I think we’ve done a very good job of holding on to that opportunity but making it more in line with the thinking from our superintendent and school committee,” Fusco said.
The program reinforces other lessons aimed at focusing on the concept of community, Fusco said.
“Yes our focus is always on the core academics, but we’re also teaching them to go out into the world and be appropriate and be able to see beyond Westerly Middle School. I think that’s a life lesson we should always be striving for at any school at any grade level,” Fusco said.
In the future, Fusco said, teachers and administrators will look for ways to include the entire student body.
Gouvin first started the program 20 years ago. It has grown to its current level with students preparing about 50 gift boxes each year. In October when talk of the program ending circulated, Gouvin said he was struck by the number of people who offered to keep the program going. “So many former students and parents stepped up to the plate and offered to do their own fundraising… I was overwhelmed with how many parents and students carried the burden and said ‘we’re going to pick up your legacy.’ It was very heart-warming.”