Decision 2016: Four new members will join Westerly School Committee

Christine Piezzo. Sun file photo

WESTERLY — Christine A. Piezzo, whose dedication to education was reflected by a more than two decades-long career as a teacher and a successful run for a position on the School Committee, has died. She was 52.

Piezzo was found unresponsive in her home on Piezzo Drive on Tuesday afternoon. The cause of death was unclear Wednesday, but Police Chief Shawn Lacey said there were no signs of foul play.

She was last seen Monday when she had lunch with a friend. The same friend checked on Piezzo Tuesday and called police when she could not reach her.

"For me, Christine Piezzo was not only a valued colleague but a true friend," said Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, School Committee chairwoman. "As a career educator she brought great perspective to the Westerly School Committee. Her contributions and presence will be deeply missed by all." 

Piezzo was serving her first term on the School Committee at the time of her death. She ran as an unaffiliated candidate in 2016 and was unanimously elected to serve as the committee's vice chairwoman by her fellow committee members in January.

"Right away, as soon as I started serving with her, I was struck by her student- focused, collaborative approach," said School Committee member Mary Adams.

Some of Piezzo's best known work on the committee came when, while serving as chairwoman of its policy subcommittee, she helped steer the course to a new approach on how the district handles students and their families who are late in paying for school meals. The "cheese sandwich policy," so-called because cheese sandwiches were substituted in place of a full lunch if the overdue bills reached a certain amount, came under fire as demeaning — causing students to feel stigmatized and ashamed.

Under Piezzo's guidance, the School Committee revised the policy to do away with cheese sandwich substitutions and set up a tiered system of warnings to parents that intentionally left students out of the communication. As part of the revision process, Piezzo invited Blake Harrison, the 15-year-old student who brought the issue to the School Committee's attention, to work with her subcommittee.

"Instead of ignoring him or sort of being miffed that he was calling the School Committee out, she invited him to come to our meetings. I honestly believe it was because of that that we came up with a great policy," said Adams, who served on the policy subcommittee prior to her election to the School Committee in 2018.

Adams and School Committee member Christine Cooke each said Piezzo's experience as a public school teacher was invaluable. Cooke said she met Piezzo for the first time over breakfast at the Cooked Goose nearly three years ago and the two quickly became friends and developed a mutual respect.

"Not only was she a knowledgeable and passionate educator from whom I learned so much, but also she was a person of great integrity, who felt strongly that the School Committee and its work should be respected.  Respect was very important to her. She was highly intelligent, analytical, kind, loyal and had a wonderful sense of humor, something that has been much needed over the past three years I have served. She was always there with words of encouragement when things got tough ... and had the ability to step back and take the 50,000-foot view of an issue," Cooke said.

School Committee members often discuss their own children as they deliberate on issues facing the school district, always trying to be mindful of the needs for both parents and children. Piezzo was no different as she frequently referred to the experience of her own children, Eliza and Latham Woodman.

Piezzo taught French at Montville High School in Connecticut for more than 20 years and worked more recently at Waterford High School for two years until the end of the 2018-19 school year. Andre Hauser, Waterford High School principal, said Piezzo made many connections with students and teachers. The school made counselors available Wednesday for students and teachers.

"It's a sad day for our faculty ... we're all very surprised and saddened by her loss," Hauser said.

In addition to her work as a teacher, Piezzo was a commission member on the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and frequently led teams into schools to evaluate them. Piezzo earned a master of arts degree in teaching from the University of New Haven, a bachelor of arts in education and a bachelor's of science in French literature from Salve Regina University, and a diploma from L'Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/Cannes-Université.

Westerly Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said district staff and the School Committee were reeling from Piezzo's death.

"It's a struggle, we're all kind of in shock and doing the best we can to process it. It's a shame. She dedicated her life to education, learning, and children," Garceau said.

Cooke said Piezzo will be hard to replace.

"This community was fortunate to have someone of Christine's caliber serving them on the Westerly School Committee and I was honored to have served with her. She will be greatly missed," Cooke said.

Gaffney-Dolan Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements. An obituary is expected to be published in the coming days.

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