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Spring is in the air and so is the growing excitement about returning to greater degrees of normalcy with respect to end-of-year activities and long-celebrated rites of passage.

Many of our WHS seniors are now finalizing their decisions about where they will be and what they will be doing next fall. We will again witness many of our students heading off to the best colleges and universities in the country. Others will be joining one of the service branches. And some will choose to go directly into the workforce. All will be considered success stories.

Our desired outcomes for every WHS graduate are always twofold. We will always seek to prepare every WHS student for “whatever comes next.” We also need to ensure that whatever “next” means is entirely of their choosing. We exist to provide our students with every opportunity and every support we can in order to open up a world of possibilities for that graduate. And isn’t that what we’d want for our own children, that they find “that thing” that sparks their imagination, touches their heart, ignites their passion (and hopefully even pays the bills), and that, because they’ve been well prepared, they are set up to pursue it. Prepared to choose. Never, not ever, told what they can or cannot be or do. That’s the student we want to graduate.

This month, we were pleased to note that Westerly High School is again climbing in the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings. This follows recent recognition by U.S. News of Westerly Middle School and State Street and Dunns Corner elementary schools as being among the best in Rhode Island. These recognitions are testament to the hard work of not only our district’s teachers, support staff and administrators, but of our students and their families’ commitment to the pursuit of academic excellence.

A precondition of providing for excellence in teaching and learning is guaranteeing every student’s and every staff member’s right to schools that are safe and secure, that are focused on learning, and that are free from the threat, whether actual or implied, of physical or emotional harm. To this end, the staff at Westerly Middle School continues to work to address issues of reported bullying, harassment and other incidents that work against our primary mission. This is being done in close coordination with local law enforcement and other community agencies. Our teachers and administrators spend too much time addressing disagreements between students that have their start in the community and then come into our buildings in the morning. Many of these issues begin or are promoted on social media and again, it then falls on teachers and administrators to address the fallout.

Social media or other cyber abuse will also sometimes even play out during the school day, but only if it is allowed to. The WMS administration is taking steps to address the use of cell phones during the school day so as to curb behavior that obviously has no place in our schools. And they will not tolerate bullying, acts of violence or other disruptions that deprive students of their right to attend a school that is safe and secure.

Another aspect of school safety is how we would respond to an attack of any kind on one of our campuses. We have always had drills and practiced response protocols, but as WHS Principal Hobin is fond of saying, what we really want is “a culture of thinkers.” Thinkers who are able to quickly assess circumstances make decisions and respond in ways that potentially save lives. Our administrators work closely and continuously with law enforcement to ensure that we have plans in place that reflect consideration of when to lock down our buildings, how we would communicate with our families, how we would evacuate if needed, etc. We do not share a great deal of detail publicly for obvious reasons, but the community should be assured that we do plan, we do practice and we do prepare.

We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the recent announcement by longtime Westerly educator Ms. Paula Fusco of her intention to retire at the end of this school year. Ms. Fusco has given 31 years to this district as a teacher, an assistant principal and principal, and she has had a lasting and profoundly positive impact on the lives of literally thousands of WPS students. She has been a colleague, a mentor and a friend to so many in this community and we know that her “next” will continue to reflect her love for this district and her hometown. We all wish her and all of our other 2022 retirees the very best for long and healthy retirements.

Mark Garceau is the superintendent of schools in Westerly.

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