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Editor’s note: At the end of each year, The Sun provides an opportunity for area school superintendents and top municipal officials to reflect on the year, and, if they wish, discuss plans for the new year.

As 2019 comes to a close, there remains much work to do (there always will), but also much to be proud of and to build upon for the Westerly Public Schools (WPS).

Our teachers, principals and other leaders remain committed to doing the work, day in and day out, of improving outcomes and opportunities for success for ALL of our students. As a result, we continue to see gains in the achievement levels on state mandated RICAS and college readiness assessments, increasing numbers of students taking (stretching) and excelling in Advanced Placement and other high-level courses and the expansion of our Career and Technical Education pathways opportunities.

Recently, we have seen double digit increases in English Language Arts proficiency at Westerly Middle School and similar gains in Mathematics at both Dunns Corner and Springbrook Schools. And Westerly High School continues to beat both state and global percentages of college and career readiness overall in English Language Arts, Mathematics and the SAT Essay.

When it comes to proficiency percentage rate and student growth gains, State Street School is THE success story of the late fall. State Street is a now a top-rated, 5-Star School under the Rhode Island Department of Education’s accountability system. State Street had previously been ranked as a 2-Star School and thanks to the focused hard work of its teachers, and under the leadership of Principal Audrey Faubert, State was the only school in Rhode Island to climb from 2 to 5 stars this year. State Street’s gains continue to be highlighted and featured in media outlets such as the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal and numerous others and also were recently recognized via proclamation by the Westerly Town Council.

WPS remains actively engaged in the strengthening of our partnerships with the Colonial Theatre, the Chorus of Westerly (which will be operating in all WPS elementary schools for the second semester) and Westerly Education Center and more. These partners in the community are increasingly becoming part of the fabric of Bulldog Nation. We also continue to benefit from the support of so many additional partners and supporters including the Westerly Education Endowment Fund (WEEF), Opening Doors for Westerly Children, the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, Westerly Community Credit Union, Ivory Ella, and more.

With all of the positives, 2019 was not without its setbacks and its sadder moments. In January, we lost longtime Westerly educator, School Committee member, and local fixture, Patricia (Patti) Panciera. Patti’s name continues to come up quite frequently and it always brings a smile, often a funny “Patti story” and some very fond memories. Mr. Tim Killam was appointed to serve out Patti’s term and has proven to be a welcome addition to the School Committee.

In October, our district was saddened to learn of the unexpected and very untimely passing of School Committee Member and WHS graduate (a Bulldog for Life) member, Christine Piezzo. Ms. Piezzo’s commitment to, and enthusiasm for, the WPS was always right out there on her sleeve. She wore them proudly and she was a fierce advocate for our district and our students. While her insights and contributions are sorely missed, the School Committee is fortunate to be welcoming Ms. Kristen Sweeney on board. Ms. Sweeney is a Westerly native, is likewise well versed in educational matters, brings a sharp mind and a new set of eyes to the work, and is already making her very positive presence felt on the Committee.

Also in October, the district was again dealt a setback when a bond referendum plan (much different from the one defeated in 2016), for addressing the pressing needs of our school facilities failed to get the support of the voters. A re-established building committee will soon be reengaging in the work of developing proposals and approaches to updating and maintaining our buildings and enhancing our educational programming. The town is obviously quite divided in terms of how best to proceed, but the hope will always be that a plan can be developed which the community will in fact support.

And finally, even as I write this, Westerly is still coming to grips with recent violence and the tragic loss of life in our community. As events played out on the morning of the 19th and as the details of what was happening were few, we were in ongoing communication with the Westerly Police Department and were beyond grateful for the leadership of Chief Lacey. Our staff members and our students could not have responded any more appropriately under trying and at potentially frightening circumstances.

We were also very saddened to hear of the passing of our friend and colleague, Chariho Superintendent Barry Ricci. Barry lived for his school community and never stopped working for the Chariho Schools. His legacy will live on for years to come and his shoes will be exceptionally difficult to fill. Chariho is the successful district that it is because of Barry Ricci.

Westerly Public Schools is on the rise. And as happens, the rising tides of success are lifting all of our “boats”. By committing to and staying focused on the right work and by ensuring that all decisions are made in the best interests of children, great things and continued successes await WPS in 2020.

Mark Garceau is the superintendent of schools in Westerly.

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