CENTRAL FALLS — On the morning of Tuesday, July 16, Central Falls High head football coach Mo Jackson walked into his new classroom 107 at Calcutt Middle School and looked out a window bordering the courtyard.
His first thought: What courtyard?
“I was doing some summer programs, and I wanted to get the room ready for the kids,” admitted Jackson, who discovered since school year's end that he would be a new teacher's assistant and behavioral specialist at Calcutt. “I popped open the window, and I couldn't see anything. It looked like a jungle. I thought, 'My God, what happened to it?'
“There were massive overgrowths of trees, limbs and grass; the place was a mess,” he added. “I remember, about eight or nine years ago, the courtyard was really nice. There would be kids out there eating lunch and enjoying the sun. I knew they hadn't been doing any of that recently, not with the condition it was in.”
An idea suddenly came to him, and he called new Principal Dr. David Alba.
“I asked if he'd mind if I and some of my younger football players – the rookies – set up a project of cleaning up the courtyard,” he said. “He flipped. He said, 'Mo, that's great! Go for it!'
“I decided to do this for two reasons: First, this will give Calcutt – which, it's no secret, has been having a lot of problems, as all schools in our district have – something everyone can feel proud of, a new fixed-up courtyard,” he added. “Second, it would help teach my younger football players about commitment, being totally committed to something.
“I'm hoping this will give them a good work ethic. I wanted to get across that, in football, you're part of as family, just like you are in your school, your classroom, your grade.”
When he went to his team and proposed his notion, just a couple of weeks ago during captains' practice, his players – virtually to a boy – expressed excitement about the task.
His four captains – including senior quarterback/free safety Brandon Canuto, junior fullback/linebacker Jevon Jimenez, senior running back/linebacker Kenny Lopez and sophomore receiver/cornerback Tyshon Ashe – jumped at the chance, he stated.
“Everyone wanted to do this, but I wanted it to be for the younger kids; my older guys have done community service as part of their education, and they know what my (training) camp is like,” he said with a mischievous grin. “I told them I wanted the newer guys to know what it takes to make a commitment, not just to me and the team but to the community at-large.
“I've told them, 'If you're going to play for me, I want you to be totally committed, not just to me and our coaches but also to each other. I want you to work hard for me, and for you to always put your best foot forward.'
“I also explained that, when they were doing the job here (at Calcutt), I wanted 110-percent effort. I said, 'If you want to excel on the football field, you have to excel in other things, too – like school or any other job you might be doing.”
Beginning on Tuesday, Aug. 7, Jackson and his boys spent four hours cutting down trees, slicing limbs and throwing brush into huge bags. They raked, they swept and they toiled for another four hours on Wednesday.
The following Tuesday, they set out again to do more yard work; by noon, they began to see the improvements in which they were responsible.
It nevertheless didn't start that way.
“It looked like a forest,” mentioned freshman Mael Vasquez. “I looked at Coach and said, 'You want us to clean this up?'”
Offered sophomore Marlon Bernal: “We weren't happy at first, but then we figured, 'Coach wants us to do it, so we'll do it.'”
Freshman Scott Valencia claimed he volunteered for the chore because he knew it would help his community.
“Mo told us he wanted us to commit to something, and that it went hand-in-hand with football,” he said. “It's unbelievable how much better this place is. There was a path about four feet wide where kids could walk, and now it's probably 18 feet wide. You couldn't see anything out of those windows; it was all trees and stuff.”
Another frosh, Raymond Collazo, indicated he wants to be an offensive or defensive lineman because “I like to hurt people. I love tackling, and I want to sack the quarterback, take anybody I can out of the way.”
This is the same kid who raked segments of the courtyard and plucked brush out of the bricks laying on the yard's floor.
“I've been to this school three years in a row – in sixth, seventh and eighth grades – and I just wanted to help out my old school,” Collazo stated. “I mean, it's going to help the community, and the kids coming here this year. My sister is going into seventh grade, and I want it to be nice for her.”
Mentioned Bernal after a third day of work: “The new kids coming here, this will make their first year easier. They'll have a fixed-up courtyard to spend time. I think they'll say, 'Wow! This is a really nice, beautiful school.
“And, if a school looks nice, maybe people won't want to drop out, and they'll graduate.”
During a restroom/water break, Jackson informed the kids he wanted each to write a 100-word essay on what clearing up the courtyard meant to them, what they got out of it.
(The group, Jackson claimed, should finish the beautification project early next week).
“Clearing this out has been pretty tough because of the cherries (falling from the trees),” Vasquez piped up. “I keep stepping on them, and they get all over my shoes.”
His tone suddenly softened.
“This still has been pretty satisfying,” he continued. “I think I'll write about how this will affect the future students coming here. I think it will make them happy, and then this will become their future spot to take care of and keep clean.
“We're working as a group, we're working as a team, and we'll be doing the same thing on the football field. This teaches us to do our best, to be our best, no matter what.”
Alba then visited the squad, and thanked Jackson and his boys for being so thoughtful.
“I'm really grateful for the work they're doing; they're going to make this school a better place for the kids who come after them,” he offered. “This place wasn't nice. It was in really bad shape. It was full of litter and overgrown brush. It really was unusable. If it wasn't for these kids and Coach Jackson, it still would be.
“Teachers whose classroom border this yard now can actually see outside, and – you know – they're coming up with ideas as to how they can share it with their students,” he added. “The science teachers could plant flowers with the kids, or tomatoes, and it could help them learn about the environment, or about feeding themselves.”
Though it wasn't visible before, a plaque on one outside wall read, “Calcutt Middle School Courtyard, Dedicated to Regis Antone. In recognition of her many years as a teacher, mentor and friend to her students.”
“They've brought this courtyard, this school, back to life,” Alba grinned. “You just need someone to set the ball in motion, and everyone jumps on board.”
Jackson's workers included: Bernal, Collazo, Vasquez, Valencia, Marcelino Veiga, Wilfredo Escobar, Edwin Liriano, Edwin Toro and Kristian Interrano.
After a job well done, Jackson told his troops he wanted them back at CFHS at 3 p.m. for a concussion test, then at Macomber Stadium for a 4 p.m. practice.
They just nodded and walked off for their next task – to return to the divisional Super Bowl, as they had in December 2011.