By JONATHAN BISSONNETTE
PAWTUCKET – The word of the day on Thursday was “wow,” as Gov. Gina M. Raimondo kept repeating that exclamation with every corner she turned and each room she entered at the renovated Nathanael Greene Elementary School.
Repairs at the 100-year-old Fairlawn school are ongoing and Raimondo joined Mayor Donald R. Grebien and School Superintendent Patti DiCenso for a tour of the project which is breathing new life into the century-old schoolhouse.
“Already from the outside, I love it,” the governor said as she walked up to the school’s main entrance off of Smithfield Avenue. “It’s got new windows and everything … This has been needed for a long time.”
Upon entering the elementary school’s state-of-the-art media center and auditorium, which features a combination of all-new technology and original woodwork, Raimondo said: “Oh my God, this is fabulous. This is fantastic.”
“Everyone is going to want to go here now. This is gorgeous,” the governor later said as she toured the school’s second floor. “Who isn’t going to want to come here?”
Grebien, who attended elementary school at Greene, said he was most recently at the building a little over a month ago and he “can’t believe the transition.”
“It’s like going down memory lane,” the mayor told Raimondo. “Every time I’m here, what a difference.”
The building was gutted down to the bones last autumn into winter, as health and safety upgrades began at the 65,217-square-foot Greene school. DiCenso said “buses will roll on the first day” of classes in September.
The construction at Greene is part of a $32 million bond that voters approved in 2014. Notable renovations include ceiling replacements; repairs and replacement of windows, doors, and the roof; life safety, security, and code upgrades; and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing system replacements.
“It’s exciting,” Raimondo said following the tour on Thursday afternoon. “It’s going to be a beautiful new school that kids deserve and teachers deserve. It’s going to be much safer, they have bullet-proof glass and they have ways to make the office safe, it’s sound-proof. It’s new, it’s clean, it’s modern, it’s fantastic.”
Construction at Greene mirrors similar work that happened across the city last year at Potter Burns Elementary School on Newport Avenue.
“That’s a school I’d be proud to send my kids to. Potter Burns is the same thing,” Raimondo said. “Every parent, me included, would be proud to send our kids there. So when you walk through the school and you see that, more people in the community will send their kids and then more families are involved.”
The former grassy lawn in front of the school, facing Smithfield Avenue, was a gaping hole earlier this year, which was filled with underground drainage, then graded. It will soon become the new bus drop-off and pick-up area for students. A loop was installed off of the busy stretch of Smithfield Avenue, allowing students to disembark from the buses in the morning and climb aboard in the afternoon without concern for traffic.
On the first floor, the most notable interior change is to the building’s main entrance. The stairwell and wooden doors will be given safety and security enhancements to become a glass vestibule that will allow employees in the main office to check in visitors. To the right of the main entrance will be a handicap-accessible entrance with a ramp that leads directly to a new elevator that will reach all three levels at Greene Elementary.
Once inside the school, the principal and administrative offices will be to the left, while the nurse’s office will be on the right. The first floor will also feature classroom space for pre-kindergarten through second grade learners. The building’s second floor is in the process of being transformed into classroom space for third, fourth, and fifth grade classes.
The tour of Greene was also an opportunity to show off what can be achieved when an aging school is given a second life. While the Greene renovations were part of a 2014 bond, voters across the state in November are expected to decide whether to authorize $250 million in school construction bonds.
“When I became governor, the first thing I did was lift the pause on school buildings, they stopped the money for that, we lifted that which allowed us to do some new buildings like this one, but the need is so much greater,” Raimondo said. “The bond this year will go to the voters, $250 million, hopefully they’ll approve it. And if they do, it’ll allow us to do many more projects just like this.”
“On any given day, there’s about 100 people working in this building. That’s 100 good jobs every day and we’ll multiply that in every city and town in Rhode Island,” she later added.
In Pawtucket, the city is asking voters to approve a bond question that would authorize the issuance of $220 million in bonds and notes for school building construction and renovation, but what the administration is asking for is the authority for $40 million of local spending.
Grebien has said that if the bonding for schools receives the needed approval from voters, it could lead to “brand-new school facilities” in Pawtucket. Those include potentially renovating Shea and Tolman High Schools or building a new high school, constructing a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) school, and renovating or building new at Henry J. Winters School.
DiCenso said the goal with the bonds in Pawtucket would be to “make every school look like this,” as she walked the halls of Greene. “It’s what the families, students, and professionals deserve.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter: @J_Bissonnette