By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET — If there are fewer magnifying glasses than toddlers who want one at a table where they are learning about plants in Cheryl Lafond’s Pre-K class at Good Shepherd Catholic Regional School, it’s not an accident.
When kids are too young to be properly called pupils, Lafond makes subtly deliberate choices in her classroom of three-year-olds that are designed to promote social interaction and problem solving.
Not enough of those fun, red-rimmed magnifiers to go around? Her diminutive, wobbly-legged charges will have to figure out how to share with each other.
That’s called social development, and the sooner it starts, the better for anyone planning on becoming a productive member of adult society with healthy relationships.
“This age is really critical for that,” says Lafond. “It’s the foundation for all other growth and development.”
In a time when child psychologists and educators are sounding the alarm over what the epidemic of distance-learning and hybrid classrooms is doing to the brains of tomorrow’s grown-ups, the folks at Good Shepherd are paying close attention, but they’re not quite so worried. Unlike most public schools in the region, the overwhelming majority of its Pre-K to Grade 8 student body has been reporting for live classroom teaching since September.
Of course, what’s missing from distance learning is the opportunity for youngsters to negotiate and interact with their peers in live, person-to-person settings like those in Lafond’s class.
“Monday through Friday, we have school every day here,” says Principal Jennifer DeOliveira, who is also the administrator of the Greater Woonsocket Catholic Regional School System.
Parents have the option of choosing a distance learning regimen for their children, but about 90 percent of the roughly 200-member student body is presently coming to class. That’s about 10 percent more than at the beginning of the school year.
“I think a lot of them were nervous and they wanted to see how it went at the beginning,” says DeOliveira.
Although it had to close one classroom for contact tracing early on, Good Shepherd has operated without interruption during the course of the school year. The telltale signs of social distancing and precaution are everywhere, however – corridors dotted with hand sanitizing stations, rerouted entryways and exits to minimize physical contact among students and classrooms redesigned to make sure they’re capped at 22 students who can sit at least six feet apart.
It’s been a good deal of work to run classrooms fit for the COVID-19 era, but that wasn’t the only challenge Good Shepherd faced in getting the doors open. This is the first academic year since the school system absorbed five Pre-K to Grade 2 classrooms from the now-retired Monsignor Gadoury Elementary School on the other side of town. Ironically, Monsignor Gadoury has found new life as a mass vaccination site for COVID-19, taking appointments from the city and neighboring North Smithfield starting on Feb. 18.
Letting go of Monsignor Gadoury was a sound move for both educational and logistical reasons, with benefits for students and parents, says Patricia Brouillard, Good Shepherd’s dean of early childhood development.
One of the few Catholic Pre-K to Grade 8 schools in the region, Good Shepard, located at 1210 Mendon Road, draws students from all over northern Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts – as far away as Milford. Some of them have children at both the elementary and middle school levels. Now they can drop them all off and pick them up in one location, rather than make two stops on opposite sides of town.
“We wanted to have accommodations that would suit their needs,” she says. “It helps the parents because all the children are in one building.”
For younger students, there’s also the benefit of having older ones in the same building to serve as role models, she says.
With 90 percent of its student body opting for in-person learning this year, the math of distance learning boils down to perhaps 20 students who are doing lessons remotely.
Teachers like Lafond say they’ve noticed a difference in the level of engagement the younger distance learners display when they return to class after a couple days’ absence.
“There’s a different, deeper level of the bond when the social connection is deeper,” she says.
That connection may be more fragile for distance learners, but Good Shepherd strives to make sure it’s holding the few who opt for stay-at-home classes to a high academic standard, according to Gail Brodeur, director of development.
Even if they’re learning from home, children have to be dressed properly for class. They can’t be wearing pajamas or take a lesson unless they’re in an area of their home that’s been properly outfitted for learning. They do the same lessons and take breaks at the same time as their peers in school, and are closely monitored by staff at Good Shepherd to make sure they’re on task and keeping up.
For the at-home learner, the experience is as close as possible to live teaching – and parents seem to appreciate that.
“Overall, it’s been well-received,” says Brodeur. “Parents like the fact that they’re held accountable.”
Before the merger, Good Shepherd’s student body was about 170, but the net gain exceeded the mere addition of Monsignor Gadoury’s student body, says DeOIiveira. She thinks word-of-mouth about the ongoing renovations may have boosted interest in a private, Catholic education, as well as the school’s emphasis on a positive school culture.
Among the accommodations for the new arrivals are two new Pre-K classrooms, one each for three-year-olds, another for four-year-olds. They’re state-of-the-art, but it’s the fixtures – plumbing fixtures, in particular – that are really getting people talking: They may be the only Pre-K classrooms in the area that come with their own bathrooms, equipped with sinks and munchkin-size mini toilets.
DeOliveira can’t quite suppress a giggle when the subject comes up.
“They’re so tiny,” she says. “Wait till you see them.”
Indeed, with bowls that stand about 10 inches high from the floor, they seem like porcelain mushrooms. A row of three toilets, hidden behind a privacy curtain, is located in each of the Pre-K classrooms. They might seem like an odd appurtenance for a room otherwise devoted to education, but DeOliveira says in-classroom toilets represent the prevailing code for early childhood education, enforced by authorities.
With children so young, the idea is to outfit the classroom in a way that allows the teacher to keep them in a stable group that can be closely monitored all the time.
Thanks to a $10,000 grant from Navigant Credit Union, Good Shepherd has redesigned its outdoor play area to go along with the interior renovations – a respite for students that has helped make the rigors of COVID-era health and safety a little easier to handle during a challenging time.
Good Shepherd’s success in getting kids back to class stands in marked contrast to some other school systems in the area, including Pawtucket and Woonsocket. The Pawtucket School Committee voted just about a week ago to begin bringing students back to class for the first time this year on March 1. The Woonsocket Education Department has had most of its elementary and middle school grades on a hybrid model for much of the school year, with just two days of in-person learning a week, but classes had been fully remote for most Woonsocket High School students until a couple of weeks ago.
The difference at Good Shepherd boils down to will, says Brouillard.
“You have to be willing to put forth every effort that you can...” she says.
Finishing Brouillard’s sentence, Principal DeOliveira adds, “...to be in compliance. To follow the regulations.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo