EGHS Wall of Honor Celebrates Community

From left, Diane McDonald (with a granddaughter), Matt Plain, John Chandler, Bernice Pescosolido, and Guy Asadorian – the 2018 inductees of the EGHS Wall of Honor.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

EGHS Wall of Honor inductee Bernice Pescosolido had to leave East Greenwich before she could understand the its power.

“The most important thing that EG High School and the Town of East Greenwich and – I have to say – the state of Rhode Island provides for people … is a sense of community and a sense of belonging,” said Pescosolido.

“I’m so proud to be from East Greenwich because we really were this working class community,” she said. “I had no idea that what we were was so special and so different. I’ve come to understand and believe that.”

Pescosolido graduated from the high school in 1970 and is a distinguished professor of sociology at Indiana University. (You can read more about Pescosolido and the other four inductees here.)

John Chandler, Class of 1966, lived in East Greenwich a mere five years. He spent four of them at EGHS and it made its mark. He made his mark too, serving as class president for two years, among other distinctions.

Chandler, who had an illustrious career in information technology, almost didn’t finish high school in East Greenwich. His family, after moving to EG from California before his 8th grade year, moved to Oklahoma the summer before his senior year.

He ended up staying with the Forscht family for that final year of high school.

Chandler’s life has been elsewhere ever since 1966 but Chandler’s love of EGHS came through loud and clear Wednesday.

“I feel like I’ve come  home,” he said before launching into his prepared remarks.

“I’ve been the fortunate beneficiary of an enormous amount of support from this community and love from my family for my entire life,” said Matt Plain, the youngest of the night’s honorees. He graduated in 1994.

Plain, a member of the EG School Committee, made his love of the EG schools clear, recalling all those who taught or guided him in elementary school, including the school custodian.

“Who could forget Bobby Taylor, keeping our school clean and safe for everybody to enjoy,” Plain said.

Plain started out as a teacher himself. A lawyer now, he continues to work on education issues.

Diane McDonald spoke about how she got to live out her childhood dream, riding horses and then owning her own stable (Dapper Dan). For McDonald, the daughter of teachers (her father, Norman Monks, taught and coached in East Greenwich for decades), being a horsewoman was not a given. But it was something she always wanted to do, she said.

If she could tell young people anything, she said, it would be to “follow your passion. Don’t settle for a job that’s just a job.”

Guy Asadorian, Class of 1982, spoke lovingly of this town he’s never left.

“It’s that whole deep sense of community that, really, gave me the foundation to try and be successful as an adult,” he said. Asadorian works in financial services.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work in this town and I’m 100 percent certain that it’s that connection that I have to the community that’s really motivated me to want to give back.”

There was a sixth person honored Wednesday night, if not officially. That was Dominic Iannazzi, who died in 2017. Iannazzi was a teacher, school administrator and coach in East Greenwich from the 1950s into the late 1970s. He wanted no fanfare upon his death but Wall of Honor organizer Bruce Mastracchio recounted a couple Iannazzi stories and that seemed to prompt others.

John Chandler said before he was able to find a permanent home for his senior year (his family had moved out of state), Iannazzi actually took him in for six weeks.

Bernice Pescosolido recounted how she’d tried hard to stay off Iannazzi’s radar since her brothers were definitely ON his radar.

“I just thought if Mr. Iannazzi knew my name I would automatically be given detention,” she said.

Diane McDonald DID get detention.

She’d asked if she could take a day off school to compete in a horse show. Iannazzi said no, but she went anyway. When McDonald turned up at school the next day with a note, Iannazzi held up the newspaper announcing that she’d won a trophy at the horse show. He gave her two days detention.

If you know of someone from EGHS you think should be put on the Wall of Honor, contact Bruce Mastracchio at thebrooker23@yahoo.com.


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AfterPromEG Looks for Community Support

Spring is here and that means that high school rite of passage known as The Prom is coming up – it’s May 11. Four years ago, a collection of volunteers started AfterPromEG so that teens would have a safe, fun place to keep the celebration going into the wee hours. There’ll be entertainment, music, games, prizes, raffles and food, all in a high school transformed into an “Enchanted Forest.”
And, in fact, it’s open to all EGHS juniors and seniors even if they don’t end up going to the prom at all. Better yet, it’s free.
 But a big event like this doesn’t happen without a lot of community support.
AfterPromEG is looking for donations of raffle items, food, and corporate sponsorships, as well as gifts of any denomination. Please help us continue this annual tradition!  You can donate online here.  Or contact afterpromeg@gmail.com.

 

Tale of Two Walkouts: One Sanctioned, One Not

About 50 students walked out of the high school Wednesday morning to hold a 17-minute silent vigil to honor victims of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida Feb. 14.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich, R.I. – About 300 East Greenwich High School students took part in walkouts Wednesday morning, to honor those killed in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month and protest school shootings. But it didn’t go quite as planned.

Some student organizers had agreed to hold the walkout in the auditorium Wednesday as per school administration wishes – as many as 250 students went to the auditorium during Advisory (a weekly free period during which special assemblies are held, and students can visit teachers or work on homework). But another 50 or so defied school officials and held their vigil in front of the school.

What started with just three or four students who left the building at 10 a.m. Wednesday grew as others walked out to join them. According to one student who participated, school administrators watched as they walked out but did not try to stop them.

The students stood in a large circle, holding hands in silence in front of the school for 17 minutes. School Resource Officer Bert Montalban stood nearby. Afterwards, as the students went back into the school, they were asked to sign in. Later, those students got an email from Principal Michael Podraza:

“This email serves as a reminder that if you have not received permission … you need to remain in the school building for the duration of the school day. After considering all the surrounding circumstances, you are being sent this email as a written warning alerting you to potential escalated consequence should you exit the building in the future without prior parental or administrative approval.”

Student sign posters of support for those who died in Florida Wednesday.

The students in the auditorium also held a silent vigil, heard from a variety of speakers, and learned how they could register to vote and contact their elected officials. Organizer Abby White was happy with the turnout and said it was a positive event.

She acknowledged that some were critical Wednesday of the auditorium “walkout” but thought the goal of student engagement was achieved.

“I think we made a strong message to students about them getting involved,” White said.

Some students said they felt trapped in the auditorium and were angry that they were not able to join the students outside.

One student said administrators funneled them into the auditorium.

Frustration had been bubbling up for many days, with some students unhappy after school administrators placed prohibitions on the walkout. Citing safety concerns, Principal Podraza said students could gather in the outdoor courtyard at the center of the school rather than in the front. Then, with Tuesday’s big snowstorm, the walkout was moved, again by administrators, to the auditorium.

Senior Zoe Pellegrino, one of the original organizers of the walkout, got frustrated when the student-led protest seemed to be taken away from the students.

“Having this organized just by us was important,” Pellegrino said Wednesday afternoon. She pushed back against the idea that going out to the front of the school provided a safety concern, noting that students are allowed to eat lunch in front of the school every day.

Pellegrino was among the students who participated in the vigil in front of the school.

“It was very, very powerful,” she said. “We all held hands for the 17 minutes, as silent as we could be.”

Later, Pellegrino posted a message on Facebook, excerpted here:

“My intentions and hopes … were to have as many people as possible … participate in 17 minutes of silence and solidarity…. Clearly, paths got crossed and a lot of confusion and fear of consequences arose. It is clear that two very different events took place today…. I’m extremely disappointed with the way our school and administration handled the idea of a genuine walkout.”

Another student who walked out said, via Facebook Messenger, “I walked out because the point of the protest was a ‘walk-out’ not a ‘sit-in.’ We as young adults are encouraged to take part in the world and have a voice…. Being outside with a fairly large group of my peers was amazing. It was very nice to see how many people cared about the cause and were willing to risk punishment.”

Freshman Jordan Kalinsky expressed her frustration with not being about to join the group out front in an open letter to Principal Podraza on Facebook: Dear Mr. Podraza.

In an email later Wednesday, Kalinsky said, “What matters now is what we’re trying to do to make sure the administration hears our frustrations about our right to protest and their lack of support.”

When asked for comment about Wednesday’s events, Podraza said this, via email:

“At the end of the period leading to advisory, all students were directed to go to advisory or to the optional event being run by the EGHS Civic Action club as would occur with any Wednesday advisory block where an optional event was occurring. However, some students elected to walkout of the building. No student has lost extra-curricular activities as a result of today’s events.”
While the two walkouts were different, leaders of both spoke of similar aims going forward.
“I hope people continue to stay involved, going to marches in Providence or doing things within the school,” Pellegrino said.
“We encouraged the students to stay engaged and involved,” Abby White wrote in a Facebook post. “We understand that passions were high and opinions were many, but we need them all to move forward and make real change.”
After this story was posted, Principal Podraza sent an email to the school community with his takeaways from Wednesday’s events. Here it is: Email from Mr. Podraza.

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EGHS Students Plan Walkout to Protest School Shootings, Honor Victims

‘If we do nothing, this will continue – not necessarily to us but to students across the country.’

 

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich, R.I. – To be a high school student in 2018 is to contemplate the idea that someone might come into your school to hurt people. After the shooting Feb. 14 that left 17 dead and scores wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students there decided it was time to do something. That activism has spread nationwide, including to some students at East Greenwich High School who have organized a “walkout” Wednesday morning to honor those injured and killed and to encourage students to become politically active.

The organizers got permission from school Principal Michael Podraza but he would not allow them to leave the school, citing safety concerns. Instead, the plan had been for the students to walk out to the interior courtyard. Because of Tuesday’s snow, however, that has been scrapped. The students will now conduct their walkout activities in the auditorium.

Freshman Miguel Figueroa saw the walkout as a perfect opportunity to raise awareness at the high school.

“This is not a political, partisan thing. This is about the lives and the health and safety of students,” he said. “If we do nothing, this will continue – not necessarily to us but to students across the country. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Another organizer, sophomore Josh Petteruti, said enough was enough.

“I would call myself a victim of desensitization to school shootings,” he said. “It’s never really struck me until Parkland.”

Petteruti is in favor of some gun control measures – banning “bump stocks,” raising the age to 21 to buy long guns – but he also belongs to a gun range and believes in the right of mentally healthy people to be able to own guns.

There are other measures to take, he said. In particular, he said, schools should have more school psychologists. (EG schools have four school psychologists, including one at the high school.)

“Mental health is an issue that needs to be tackled,” said Petteruti.

“We’re not just trying to make a message and walk out of class,” said organizer Abby White, a junior. During the event, “we’ll be giving students links to register to vote and to write their opinions and email Congress. A lot of kids have strong opinions about what action should be taken.”

She said the hope was to get kids to stay politically active, whatever they believe.

“We really need to follow through and fight for what we believe in,” said White.

The walkout is optional. Sophomore Andre Gianfrocco said he plans to attend.

“Everyone has the same feeling about Parkland. It was a messed up thing. I definitely feel like they are honoring the people of Parkland,” he said, but added, “people could be putting more energy in actually securing schools more.”

Gianfrocco said he’s had a plan about what he would do if a shooter came into his school since he was in elementary school.

“I would hop out a window and run,” he said.

Junior Zing Gee will be on a field trip on Wednesday but he said he wouldn’t participate even if he was at school.

“I think school shootings are heart-breaking, horrific events that nobody should have to go through,” Zing said via email. “I wouldn’t walk out because I simply don’t agree with all of the reasons behind the walkout. Personally, I support the Second Amendment and while I agree that certain legislation such as that banning bump stocks is reasonable, I don’t support banning semi-automatic rifles, which is something many people have been calling for.”

He added, “I think increased school security can help. I also support it when news outlets don’t publish the name or photos of people who commit school shootings because these people shouldn’t be given publicity or notoriety.”

Freshman Emmy Nutting would fall into the category of wanting to ban certain weapons. If the decision was hers, she said, she would get rid of guns but she knows there’s great resistance to that. She will be taking part in the walkout.

“I’m very glad the protests are going on,” she said. “If a shooting happened, if someone I cared about got killed … if there had been any way i could have prevented it, that would weigh heavily. I’m hoping something will change. When people look back in history, I don’t want to be part of that group that just sat there. Things don’t change if people don’t act.”

The walkout is restricted to students only. Students and adults are invited to “A Call to Action” Wednesday night from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the First Lutheran Church, 118 Division St. Speakers will include representatives from Moms Demand Action, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, among others. The evening is hosted by EGHS Civic Action.


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Smoothie, Anyone? EGHS, Cole Step Up Breakfast Game

Parent volunteer Susan Riley (with her son at her side) offered smoothie samples to students as they got to the high school last week.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Students pouring into East Greenwich High School last Wednesday morning before 8 got an unusual welcome.

“Want to try a smoothie?” asked Susan Riley. Some students declined and hurried toward class, but others stopped in their tracks.

“Sure!”

The smoothies – strawberry-banana with yogurt that day – are the centerpiece of the school district’s new “Grab-and-Go” breakfast program at the high school and Cole Middle School.

Riley, a parent member of the School Committee’s Health and Wellness Subcommittee, worked with Michele Edwards, food service manager for Aramark, the district’s food service provider, on a grant to improve breakfast offerings for the two secondary schools.

“It came about after a lot of brainstorming,” said Edwards.

“We’ve been talking about improving the nutrition in the schools,” said Riley. “We started with parfaits and some “grab & go” lunches at the lower schools. At the high school and middle school level, breakfast is just such a low priority. We were trying to figure out what we could bring in to garner a little more interest and be nutritious.”

School Committee members Matt Plain and Carolyn Mark (chairwoman) and Michele Edwards of Aramark pose with the $6,500 check granted to the schools to provide a Grab & Go breakfast program. Surrounding them from left are Melissa Breene Jordan of Breene Hollow Farm; Susan Riley; an unidentified Aramark representative; Vice Principal Jeff Heath; Principal Michael Podraza; and Jane Quale Vergnani from the New England Dairy & Food Council.

They settled on smoothies and applied for a grant from the New England Dairy & Food Council and Fuel Up to Play 60, receiving $6,600 for the program.

Why breakfast?

“The Rhode Island Healthy Food Coalition just completed a study that talks about how breakfast is literally the most important meal of the day – it fuels the brain,” said Riley.

Students who eat breakfast do better in school and make fewer trips to see the nurse, said Edwards. And, she pointed out, when it comes to high school kids, it’s not about income. Even kids with refrigerators full of food at home will skip breakfast. Under this program, they can skid into school, grab a smoothie – or a bagel and juice, or a piece of fruit – pay a $1 and head to class. They don’t even need to go into the cafeteria anymore. Part of the grant money went toward buying equipment for the area just outside the cafeteria, making breakfast offerings fast and easy.

Sophomore Vanessa DiMase buys breakfast at the new hallway station.

On Wednesday, the day the program was rolled out, three times as many students got breakfast at school, according to Aramark. One of those students was Vanessa DiMase, a sophomore.

“Normally I either don’t have breakfast or I’ll come here and get something. I don’t really have much time in the morning,” she said, holding a bagel with cream cheese, a banana and an orange juice (for a dollar!).

“Last year, there was only one option,” she said, surveying the new offerings. “This is a lot!”


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Schools React to Florida Shooting, Offering Support, Urging Vigilance

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Editor’s Note: This story has been amended since it first posted.

Following the deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school Wednesday, Supt. Victor Mercurio and EGHS Principal Michael Podraza sent out emails to the school community outlining just what is being done in East Greenwich schools to protect against such an incident here.

… Our first priority is to create and maintain a safe and supportive environment at all of the East Greenwich Public Schools,” Mercurio wrote in his email, which went out to all families in the district. (Read the full letter here: Parent Support Letter.)

Principal Podraza’s letter (which was signed by other high school administrators) was more of a call to action.

“We ask that all members of the EGHS community take time to reflect and reaffirm our commitment to take all actions necessary to keep everyone at EGHS both safe and supported,” it read. (Read the full letter here: Letter to EGHS 2/15/2018.)

The email asks students if they are worried about any other students and tells them, for instance, to not let people into the high school without going through the main entrance. It tells parents who to contact if they are worried about their child’s wellbeing or that of another student.

“We know that taking some of the actions listed above might be uncomfortable. However, we believe that the feelings of being uncomfortable pale in comparison to the weight of emotion one would feel if tragedy strikes and one could have taken action, yet didn’t,” the email reads.

These emails come one week after rumors of potential violence at EGHS prompted a wave of anxiety to sweep through the Facebook page, East Greenwich Parents for Excellence.

Eventually, Principal Podraza issued an email to families to address the issue:

We have been made aware of rumors circulating around various social media platforms about the existence of a video alleging a threat to East Greenwich High School. Upon receiving word of the post, the East Greenwich Police Department was immediately notified. We take any and all information given to us by concerned members of our school community very seriously and turn any information over to the East Greenwich Police Department for investigation. While the East Greenwich Police Department’s initial review did not conclude any threat to the high school, the East Greenwich Police continue to conduct a complete and thorough investigation of this matter. Please know that the safety of our students and staff here at East Greenwich High School is our top priority, and all threats are taken seriously. If through the course of the investigation any information is brought to light were violations of the EGPS behavior code or RI State laws have occurred we will all appropriate and required actions.   

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said Thursday said she wanted the community to know the district has been working hard to make EG schools safer.

“The work didn’t start in the last couple of weeks. it’s been going on for several years now,” she said. She acknowledged that the community deserved more information about what the district is doing and said some of that work can be seen in the changes to the fronts of schools across the district. Hanaford was the last school to get a renovated entrance with a buzzer system and visibility to see who is at the entrance – that work was finished just this past fall.

“There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes too,” said Mark, work that won’t be made public for safety reasons.

She said new safety measures (including new drills) should be in place by the end of the school year and that the district would be working harder to communicate with families.


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Mark Your Calendar: EGHS Wall of Honor Ceremony Is April 11

Honorees include Guy Asadorian and Matt Plain

The Wall of Honor at EGHS can be found in the hallway between the auditorium and the cafeteria.

The 2018 East Greenwich High School Wall of Honor Ceremony will be held Wednesday, April 11, at 6 p.m. at the East Greenwich High School Auditorium.

The ceremony, which usually lasts an hour and a half, will honor five East Greenwich High School graduates who have gone on to success in life and can serve as an inspiration to current students at the school.

Being honored this year are: John Chandler, Class of 1966; Diane McDonald, Class of 1969; Dr. Bernice Pescosolido, Class of 1970; Guy Asadorian, Class of 1982, and, Matt Plain, Class of 1994.

This year’s recipients have achieved success in such varied fields as business, education, mental health, athletics, law, and the world of horses. Profiles of each honoree will be posted on EG News in coming weeks.

It is hoped that their family, friends, classmates and teammates will attend the ceremony to honor this group for its many achievements.  It is also hoped that as many former honorees as can, will also attend the ceremony, which is now going into its 11th year.

The East Greenwich High School Wall of Honor is sponsored by another very successful alumnus, Allen Gammons, of Berkshire Hathaway Gammons Realty, who has stood by it almost from its inception.

If you have any questions concerning the event, please call committee co-chairs Bob Houghtaling at 230-2246 or Chris Cobain at 398-1562.

 

Worm ‘Condo’ Moves Into EGHS for the Winter

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

David Abell had a problem – he didn’t know what to do about his worms.

He and his wife, Ellen, were planning their annual 3-month winter escape to Georgia but David was worried about his worm factory, a contraption that holds thousands worms in multiple layers. The Abells take their dog with them to Georgia, but the worms, they are a different story altogether.

Rather, they are a way for David to compost.

“When we lived in Wickford, we had no sewers and no garbage disposal, so I began composting in my backyard, using a bin I purchased from RI Resource Recovery Corporation on their composting program, and spreading the compost on our vegetable garden every spring,” he explained. “We were able to recycle or compost almost all of  waste from our home that way, although I couldn’t compost outside in the winter when it would freeze and not decay.”

Then he learned about worms. A friend offered him some red wrigglers in a bin and he kept them in his basement. Using worms to compost is called vermicomposting. Abell liked it and bought a worm factory.

The Abells recently moved to East Greenwich and their new home does not have a basement, so the worms went out to the garage, where Abell kept them from freezing using a “trouble light.” But that system wouldn’t work while the Abells were away for months in the middle of the winter.

“I had asked some friends from the choir if they had any suggestions on how I could take care of my worms while I was away down South,” he said. (True confession: David and I both sing in the choir at St. Luke’s Church). “Someone suggested asking the Biology Department of the high school.”

Abell contacted Nick Rath, chair of the EGHS science department. Initially, Rath thought he would just do Abell a favor by taking the worms, but once Abell filled him in on the worm factory, Rath realized the worms could be a nice teaching tool, especially for his Advanced Placement Environmental Science class.

So, on Tuesday afternoon, the worms made their big move from Pine Glen to the high school and Abell got a chance to describe to the students how he got involved and introduce them to the worms.

Vermicomposter David Abell explains to EGHS students how to keep his worm “condo” going while he’s away.

“I demonstrated feeding the worms,” said Abell. “There are thousands of worms in the bins, and many babies near the food. I told the students they could harvest the bottom bin by putting it on top, driving the worms down and out with a light, and drying out the compost to use on their plants. Then that empty bin could be lined with shredded paper and some earth, and prepared as a new feeding tray on top.”

“The worms are a great example of how we can use composting as a way to reduce our footprint a little bit,” Rath said.

“I thought that creating compost fertilizer from food scraps that would normally just end up in a landfill was a great way to help keep the environment clean and reduce your carbon footprint on a personal level,” said EGHS senior Alex Candow, a member of the class. “In addition to keeping the environment clean, the worm factory produces an extremely nutrient rich fertilizer that makes this even more beneficial for anyone who has a garden at home.”

He added, “I thought it was interesting that this all worked so naturally and that it was possible for hundreds of worms to live in a fairly small box.”

For David Abell, it’s been fun to learn about worms and he was happy that the science department was willing to take the worms for the winter.

So was Ellen Abell, who has found it hard to love her husband’s pet project.

As she said simply, “They’re disgusting!”

If you want to learn more about worms and vermicomposting, check out Rhode Island’s own Worm Ladies here.

Looking for 14 New ‘Little Libraries’

A ‘little library’ that already exists on Church Street across from Academy Field. It is not affiliated with the Engaged EG effort.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Many people have lamented the lack of a librarian this year at East Greenwich High School, which has rendered the space little more than a meeting place. A new group in town, Engaged East Greenwich, wants to do something about it. They are recruiting 14 “Little Library” sites around town to both provide books for students and to call attention to the missing high school librarian.

Engaged EG formed this past fall. Here’s how they describe themselves on their Facebook page:  “We hope that … we can create a place where East Greenwich residents can get a succinct, non-biased view of the facts, free of drama and spin. Regardless of political affiliation or background, our goal is the same: to make our town the best it can be. Together that goal is achievable.”

As of Jan. 7, they have 336 members.

They are seeking 14 little libraries, one for every member of the School Committee (7) and Town Council (5), along with one each for the school superintendent and town manager.

“The decision to close the East Greenwich High School library can only be reversed by the Town Council, Town Manager, School Committee and Superintendent or more specifically some combination of those individuals,” said Kate Goldman, one of the four Engaged EG Facebook page moderators. “There are various ways that that could happen, but no one is taking action. The issue isn’t even on the agenda for their meetings. We are calling on each and every one of them to find a way to open that library. Someone needs to own this problem and fix it.” 

This isn’t the group’s first action. Engaged EG was responsible for green and red rectangle sheets of paper handed out at the Town Council meetings Nov. 14 and Nov. 20 when the council met to vote on the reappointment of Gayle Corrigan as town manager (the first meeting was cancelled because the venue was not large enough to hold all the people who wanted to attend). The sheets were handed out so attendees could show positive (green) or negative (red) reactions, in response to the council’s decision to not have public comment. (The council Nov. 20 ended up adding public comment to that meeting, but it came after their  3-2 vote to reappoint Corrigan.)
As for the 14 Little Libraries, so far Engaged EG has secured 4 sites – which means they still need 10 more.
“We are looking for home or business owners located near bus stops, walking routes or places where high school students meet, study, or hang out,” said Goldman. 
If you are interested or would like to learn more, check out the Engaged EG Facebook page. 

EGHS Chorus Fights to Be Heard

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Members of the EGHS Chorus Club performing at the Cole Middle School December concert.

One of the casualties of the School Committee’s challenging budget decisions last June was the part-time choral instructor at East Greenwich High School. In recent years, chorus was offered as a class but with a paid teacher, most recently Jennifer Armstrong (who still teaches chorus at Cole Middle School). When choral students learned that chorus would not be offered at the high school earlier this fall, a few of them decided to form a chorus club.

They recently performed at the Cole Middle School December concert and the response from the audience was so positive that they’ve decided to publicize their plight.

“It was powerful to perform at the middle school concert because all of the eighth grade choral students won’t have a teacher next year,” said Abby White, an EGHS junior. White directs the chorus with help from seniors Lev Simon and Laura Murphy. They needed an adult advisor to form a chorus club, so they asked Bob Houghtaling, the town’s drug counselor. Houghtaling freely admits he is no singer, but he took on the post to support the students.

“It’s the easiest job I’ve ever had,” said Houghtaling. “It’s great being around determined and enthusiastic people. Basically, all I’m doing is giving them an opportunity.”

The group practices once a week for just an hour during the Wednesday Advisory period. Because of their limited practice time together, members must learn the music on their own. The group size has fluctuated between 10 and 15 students.

Ironically, they meet in the library, which also suffered during the June budget cuts. The EGHS librarian position was eliminated so the library is, essentially, just a meeting or study space.

For the December concert, the club performed two songs: “Child of Peace” by David Waggoner, and “Give Us Hope,” by Jim Papoulis.

“It’s about the power of music – it’s universal and a force that we all can participate in and enjoy together,” White said.

“Music is my way to express myself,” said member Kristen Choiniere.

“The chorus community is very supportive. Singing with great people boosts my confidence and also is a lot of fun,” said member Maaike Calvin.

The club has had the benefit of White’s extensive musical background, including a conducting class she took last summer at the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. White is also a member of both the Providence Singers and the Rhode Island Children’s Choir.

Before the group performed at the Cole concert last week, White told the audience how they had lost their instructor and had decided to keep singing anyway. After they finished, the audience rose to their feet, giving the singers a standing ovation. White said she was overcome with emotion.

“This is a victory for music programs everywhere,” said Chorus Club co-director Lev Simon. 

Their success at the concert however, did not deter the group from seeking restored funding for a chorus teacher.

“In terms of having a certified teacher to teach a class at the high school, it’s absolutely necessary for the choral program to survive,” White said. She said more students would participate if there was a teacher and they could receive course credit.

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said she applauded the students’ initiative even as she acknowledged the financial challenges facing the district.

“I’m always thrilled when I see our kids stepping up and advocating on their behalf,” she said.

White has taken to Facebook to spread the word, since, she said, most people don’t even realize chorus was cut. In a recent post, she took aim at the Town Council, which is responsible for funding the schools (but not for deciding how that funding is spent) and gave the schools $700,000 less than it requested for the current fiscal year.

The chorus will get a chance to bring its message of music directly before the Town Council on Monday, Dec. 18, when they will perform for the panel (it’s a joint session with the School Committee). They are performing at Shoreside Apartments this week and may have an opportunity to sing this month at Barnes & Noble.