As RI looks at potential multi-billion dollar schoolhouse issue, Pawtucket’s Potter Burns is reborn

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The state of Rhode Island will release a statewide school building assessment next week that’s expected to pinpoint more than $1 billion in necessary improvements, but a Pawtucket school could be an example of how sharply an schoolhouse can be new again.

School Department Assistant Superintendent Cheryl McWilliams, who grew up in Pawtucket, said the many other communities that need to renovate old schools or build new ones could benefit from the city’s approach.

“We got everyone involved. The mayor, the school board, the parents, the teachers,” McWilliams said. “Just coming together and saying listen, our kids deserve better.”

Voters in a number of districts, including Warwick, North Providence and Barrington, have already approved putting bond money to work to build and renovate their aging schools.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has said the capital city’s schools need at least $200 million in help.

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The average public school in the state is 61 years old and according to a 2013 Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) assessment, $1.7 billion is needed to bring the schools where they need to be physically.

The information for that report was provided by the respective districts, but the assessment that will be released next Wednesday was chronicled by a consultant who was hired by the state.

The motivation behind Pawtucket leading the way in improving their schools hit in May of 2013. A large chunk of plaster fell in a basement classroom at Potter Burns, a short time after students had left their desks.

“They had just left to go to the computer lab,” recalled McWilliams, who was the elementary school’s principal at the time.

“We heard a crash that felt like an earthquake,” she added. “It was a miracle no one was inside the room.”

Potter Burns is one of the state’s oldest schoolhouses, built back in 1919. After the collapse, the ceilings were lined with strips of wood to secure them, but classes continued.

Strips of wood line the ceiling at Potter Burns Elementary School

The next year city voters chipped in, approving a bond referendum that helped bring $14 million in renovations to the brick school that was gutted and improved with new heating, air conditioning, windows, a roof and much more.

“It’s just beautiful,” McWilliams said. “And we kept much of the charm of this 100-year-old building.”

McWilliams he is not shy about being willing to share what Pawtucket did with other communities facing similar issues.

“You have to make it important in your community,” she said. “Giving your students a 21st century environment is vital. They deserve it.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau