2017-05-11 / Front Page

Jamestowner named top principal

BY RYAN GIBBS


SAVASTANO SAVASTANO Chris Savastano lives in a town with two A-plus schools, but it’s the U-turn he supervised in a struggling city that’s turning heads.

Savastano, whose office is at Tolman High School in Pawtucket, has transformed one of the state’s most troubled schools into a reputable institution of education. For his efforts, he was named secondary principal of the year during a ceremony April 27 in front of his family, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien and — most fittingly — his students.

When Savastano arrived in the auditorium, however, he didn’t know what all the pomp and circumstance was about. “I thought we were having a guest speaker,” he said.

So, in true Savastano fashion, he began supervising the students, getting them in order for whatever was going to follow. That’s when he noticed all eyes on him.

“I realized they had something set for me,” he said.

Superintendent Patricia Di- Censo and school board members also were in attendance to congratulate Savastano on an award that seemed so far away five years ago.

According to the Rhode Island Association of Principals, which administers the competition, Savastano was chosen not only for overseeing a turnover in student achievement and test scores, but for changing the school’s culture since arriving in 2012.

“He’s a very worthy candidate, an experienced principal renowned across the state,” said Don Rebello, the association’s executive director. “He has done a wonderful job at his school.”

Savastano was named to Tolman’s top post when the school was at a low point in its history. It had been listed as a “priority” school by the Rhode Island Department of Education, which means too many students weren’t proficient in mathematics and reading. Also, there were serious performance gaps for five consecutive years.

Instead of firing teachers, like Central Falls had done in 2010, Pawtucket replaced its principal. With Savastano came a transformation plan.

“We’re the first secondary school to ever get out of priority,” he said. “We achieved an accountability score above 50, which is considered normal, for three years in a row.”

Among his proudest accomplishments, Savastano instituted the school’s freshman academy, an intervention program that helps ninth-graders transition into high school. Since its founding, leaders in neighboring districts have visited Tolman because they’re interested in developing a similar model.

“It’s like a school within a school,” he said. “That program has had a tremendous effect.”

Under Savastano’s leadership, the school also has cut back on suspensions. In 2011, the year before his arrival, there were more than 3,800 documented suspensions. Through the implementation of intervention programs, that number has dwindled to fewer than 300.

Tolman’s graduation rate has increased since Savastano took the helm, from 56 percent in 2012 to 83 percent last year. Participation in the school’s advanced placement also increased dramatically — with an uptick in the AP test scores.

“Anyone can sit and take an AP exam,” Savastano said. “To me, the proof is in the pudding, which is the number of kids that are actually achieving a score that will give them college credit. We had 28 students pass a total of 45 exams last year. In the year before I arrived, I think they had four students pass a total of six exams.”

On Tuesday, Savastano received an official proclamation from Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. A formal banquet is scheduled for later this month.

Before coming to Pawtucket, Savastano worked in Middletown for 13 years as a computer science teacher. He also was director of the arts department. Before that, he taught mathematics in Cranston for a decade.

A man of humility, Savastano said the award shouldn’t just bear his name. He made sure to recognize the teachers.

“I’m just part of a good team,” he said. “What it meant mostly was the culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication.”

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