The smell of saw-dust fills the hallway leading to the wood shop at Barrington Middle School.
Inside the shop, some students use drafting tools and math concepts to design their soon-to-be wood creations; others use coping saws to carefully turn wooden blocks into sleek cars they will race using CO2 cartridges; more students discuss project options with their teacher Cheryl DelSanto.
The entire class appears quite engaged — a far cry from the wood shop program at the school that was a few votes away from being eliminated in 2012.
Back in the spring of 2012, the Barrington School Committee recommended the wood shop program be eliminated. Officials said the move would save the district $110,000 for the industrial art teacher’s salary and benefits.
But in a close vote at the financial town meeting, taxpayers opted to keep the wood shop program alive. In the end, the overall budget was increased by $144,000 that covered the industrial art teacher’s salary and benefits plus repairs to the dust collection system.
School officials also hired a new teacher for wood shop that year — longtime educator Michael Topazio retired, and the school superintendent eventually hired Ms. DelSanto out of a large pool of candidates.
Since that first day of school in 2012, Mrs. Delsanto has brought an energy and level of inspiration that has been infectious to her students.
“I can’t imagine BMS without wood shop. The program is a great experience and Mrs. DelSanto is an awesome teacher,” said seventh-grader Bobby Dubel.
In her second year at the middle school, Mrs. DelSanto is enthusiastic and works hard to engage all her students in her classroom.
“I want to give these kids what I would give my own kids,” she said. Mrs. DelSanto’s daughter is studying education at Roger Williams University and her son in his senior year of high school.
“With my students, I encourage them to push themselves to try things out of their comfort zone. It is so rewarding to see how far they can go and what amazing things they can create. Some of my middle school students are more advanced than some high school students I have had the pleasure to teach,” she said.
Mrs. DelSanto grew up in Bristol and earned undergraduate and masters (technology education) degrees from Rhode Island College.
But becoming an industrial arts teacher was not her original career choice. At RIC she stumbled upon the industrial arts building and was amazed at its enormity and the exciting projects going on within its walls. It was then that she took her first college class in the field and immediately knew she had found her niche.
At a time when few women were industrial arts educators, Mrs. DelSanto realized that she could impact not only male students I also females and teach them the importance of an industrial arts education.
“I remember being a young girl watching my grandfather work in his shop. He was always making things for my grandmother but he never let me help because I was a girl. I always thought that wasn’t quite fair,” she said.
Her childhood memories are very much alive and used in a positive manner. In fact, many of the tools in the wood shop at the middle school are from her grandfather’s wood shop.
As a teacher at Bristol High School, Portsmouth High School and most recently Tiverton High school it has always been her goal to engage all students.
“Years ago, girls were encouraged to go in to fields meant solely for females. I never understood that way of thinking. It is important for every student to get a well-rounded education,” she said.
Her hard work has paid off. She has been awarded teacher of the year on two occasions; in 1992 as a teacher in the Bristol School Department and in 2009 by the Portsmouth Public Education Foundation.
When the opportunity surfaced to teach in Barrington, she was thrilled.
“I love working at the middle school level. I get to see many more students and have more of an impact on them,” she said.
Change in scheduling
A big reason she gets to see more students is a recent change in the way “special” classes are scheduled.
In the past students were assigned specials (shop, art, music, home economics, keyboarding, robotics and computer technology) in a quinta fashion, meaning every 5 weeks they would have a different special.
But at times, students would be assigned the same special they had in the past and some never had the opportunity to experience all the specials the school offers.
Barrington Middle School Principal Andrew Anderson has made changes to scheduling so that specials run on a quarterly basis similar to core class scheduling.
Barrington Schools Superintendent Michael Messore said this gives additional time for instructors to more deeply delve into subjects and projects.
“Andy wanted to make an effort to allow for more subject time and is working on scheduling so students experience all specials before they leave eighth grade,” Mr. Messore said.
“Middle school is the time where students should be exposed to a variety of options that will help them decide what to focus on at the high school and beyond. At this age, the students can make connections that will help shape career paths when they go on to college or trade schools.”
The superintendent also said that the district is looking in to ways to enhance the wood shop and robotics programs to better utilize the STEM model of education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
“That is the direction we want to go,” he said. “It’s not just about building products but a matter of learning the process of how connections take place. Students have the opportunity to learn the basics of engineering and design at the middle school level. We are in the process of developing a rubric to better evaluate the programs and be better informed on how to move into the future.”
— By Joan D. Warren