KINGSTON, R.I., May 24, 2016—Laila Martin stepped on “COURAGEOUS,” skipped to “PARTICIPATION” and landed, finally, on her favorite, “AWESOME TEACHERS.”
The path was well traveled—and for good reason.
The Woonsocket eighth-grader painted those messages on a new brick walkway she and her classmates built at Villa Nova Middle School, thanks to a statewide educational outreach program at the University of Rhode Island.
“It’s so cool for other people to see what I did,” said Martin. “I’ve never had my accomplishments in front of anyone before. It feels good.”
Martin and her classmates at Villa Nova, as well as Hamlet Middle School next door, completed the 60-foot path last month, and on May 19 it was formally dedicated during a brief gathering at the school.
The project was a team effort led by the URI-based Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences Program, or SMILE, and Will Anderson, who graduated from URI in 1992 with a degree in landscape architecture.
“These kids did this; I just showed them the way,” said Anderson, surrounded by his crew of 40-plus students. “The walkway is wonderful. It’s not straight. It’s not perfect, but that makes it so much better.”
Created in 1994 by Carol Englander, a former middle school science teacher in South Kingstown, The SMILE Program helps under-represented elementary, middle and high school students prepare to study math and science in college. Students can begin in grade school and participate through high school. The program is based at URI and funded by private donations.
The Woonsocket project—transforming a muddy area into a walkway—started in 2014, but stalled for various reasons. Frustrated, Englander turned to Angelo Simeoni, a professor of landscape architecture at URI, for guidance. He recommended a talented former student, Anderson, owner of Will Anderson Garden Mentor.
Anderson, who lives in Cumberland, came up with a design and supervised the work on two rainy days in late April. “I was very nervous,” he said. “That many hands, you don’t know what the product is going to be.”
Turns out he had a life-changing experience: “I’d do this again in a heartbeat.” The kids put down more than 5 tons of stone dust, leveled the area with two-by-fours and installed more than 200 concrete pavers—most of which were painted with colorful messages.
“It was cold, and I couldn’t feel my fingers, but we stuck with it,” said Jalissa Jackson, 11. “It was great to do a big project like this with my friends.”
Nomar Almonte, 12, said he learned how to work as a team and help the community. Plus, he got some tips on how to level the ground. “Work hard,” he said, with a chuckle.
Christianna Godin, 14, painted a fearless message on her brick: “BE A NERD WITH NO SHAME!” She’s a math whiz who hopes to study education in college and become an elementary education teacher.
“I love SMILE,” she said, tapping her brick with the toe of her shoe. “Everybody wants to be in the club. You learn things. You get things done.”
This year, she made a wind turbine. Another year, she learned all about magnets.
“It’s cool to be smart in this group,” said Paulette Metivier, one of four middle school teachers who supervise the after-school club. “They know it’s a college-preparatory program. They want to be here.”
Woonsocket Schools Supt. Patrick McGee, who also attended the dedication, said he was impressed with the students’ work and commitment.
“I’m so proud of the students and teachers,” he said. “SMILE is fantastic…I’m just really proud that these students are giving back to the community.”
The program has 470 students in 22 clubs in six school districts, including Woonsocket. Englander says the emphasis on science and math at an early age inspires students to stay with the fields through high school and into college. Now, 80 alumni of the program attend URI, with 73 percent of them pursuing math and science majors.
Godin, for one, says she plans to attend college and that URI is her first choice. Englander isn’t surprised.
“It helps to have a cheerleader,” she said. “We can’t wait to see these kids go to college and become the wonderful people they can be.”
For more information about The SMILE Program, contact Englander at 401-874-2036 or visit www.uri.edu/smile.
Pictured above: Will Anderson, of Cumberland, who graduated from URI in 1992 with a degree in landscape architecture, and Carol Englander, director of The SMILE Program, stand with Woonsocket middle school students who built a pathway outside Villa Nova Middle School. Photo by Michael Salerno.