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School days from back in the day on display at Cook School

By Kendra Gravelle

There’s nothing especially remarkable about the view from the windows of the professional development room in the Smithfield School Administration Building on Farnum Pike: a paved parking lot, a thicket of trees, a chain link fence separating the two. But for Rose Marie Cipriano, the view evokes a slew of very special memories.

“This was the girls’ side of the playground,” Cipriano pointed out the window of the second-story room of the Irving S. Cook School — which, in the mid-1950s, was her 6th grade classroom — to where the parking lot is now located. “The boys had to play on the other side.”

“When you were a sixth grader,” she added, “you were the big shots in this building.”

Located down the street, according to Cipriano’s memory, was the old St. Michael’s Church, next to which sat a small library. There was also a train that would roll by as the children sat in their classrooms.

“You could hear the trains when they came in, and you had the fire station across the street, so when the whistles blew you heard that too,” she remembered. “You think of people who live in the city — we weren’t a city, yet this was the center of the community.”

And when lunchtime came, Cipriano said, she would run down the hill behind the school to her home on Stillwater Road, just beyond Georgiaville Pond.

The elementary school was named for Dr. Irving S. Cook when it opened in 1923. In the 1970s, after the building had been repurposed from a school to an administration building, a group of high school students were tasked with masking every wall with faux wood paneling. A project last summer to refurbish the second-floor room uncovered Cipriano’s former classroom, perfectly maintained.

“That paneling is everywhere [within the building],” said Smithfield Superintendent Bob O’Brien, “and we didn’t know what was behind the paneling until we took it down.”

What the removal of the paneling revealed was more special than O’Brien had imagined it would be. Preserved beneath in like-new condition was the building’s original 1920s woodwork and a set of half-inch thick slate blackboards — blackboards so heavy, dismounting them from the wall proved a job for four people.

As a member of the Smithfield School Committee, Cipriano had revisited the room on several occasions prior to the removal of the panels, yet had never experienced the nostalgia that came once they were disposed of.

“When [O’Brien] said, ‘You’ve got to see what we’re doing upstairs with this room,’ it was like, all of the sudden, a flash of memories from being in here. It was a great time,” Cipriano said, “and it was a great time to be a young person in Smithfield.”

Cipriano can even recall the lemon scent of the polishing solution used to buff the wooden walls. One of her most vivid memories, though, is that of the annual gift-exchange during Christmastime.

“I can especially remember it because Mr. Custer drew my name,” she said, adding that her 6th grade teacher, John Custer, had the natural ability to relate to his students. “He bought me a pair of gloves.”

“We want to preserve the look of the 1950s classroom,” O’Brien added, as he gestured toward a portion of the original slate blackboard, having been re-positioned onto the wall opposite where it was found. “Who knows what we’ll find if we ever take the paneling down in other rooms.”

The room now serves as a perfect juxtaposition of old and new: across from the modern, mobile classroom furniture sits a 1920s-era school desk and chair, attached to the floor, as it would have been back-in-the-day. Hovering above the framed, handwritten minutes from a 1923 school committee meeting, a smart projector is mounted. A cart full of Chromebooks sits near a stack of weathered textbooks.

“We wanted a blend between the old and the new,” O’Brien said. “When teachers come in here for professional development, they’re stepping into a 1920s classroom, but it’s been updated.”

All around the room, school committee minutes, written in perfect cursive, old photographs portraying Irving Cook and old maps of Georgiaville are on display.

“This one’s my favorite,” said Bridget Morisseau, assistant superintendent of schools, pointing to a framed sheet of paper dated Feb. 25, 1918. “This one’s about German propaganda.”

After the rediscovery of the old classroom, it was Morisseau who sifted through old ledgers to pick out which pieces would be exhibited on the walls. Among those, a sheet depicting the minutes of a school committee meeting held in 1920, during which the establishing of an elementary school — which would be Irving S. Cook School — had been discussed.

“Meeting of the school committee held at Mr. Cook’s home with all members present,” the minutes read. “Committee members and superintendent visited sites that might be available for a new school building in Georgiaville. Sites were also inspected in the Greystone section of Esmond in regard to locating a primary school there.”

“I read every single page of these to pick the ones I thought would be good,” Morisseau said. “I started going through them and I got caught up. I spent a whole day just reading and was able to go through the whole history.”

“Being an educator, it’s nice to see how far we’ve come,” she continued, “but it’s also good to be able to cherish the history.”

The comparisons between old and new in the room’s aesthetics mirror the differences in teaching styles between the two eras. Whereas during the years in which Irving S. Cook School was operational the teacher would typically stand at the front of the classroom to instruct, today, students are often given assignments that require collaboration, O’Brien explained.

“If you go into a classroom today, desks aren’t going to be in rows,” he said. “Kids are talking to each other, collaborating, using technology — those are the things you’re seeing now. We’re giving them an opportunity to learn by doing, and that’s what’s different.”

In some ways, though, things haven’t changed. Among the discoveries made upon the removal of the paneling was a set of tall doors, which, when opened, would join two adjacent classrooms, forming one large learning space.

“And that’s something we’re trying to do — create a common area where you can bring classes together,” O’Brien said. “We’re going back to what happened in 1923.”

Cipriano said the doors were rarely opened while she was a student there.

“There were the funny times, though, when a class would be going on and in the middle of it, a kid would be sticking his head through the door,” she added.

Because there were no contract stipulations limiting the number of students per classroom, class sizes were much larger then than they are today. In Mr. Custer‘s 6th grade class during the year Cipriano was a pupil, for example, there were over 40 students.

Because of these large class sizes — Cipriano’s 6th grade class and the one which preceded it were larger than any the school had seen in its 30 years — a new junior high school, renamed the Old County Road School, was built just in time for Cipriano to enter as a seventh-grader.

“They knew there would be an increase in the number of students — we were the baby boomers,” said Cipriano, who was born just after World War II.

Cipriano graduated from junior high a few years before Smithfield High School was built in 1966 — students finishing junior high school before that year would have to attend one of the other area high schools.

After graduating from college, Cipriano sought a career in education, serving as principal of Cumberland High School before moving her career to Connecticut.

She credited her time at Irving S. Cook School for instilling her love of education.

“Being at this school was a great experience, and look where it got me,” said Cipriano, who helped paved the way for women as public high school principals in Rhode Island. “This school was part of me, and I’ve been very fortunate.”