The Hummel Report

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A Healthy Challenge

Rhode Island’s oldest charter school had to scramble last year when the long-time lease on its building in Providence was not renewed. It wound up moving into a vacant parochial school that needed a lot of work, including mold removal. While the administration pronounced the building good to go for the opening of school, some are questioning if the building is making them sick. Jim Hummel goes inside to get some answers.

 

SCRIPT:

The two-story brick building looks like a fortress - and it’s built like one.

In fact, the old Bishop McVinney School was designated by the city of Providence as a nuclear fallout shelter in the 1960s . Constructed nearly 75 years ago in the shadows of the Cranston Street Armory the building was home to thousands of parochial school students over the years.

But for much of the past decade it has largely sat vacant and was in rough shape when officials from a Providence charter school - looking for new quarters - toured the building last summer.

Cirillo: ``We looked at the condition and realized that we had some work ahead of us.’’

Dr. Mario Cirillo heads the Academy for Career Exploration, ACE for short - Rhode Island’s first public charter school and a school that’s under the umbrella of the Providence School Department.

For nearly 15 years ACE was housed in the old UCAP building on Broadway, but a year ago its lease was not being renewed and Cirillo had to scramble to find a new location.

And here, he saw a diamond in the rough, settling on the 20,000 square-foot brick school owned by the St. Charles Church next door. ACE moved in over the 4th of July weekend -  before signing a lease or having the building tested for mold and other potential toxins. That would come weeks after they moved in, but the school did hire a cleaning crew:

Cirillo: ``Men in suits and equipment brought in, blowers, all types of plastic up - they did it piece by piece, it wasn’t done in one fell swoop. It was done over a period of a few weeks.’’

Two weeks after the move a veteran teacher assigned to one of the basement rooms developed headaches and a sore throat. Within weeks it turned into coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

By October she and another veteran teacher also assigned to the basement said they could no longer work there because of the mold and were ordered by their doctors not to go back. They eventually filed a workers’ compensation lawsuit when the school stopped paying them last fall.

While teachers and students have also reported respiratory problems, Cirillo says the building has been given a clean bill of health - through testing and by city officials - and he stood by his decision to move here last summer in a wide-ranging interview last week with The Hummel Report. He portrayed the two teachers as outliers who do not represent the rest of the faculty, even though one sat on the Board of Directors until she was removed in January.

The rooms looked great when students arrived for classes in late August, but the conditions worsened as summer turned into fall and eventually winter. Pictures we obtained showed problems persisting well into December and January.

Hummel: ``Was there a concern in your mind about mold when you moved in here?’’

Cirillo: ``When we first came over to the building it was obvious that there was a problem in the basement and it was a concern and we knew that going in.’’

The basement houses a classroom, the cafeteria and gym and the only student bathrooms in the building - as well as the teachers’ lunch room and guidance office.

Cirillo told us the school spent $80,000 of its own funds on moving and getting the building ready to open last fall. St. Charles also spent $50,000 to get the building ready for occupancy.

ACE is paying the church $7,000 a month in rent. It was paying more than triple that for the building on Broadway.

The Hummel Report obtained an email from the school’s union representative to Cirillo and other administrators dated October 28th saying three teachers - including the two who eventually filed the workers comp suit - were having respiratory problems and it named nine children she says had asked to go to the nurse over the previous two to three weeks ``with light-headedness and dizziness and many have been experiencing asthma-like symptoms.’’

Eventually the teachers filed a formal grievance with the School Department, along with individual grievances from the two teachers who had been working in the basement classrooms. Those grievances were eventually denied, based in part on more testing done in February that the school said showed acceptable air quality levels.

Cirillo: ``Everyone I talked with from the company, from the diocese, we all felt very confident.’’

Hummel: ``Then why would you get a memo like this?’’

Cirillo: ``Well, there still was a level of concern. But Miss Perry is still here, she’s still teaching here…’

Hummel: ``Hasn’t had any problems?’’

Cirillo: ``No.’’

Hummel: ``Have you personally experienced any problems in this building?’’

Cirillo: ``No. No.’’

The two-story brick building looks like a fortress - and it’s built like one.

In fact, the old Bishop McVinney School was designated by the city of Providence as a nuclear fallout shelter in the 1960s . Constructed nearly 75 years ago in the shadows of the Cranston Street Armory the building was home to thousands of parochial school students over the years.

But for much of the past decade it has largely sat vacant and was in rough shape when officials from a Providence charter school - looking for new quarters - toured the building last summer.

Cirillo: ``We looked at the condition and realized that we had some work ahead of us.’’

Dr. Mario Cirillo heads the Academy for Career Exploration, ACE for short - Rhode Island’s first public charter school and a school that’s under the umbrella of the Providence School Department.

For nearly 15 years ACE was housed in the old UCAP building on Broadway, but a year ago its lease was not being renewed and Cirillo had to scramble to find a new location.

And here, he saw a diamond in the rough, settling on the 20,000 square-foot brick school owned by the St. Charles Church next door. ACE moved in over the 4th of July weekend -  before signing a lease or having the building tested for mold and other potential toxins. That would come weeks after they moved in, but the school did hire a cleaning crew:

Cirillo: ``Men in suits and equipment brought in, blowers, all types of plastic up - they did it piece by piece, it wasn’t done in one fell swoop. It was done over a period of a few weeks.’’

Two weeks after the move a veteran teacher assigned to one of the basement rooms developed headaches and a sore throat. Within weeks it turned into coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

By October she and another veteran teacher also assigned to the basement said they could no longer work there because of the mold and were ordered by their doctors not to go back. They eventually filed a workers’ compensation lawsuit when the school stopped paying them last fall.

While teachers and students have also reported respiratory problems, Cirillo says the building has been given a clean bill of health - through testing and by city officials - and he stood by his decision to move here last summer in a wide-ranging interview last week with The Hummel Report. He portrayed the two teachers as outliers who do not represent the rest of the faculty, even though one sat on the Board of Directors until she was removed in January.

The rooms looked great when students arrived for classes in late August, but the conditions worsened as summer turned into fall and eventually winter. Pictures we obtained showed problems persisting well into December and January.

Hummel: ``Was there a concern in your mind about mold when you moved in here?’’

Cirillo: ``When we first came over to the building it was obvious that there was a problem in the basement and it was a concern and we knew that going in.’’

The basement houses a classroom, the cafeteria and gym and the only student bathrooms in the building - as well as the teachers’ lunch room and guidance office.

Cirillo told us the school spent $80,000 of its own funds on moving and getting the building ready to open last fall. St. Charles also spent $50,000 to get the building ready for occupancy.

ACE is paying the church $7,000 a month in rent. It was paying more than triple that for the building on Broadway.

The Hummel Report obtained an email from the school’s union representative to Cirillo and other administrators dated October 28th saying three teachers - including the two who eventually filed the workers comp suit - were having respiratory problems and it named nine children she says had asked to go to the nurse over the previous two to three weeks ``with light-headedness and dizziness and many have been experiencing asthma-like symptoms.’’

Eventually the teachers filed a formal grievance with the School Department, along with individual grievances from the two teachers who had been working in the basement classrooms. Those grievances were eventually denied, based in part on more testing done in February that the school said showed acceptable air quality levels.

Cirillo: ``Everyone I talked with from the company, from the diocese, we all felt very confident.’’

Hummel: ``Then why would you get a memo like this?’’

Cirillo: ``Well, there still was a level of concern. But Miss Perry is still here, she’s still teaching here…’

Hummel: ``Hasn’t had any problems?’’

Cirillo: ``No.’’

Hummel: ``Have you personally experienced any problems in this building?’’

Cirillo: ``No. No.’’

Hummel: You have nine kids right here,’’

Cirillo: ``But I haven’t seen these kids - these kids have not come to me. Nor have their parents.’’

Lewis: ``First year was excellent - the atmosphere was good, she learned a lot.’’

Tracee Lewis’s daughter is in her second year at ACE, after attending Nathan Bishop Middle School, and spending her freshman in the building on Broadway. Lewis says her daughter loves the school but has been having persistent flu-like symptoms and an inflamed throat.

Lewis: ``She noticed that on the weekends she would kind of regroup  when she was sick. She’d be sick during the week, then on the weekends she’d start to feel better. ‘’

But the problems persisted and the Lewises finally went to see a doctor, who ruled out strep.

Lewis: ``(The doctor) started asking us all these different things about conditions at the home, and this, that and the other and that’s when my daughter said: `Well there is mold at school.’ And she was like `What do you mean there’s mold at school?’? But they said it’s not mold to bother you, it’s okay. And she’s like NO…if you’re having these issues, then she started talking to us about different kinds of mold and mold can affect you.’’

Cirillo defends his decision not to let parents know about the mold testing, saying the tests cleared the school so there was no problem to report. But the two original tests we looked at termed the mold ``moderate’’ - requiring more testing.

Cirillo: ``We did send memos to parents, letting them know that we, first of all, moved our location. We sent memos telling them we were taking care of situations at the building, we were fixing it up and whatever. We never mentioned the mold problem because we felt that by the time their kids were in here, this was a situation that wasn’t a situation.’’

But the pictures we obtained show a building that still had problems months after the administration pronounced the school good to go.

Lewis: ``The administrators keep saying the mold is not toxic, it’s not affecting anyone; they’ve done testing and everything came back negative. But they’ve never sent any kind of letters out to the parents, they’ve never alerted the parents to anything of this. The only reason I know about it is because I’ve got a 15-year-old that attends that school.’’

In its report the testing company said the school should be kept at a humidity level below 55 percent. The October results showed levels well above that in the basement, one at 79 percent.

Lewis: ``She started asking other students if they were having similar issues and some kids were like I’ve had a cold for a couple of weeks too, or I’ve had a sore throat, or sometimes I get headaches. My daughter was becoming very lethargic at school. Her breathing was become very labored if she walked up and down the stairs. My daughter runs track - there’s no reason why a healthy 15-year-old has labored breathing going up and down stairs.’’

Cirillo gave us a tour of the school earlier this month and the classrooms we saw looked fine.

Lewis: ``The fact that you know there’s an ongoing problem with mold in your building and you’re not making your parents aware of it, it’s really really concerns me, and it makes me feel like you’re hiding something. Even if you’re not trying to hide something, it really doesn’t come across well at all. Let us know what type of mold is in the building, if it is not hazardous, what’s the name of it, who did the testing? Give us the results of the test. You can call me 10 times about the PARCC exam and let me know that my child has to go to bed early because they have to take the PARCC exam over the last week, but you can’t tell me about her health?’’

Hummel: ``If my kid is having respiratory issues or headaches, or whatever I’m not thinking the school., I mean that wouldn’t first pop into my mind. However if the school told me: we’ve had some issues and maybe people have underlying problems, maybe that’s something they’d want to get checked out. But these parents basically have been left in the dark.’’

Cirillo: ``I don’t see it as being left in the dark, because we’ve had open houses. We have parents coming in here every day. As a parent if you were concerned about the health of your child you would call the school and say I have an issue I’d like to raise it with you. I have never received a call from a parent.’’

Meanwhile, the two teachers’ workers comp case get an initial hearing before a judge in May. The workers comp file includes a letter from a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital on behalf of one of the teachers that says the poor air quality in the school poses what she calls a public health problem.

Cirillo rejects that, saying he is confident ACE will prevail when the case is litigated.

Hummel: ``So you just think it’s two people trying to push an agenda?’’

Cirillo: ``I, I do.’’

Hummel: ``Do you think you’re going to prevail in that case?’’

Cirillo: ``I do.’’

And Tracee Lewis is still looking for answers.

Lewis: ``How am I supposed to know that years from now she’s not going to be affected by this? ‘Cause she’s been breathing this stuff for the last however many months?’’

In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.