Peter Nero, the fixer, is seeing through North Stonington's new school
North Stonington — Superintendent Peter Nero can't resist — if he sees students, he talks to them.
"What are you doing right now?" "How you doing today?" "You behaving yourselves?"
They stare back, wide-eyed, smiling, slightly confused. "Hi, Mr. Nero."
Nero isn't like most school administrators — he's more gregarious, less reserved. Large and loud, his distinctive Rhode Island accent and shock of silver hair are his trademarks. He peppers his conversations with monologues on the importance of being an educator, "I've gotta be honest with you," wistful recollections of his own youth and impossibly smooth segues into the latest on the New York Yankees.
North Stonington isn't like most school districts — it's tiny, more tight-knit. Nero and North Stonington fit together, somehow.
Having grown up in Providence, where there were "bookies on the corners" and going to jail was not inconceivable, Nero says, he appreciates the more casual lifestyle of North Stonington. And with such a small school district, he can be closer to students and teachers than in what he calls his "other district" in Cranston, R.I., where he was superintendent.
To illustrate the difference in size, Nero says he used to oversee 96 administrators. Now he deals with four.
His upbringing in Providence has allowed him to relate to students with lesser means as well as students who are uncomfortable with school. When he left Providence for the "lily-white" Cranston at age 12, Nero said, he felt like "the world is a tuxedo and you're a pair of brown shoes ... you just don't fit in."
"He was so different than the superintendent I was on the school committee with for most of my time there," Cranston City Councilman and former member of the School Committee Steve Stycos said of Nero. "I guess if I had to see him, I'd say, 'Oh, there's the principal.' He's just like the principal, he's out there, he's talking to the kids ... and that's the way I think education should be."
When speaking of his interactions with students, Nero becomes animated, grinning to himself like a comedian about to deliver a punchline.
"I've caught so many snow days since I've been here, so the kids ... they'll see me during the day and, 'Hey, Mr. Nero, what does it look like for tomorrow?' 'Be up at 5:30, you'll find out!'" he said. "My standing line: 'How's it going today, Mr. Nero?' 'Too early to tell. When you're the superintendent, anything could happen!'"
Nero knows this phenomenon well. In 2012, when he was first hired at North Stonington, a story from The Day quoted him as saying he has "no big plans as of yet" since he was "just trying to get the lay of the land."
After surveying the landscape, Nero spearheaded the building of a $38 million school.
Doing so was difficult: It took 13 years of town discussions, two unsuccessful referendums, two successful ones. At times, Nero was frustrated, not just by the length of the process and the more obstinate North Stonington residents, but by Stonington Public Schools Superintendent Van Riley, who produced a study in the weeks leading up to a referendum on the building project claiming that sending Wheeler students to Stonington High School would be a financial boon for North Stonington.
"Two years ago, I was really disappointed when we were going for this building project and Stonington interfered with that," Nero said.
And in 2014, according to The Day, Board of Finance Chairman Dan Spring was apparently put "in the strange position of trying to convince Superintendent Peter Nero ... that it is worth pushing forward." At the time, Nero even suggested delaying the undertaking.
Yet, North Stonington got its school. Nero gives credit to the kids and parents who rallied around Wheeler, fellow administrators and people like First Selectman Mike Urgo, who was chairman of the town's School Modernization Building Committee during the struggle for a new school. Urgo praised Nero for his leadership and for his ability to collaborate, acknowledging disagreements that were later decided on diplomatically.
Stycos had a similar opinion of Nero's style. "I always felt that he was, you ask him a question, you get a straight answer," Stycos said. "We had other superintendents who were not very truthful, so he was a breath of fresh air. When you disagreed with him it was like, 'Oh, okay, you think that, I think this, fine, but tell me the truth,' which he would do."
Bringing in a new school and, in the case of the elementary school, renovating as new, was the top priority when Nero was brought in, although he suspects some on the past, more divisive Board of Education hoped to "submarine" the plan. Wheeler was put on warning in 2008 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) because of insufficient facilities, which negatively affected instruction. Wheeler also was in trouble with the EPA for a variety of reasons, such as swipe tests showing high levels of the harmful chemicals PCBs. The Board of Education and Nero considered many options, including outsourcing every student to a nearby school, effectively ending Wheeler.
"I was scared, to be honest with you, that we were all gonna lose our jobs," Nero said. "When it overwhelmingly passed, the next morning, when we were getting ready to do the groundbreaking, I walked by Ryan Shane, the associate principal here, I said, 'Ryan, I guess we have jobs now.'"
While the new middle/high school may have been Nero's most intensive endeavor during his time in education, it certainly wasn't his first "reclamation project."
In Cranston for 34 years — 21 as a teacher and 13 as an administrator — Nero held the positions of assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent. He was brought in as assistant principal at Cranston High School East, where he worked to free the school from academic probation. The school was off probation in two-and-a-half years.
Nero was then hired as principal of Western Hills Middle School, which is in the same district, for similar reasons. Its statewide rankings were not satisfactory and discipline issues plagued the school. After his tenure at Western Hills, Nero continued to climb the administrative ladder, developing a reputation as a specialist. If you were in trouble, he could help you out of it.
Nero denies seeking fights. If that is indeed the case, he's at least unafraid of them.
When Mayor Allan Fung attempted to place a charter school in Cranston, Nero viewed it as an affront to Cranston's school district, the same one he attended as a kid before going to college. He published a blistering op-ed, writing: "Do you forget your accolades and public recognition at public events, such as honors nights or graduations, when you praise principals, teachers and students? Or, are those remarks insincere?" The initiative later was shot down.
"I don't know that he necessarily likes to have something to fight for, but he will go to the mat for what he believes is the right thing to do," said Roberta McCarthy, Nero's administrative assistant at Wheeler.
For all the sparring and grappling Nero has had to do in his career, he doesn't plan on retiring for at least three or four years. He recalls going through harrowing jobs, like working at a foundry, where cast metal products are made. As a young man just out of high school, he was depressed for a time because he was unsure of what to do with his life. Then he went to college.
"I think Tom Brady said, 'I figured it all out now, why would I wanna retire?' When I walk in this school in the summertime and there's no one in here and the musty smell is in here, I've been doing this a long time, and that smell hits me," Nero said.
He also senses it's his responsibility for seeing through the transition to the new school and the renovated elementary school. Perhaps the most significant reason is, "I'd like to enjoy two to three years without having to worry about PCB, the EPA and NEASC," he said.
During the recent hour-and-a-half interview, Nero did not let his constantly buzzing phone distract him from his verbal stream of consciousness. He's busy and the currently on schedule building of the new school could come to sum up his legacy. For someone who would rather be the "guide on the side" than the "sage on the stage," Nero commands attention. He responds flippantly, recognizing his own ability and limitations simultaneously when referencing his above-average memory: "I think I'm a savant, probably an idiot."