The Hummel Report: Reading, Writing and … Mold?

ACE1The 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 more than 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 The Academy for Career Exploration (ACE), a Providence charter school, began looking for new quarters last summer.

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

It settled 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, although it did do a thorough cleaning before school started in late August.

Two weeks after school began, 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, the head of school, Dr. Mario 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 there last summer in a wide-ranging interview 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.

ACE3Jim Hummel: Was there a concern in your mind about mold when you moved in here?

Mario Cirillo: When we first came over to the building, it was obvious that there was a problem in the basement. 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 Oct 28 saying three teachers — including the two who eventually filed the workers comp suit — were having respiratory problems, and it named nine children she says 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.”

Tracee Lewis’s daughter is a sophomore at ACE. Lewis says her daughter loves the school but has been having persistent flu-like symptoms and an inflamed throat.

“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. 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.'”

ACE2Cirillo 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.

“We did send memos to parents, letting them know that we, first of all, moved our location,” Cirillo said. “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.”

Meanwhile, the two teachers’ workers comp case gets 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.

As for Lewis? She says her daughter will likely transfer to another school next year.

The Hummel Report is a 501 3C non-profit organization that relies, in part, on your donations. If you have a story idea or want make a donation go to hummelreport.org, where you can also see the video version of this story. You can mail Jim directly at jim@hummelreport.org.

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