WOOD RIVER JCT. — Less than two months into her position as Chariho Superintendent of Schools, Gina Picard has had to familiarize herself with a large regional school district while grappling with unprecedented challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Picard is also replacing longtime former superintendent Barry Ricci, who died last December. His influence, she said, is still acutely felt.
“Barry worked up to his very last day and everything was here, and every time I go through things, I find his notes, things that typically a superintendent who would retire would have taken, would have thrown away,” she said. “I don’t want to sound eerie in any way, but it’s like being mentored. Being able to see somebody’s thinking on topics, things that were going on in the district during a convocation or a graduation, he was a note-keeper.”
Picard’s approach in honoring Ricci’s legacy has been to simply be herself.
“Never go in anywhere trying to be somebody you’re not or be somebody else, because that would be impossible, and it would be unfair, because you could only do that for so long,” she said.
Picard’s down-to-earth approach appears to be working.
“Superintendent Picard has made a positive first impression,” Chariho principal Craig MacKenzie said. “Following Mr. Ricci in any circumstances would carry a burden of expectations. She established from our first interactions that she was going to honor him by being herself. She has navigated the challenges of introducing herself to the school community with aplomb, and she has proven an attentive listener and trusting of our capacity as building administrators to collaborate with all stakeholders in designing re-entry plans. While I know she understands the gravity of the many challenges we face, she tackles them with conviction and a great sense of humor.”
A career in education
Born at Women and Infants Hospital in Providence and raised in North Providence, Picard, who is 44, lives with her husband, three children and mother in the same house where she grew up. The family is close. Picard’s sister, Lynn, lives across the street and they see each other every day.
After attending public schools in North Providence, Picard earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Rhode Island College and a master’s in reading, also at Rhode Island College, which qualified her as a reading specialist for students in pre-kindergarten to Grade 12. Picard continued to the University of Rhode Island, where she completed a master’s degree in educational leadership.
Picard worked in the Providence School District for 22 years and is a member of the North Providence School Committee. Before coming to Chariho, she served as executive director of the Providence district’s middle schools, overseeing 6,000 students.
Encouraged by colleagues and mentors to apply for a superintendent’s position, Picard said several districts had open positions but she was reluctant to apply unless the district felt right.
“If I was going to take it, I really wanted to make sure that it was the right place, the right move,” she said. “It wasn’t just about becoming a superintendent. It was about the right fit, so I could feel connected to the community.”
Picard said she felt that the Chariho district would be a good fit for her.
“For me, it was the lens that Chariho had and really, when you read the comments or the feedback, many people, educators, families, community members are really happy and they believe that the school system is a beacon of light for the three communities, an asset to all three towns,” she said. “To be a part of that would be an amazing opportunity as a superintendent.”
Picard started her new job on June 18 and hit the ground running. A typical work day is a long one.
“I’m an early bird, so I usually get to the office some days at 6, some days at 6:30,” she said.
In her free time, she tackles home improvement projects, and listens to podcasts. She also enjoys reading both fiction and non-fiction and spending time with her family.
The strongest influence in her life, she says, was her late father, William Floriani.
“He was always someone who pushed us to believe we could be anything we wanted to be,” she said. “There was never a gender role. I never felt like something was a girl job or a boy job. He would take me with him to elections, he would take me with him to community events, and really instilled my passion for advocacy of others and for the community, and I think that’s where my love for education started.”
The COVID-19 challenge
Since her first day on the job, Picard has been planning for the new school year, which will begin on Aug. 31, unless the state revises its timetable.
“While COVID provides its share of challenges, it has also really pushed our thinking on what are we putting in front of our children,” she said. “Does it make sense, what we’re asking them to do? Is that assignment that important? And I think that while teachers were always really mindful of that, they became even more mindful of it as we hit the virtual forum,” she said.
School Committee Chairman Ryan Callahan said that despite being faced with unusual circumstances, Picard was meeting and exceeding the committee’s expectations.
“She took the job at a very difficult time and I like what I’ve seen,” he said. “I like how she’s handling herself and the challenges that she’s faced with, and I think she’s doing an outstanding job. One of the things you immediately recognize and realize when you talk to Gina is not just her confidence but her energy level and, in her day-to-day life, she is the candidate that we interviewed, and that says a lot. She had a great interview, we loved the energy, and that’s how she is all the time.”
Picard acknowledged that as the pandemic continues, parents are afraid of what schools will be like.
“I think the frustrating thing about COVID is, I’m telling everybody what I know, it’s just not all the information,” she said. “I don’t have all the information. None of us do. So it’s frustrating for parents to have to make decisions when they realize that as a district, we don’t have every single answer that they need or want, and as superintendents, it’s frustrating at our end, because we don’t have every single answer we need and want. So we’re all sort of mitigating and going through this journey together.”
State-issued guidance on school openings is expected on Monday, Aug. 17, leaving school districts just two weeks to prepare for reopening. Chariho parents have been given the option of in-person learning or registering their children for distance learning, and as of Aug. 5, nearly 500 families had chosen distance learning.
Picard said the keys to getting through the COVID-19 challenges would be transparency and flexibility. She’s also encouraging teachers to innovate.
“Nobody’s every done it, so let’s figure it out together,” she said. “Let’s think about what people are doing, let’s try an idea and if it doesn’t work, you try something new. But don’t be afraid. There’s no harm in saying to the kids, ‘I’ve never done this before. Let’s see how it goes.’”
Picard said her commitment to Chariho goes beyond the schools into the community, and she recently joined the Rotary Club of Chariho.
“I think being a part of the community, even outside of the school, will be important, so people know that I’m invested in more than just the school district, although that’s a huge responsibility,” she said.