Focus on education

Exploring all the options

In changing educational landscape, alternate paths await students and families


In a rapidly evolving economy, there is no single pathway to success.

Education, of course, remains essential. But in recent years, the established concept of schools and classrooms has increasingly given way to new visions of learning, both in terms of the tools used by teachers and students and the settings in which instruction occurs.

The changing landscape is evident in Rhode Island, as families can find a growing roster of alternative options alongside traditional public education.

Religious schooling remains a strong draw for thousands of students and families across the Ocean State. According to a 2019 report from the Diocese of Providence, approximately 12,000 students were enrolled in the state’s Catholic elementary and high schools in 2018.

St. Philip School (, located at 618 Putnam Pike in Greenville, is a Roman Catholic school serving approximately 180 students from 3 years old through eighth grade. Its enrollment is drawn from communities such as Cranston, Lincoln, Cumberland, Burrillville and Scituate, and some students even travel from Connecticut.

Cynthia Senenko, the school’s principal, said she has worked in public education and at secular private institutions in the past – and she views Catholic education as uniquely beneficial for young people, even those from outside the faith.

“You get that whole package here,” she said. “A lot of our families are looking for that, regardless of whether they’re Catholic.”

Senenko said the strength of education at St. Philip and the state’s other Catholic schools stems from a focus on “educating the whole person.” In many cases, she said, that means young people “grow deeper in their faith.” It also entails preparing students to become good citizens, given that “they’re going to be the leaders in our communities and our world.”

Beyond faith and citizenship, Senenko said academic excellence is a “very high priority” at St. Philip – evidence of which is found through the school’s test scores. She also said the school allows children to identify and explore their particular passions and strengths.

“We believe that every child has God-given gifts,” she said. “We’re not cookie-cutter. We’re not one-size-fits all.”

Senenko said she encourages families to “take the time to get to know what all the options are out there” in terms of educational opportunities for their children.

“There’s many good public schools out there. I’m a product of public education myself … We can do things here that you can’t do in a public school. We can really form the whole child,” she said.

Career and technical education offers another growing avenue for local students and families to consider.

William D. McCaffrey serves as director of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center ( for Warwick Public Schools. The center, which has operated for more than 40 years, uses its WACTC acronym to express its set of “core values” – workforce development, applied knowledge, college and career ready, technology and teamwork, and credentials.

The center offers a broad range of programs – from finance and construction trades to culinary arts and marine technologies – that are connected with industry partners. Each is designed to equip students with first-hand experience and skills that can prove extremely valuable when pursuing employment or post-secondary opportunities.

McCaffrey said the center’s approach – in which teachers “really get to know” students and “their strengths and weaknesses” – appeals to many young people and families.

“Students are engaged. They see the meaning in what they’re learning,” he said. “They can see that it’s relevant to a career that exists in today’s economy. And it’s not in a traditional classroom. When you’re teaching a class at a job site where they’re building a home, you’re not sitting in a class with 28 chairs and desks. It’s a real-world environment.”

At a time when the costs of pursuing a college education can be a significant obstacle for many families, McCaffrey said the center’s approach can provide an especially viable alternative.

“I think parents are more attuned of the cost of secondary and post-secondary education. I believe they’re spending more time with their children making decisions because it’s so expensive,” he said. “Thirty years ago, you could go to [Rhode Island College] and have a four-year degree for $4,000. That’s not the case anymore.”