Tri-County breathes new life into an old Johnston school


The tiny backpack hooks are as empty as the hallways.

Old classroom decorations still hang on the walls, crafted by students and teachers who’ve long since walked out of the building following the Calef School’s final bell, which rang years ago.

Joe Russo pressed his thumb to the faded 1970 fifth-grade class photo hanging in the hallway. He printed it out and hung it up.

“That’s me,” he said, referring to a tiny little mop-top head of hair in a gray button-up picture-day shirt.

Russo’s one of thousands of Johnston pupils who cycled through the George C. Calef Elementary School building at 7 Waveland St. Now he’s the facilities director for the organization that has purchased the building from the town for a $1 million price tag.

Several years ago, the Johnston School District stopped filling the Calef School classrooms and hallways. They loaned the building out to North Providence until renovations wrapped at another school in the neighboring town. And now the Tri-County Community Action Agency has been breathing new life into the storied brick structure.

While the agency had leased space in Calef School, to house its Head Start program, they’re now the building’s owners.

“We hope to move our HR department here; maybe our IT department and call center too,” said Joe DeSantis, Tri-County President & CEO.

Tri-County’s headquarters at 1126 Hartford Ave. have nearly reached capacity so the organization has expanded into the vacant school.

“We paid cash for it,” DeSantis said.

“This strategic move demonstrates Tri-County's commitment to expanding its services and providing improved facilities for the community it serves,” according to a statement provided by Tri-County’s Director of Communication and Corporate Compliance, Jennifer Papagolos. “The purchase of the Calef Elementary School building was finalized through negotiations with the Town of Johnston, marking a significant milestone for Tri-County.”

The Calef School acquisition will help the “agency to enhance its outreach and support initiatives, particularly within the Head Start program, which will benefit greatly from this new facility,” according to Tri-County. “Head Start and Early Head Start programs offer early childhood education classrooms and home learning opportunities for children from birth through age 5.”

On a recent morning, DeSantis and Papagolos provided a tour of the building. Some classrooms are currently packed with Head Start youngsters. They sat quietly munching breakfast at their desks while a teacher surveyed the room. Soon their numbers may grow and the space around them will evolve and expand.

“Tri-County Community Action Agency has earmarked the first floor of the Calef Elementary School building for the expansion of its renowned Head Start program,” according to the agency. “This expansion will serve to consolidate several existing Head Start classrooms into the newly renovated space, ensuring a safer, more efficient space for children to receive vital early childhood education and support services.”

DeSantis loves the new building’s ample parking and what he sees as “the potential for future expansion, allowing Tri-County to better meet the evolving needs of the community.”

The second floor of the Calef Elementary School building is under renovation, and Tri-County eventually hopes to utilize the space “to house staff dedicated to various social service programs, as well as administrative personnel, including IT staff.”

“This strategic allocation of space will enable the agency to streamline operations and better serve the community by having essential staff located under one roof,” according to the agency.

"We are thrilled to announce the acquisition of the Calef Elementary School building, which will play a pivotal role in our mission to empower individuals, families, and communities in the Tri-County area," DeSantis said. "The expansion of our Head Start program and the consolidation of services in this new, safer, and more accessible location will enable us to make an even greater impact in the lives of those we serve.”

Tri-County thanked the town of Johnston for “its cooperation and support throughout this acquisition process.”

“Together, they are forging a stronger, more resilient community that is better equipped to face the challenges of the future,” according to the agency, which has delivered a wide range of programs and services at 16 locations across the state since 1965.

DeSantis recently celebrated a half-century with Tri-County.

The Calef School facility will help to serve eight northern Rhode Island communities, including Johnston, North Providence, Foster, Glocester, Scituate, Burrillville, North Smithfield and Smithfield. For more information about Tri-County CAA and its services, visit, or contact the agency at 401-351-2750.


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