History of Paul Cuffee School

Paul Cuffee School (PCS) grew from a dream of Dr. Cyril O. Burke, a local physician, who believed that the abundant learning opportunities associated with Narragansett Bay could be combined with a rigorous, college-preparatory academic curriculum for Providence students in kindergarten through grade 12. His goal was to introduce sailing as well as the marine and environmental sciences to urban youth in order to expand their knowledge, abilities, and career options.

Dr. Burke’s passion for innovative education, combined with his exhaustive research and planning, attracted a dedicated group of trustees who shared his vision. They decided to apply to the RI Department of Education (RIDE) for a charter, which the Board of Regents approved in 2000. David Burnham, formerly Head of Moses Brown School in Providence, became the first President of the Board of Trustees.

A national search began for a Head of School and in early 2001 David Bourns, the former Head of George School in Newtown, PA, was hired. With the help of a hard-working board and just two staff members, Bourns took on the task of securing funds, hiring staff, recruiting students, and finding physical facilities. Not until mid-August was it settled that the 136 entering pupils would be divided physically, with grades K and 1 meeting in the basement of the French-American School on John Street while grades 2 and 3 at the Holy Name School on Camp Street, about a mile away. For the first month, until a small space was found at Holy Name, the administrative office was in a third location at The Community Church of Providence.

PCS and its students thrived, but it was clear that a single building had to be found for the school to be able to add grades and develop its true culture. The Board and Head of School explored many buildings but found them all too expensive to renovate. Richard Ahlborg of O. Ahlborg Construction Company came to the rescue. Confident that the school would succeed, he accepted a plan for long-term payback for a building he owned at 459 Promenade Street. Fleet Bank helped finance the conversion of this building, a former parking garage, into a school. The Providence Journal, under Howard Sutton’s leadership, and the Carter Family Foundation both offered generous financial support. The Ahlborg Company began work in February 2002, and the school was ready for opening in September. The school quickly achieved a sense of unity while expanding to serve 186 students in grades K-4.

PCS continued to add one grade per year, and in 2005 approximately 386 students in grades K-7 began the academic year in quarters that had reached capacity. Arrangements had been made to rent St. Mary’s School on Barton Street for the PCS Middle School, and in November grades 6 and 7 made the move. By the fall of 2006 PCS had a full middle school, encompassing grades 6, 7, and 8. Preparations began for the multi-year process of adding grades 9-12.

In 2009 RIDE and the Board of Regents approved the educational program for Paul Cuffee’s college-preparatory Upper School. Becky Coustan joined as principal in the spring of 2010. With the help of other school leaders she recruited an outstanding faculty, developed an orientation program for new students, faculty, staff, and kept her fingers crossed during the search for a suitable building. In early August a former school building at 544 Elmwood Avenue became available for lease. A renovation crew worked around the clock to prepare grade 9 classrooms in time for the first day of school on September 1. The incoming ninth graders would become the school’s first graduating class.

In July 2010, Michael Obel-Omia assumed the helm as Head of School for all of PCS, bringing with him more than 20 years of experience as an independent school educator and administrator. The school’s charter was renewed during the second year of his tenure, and the school continued to grow and thrive. In 2013 Wendy Randle became the acting Head of School, and Derrick Ciesla, former Principal of Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary School in Providence took over as acting Principal of the PCS Lower School.

Adopting the PCS formula of adding one grade per year has allowed the Upper School culture and curriculum to grow stronger each year. In the fall of 2013, PCS welcomed its first 12th grade class. The school’s highly qualified faculty and staff continue to be energetically engaged in delivering best practices in teaching and learning. They are committed to helping each class acquire the knowledge, skills, academic credits, and enrichment experiences they need to graduate on time and to compete successfully for admission to the post-secondary programs of their choice.