Unsung Heroes: North Smithfield educators’ innovative program recognized with $2,000 boost

From left, in the hallways of NSES are Dean of Students, Dena Francescon, Principal Jennifer Daigneault and current Asst. Principal Tracy Lafreniere.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – A group of educators at North Smithfield Elementary School has received a $2,000 grant for an innovative program created with the hope of helping the students who need it get a proper start to their school day.

Voya Financial, Inc has announced that Tracy Lafreniere, Rachel Salvatore, and Jennifer Daigneault are the only winners in the state of Rhode Island in the company’s 2023 Unsung Heroes awards competition. The program awards grants to K-12 educators in the United States to recognize and support their innovative teaching methods, creative educational projects, and their ability to positively influence the children they teach.

The NSES team was recognized for an idea dubbed, “Smart Start,” a before school program that targets the highest priority students at each grade level in the school’s kindergarten through fourth grade classrooms. Select students will be invited to attend school one hour early each morning, with the goal of providing a predictable and stable, “anchor point,” prior to the start of their school day.

According to a release on the initiative, the program will have three critical elements: positive social connection with adults and peers; development of healthy habits including healthy food intake and physical activity; and social and emotional learning through read-aloud sessions, role-playing, and goal setting for the day.

“This predictable and supportive morning ritual is designed to help restore homeostasis after the transition from home to support learning,” noted Voya, a provider of retirement plans for educators, of the NSES initiative.

Those familiar with the highly regarded elementary school team likely won’t be surprised to see them recognized for an unique and creative idea to help their students.

Salvatore, who just recently left NSES to assume a position as assistant principal at Johnston Senior High School, was named Rhode Island’s Assistant Principal of the Year in 2022 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Lafreniere, a previous reading specialist for the district who was tapped to fill the vacancy left by Salvatore’s departure, was the statewide Teacher of the Year in 2016. And school Principal Daigneault, a former longtime second grade teacher, was dubbed First Year Principal of the Year just after she was promoted to a role leading Halliwell in 2017.

“Teachers, staff and administrators responsible for the education of children are national treasures, and educators such as Tracy Lafreniere, Rachel Salvatore, and Jennifer Daigneault are among the ‘best of the best,'” said Angela Harrell, Voya’s chief diversity and corporate responsibility officer and president of the Voya Foundation. ”

The school is the latest to benefit from a national award program that’s granted more than $6 million to support educators over the past 27 years. Selected from applicants from schools across the United States, the group is among only 50 winning submissions to receive the $2,000 award to help fund and bring their program to life. 

The North Smithfield educators will now compete with other finalists for one of Voya’s top three prizes — an additional $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000 award.  

“For nearly 30 years, Voya’s Unsung Heroes program and our other education-oriented initiatives have celebrated and financially supported the development of creative teaching methods and innovative thinking that help prepare students for what awaits them beyond their school years,” said Harrell. “These professionals are truly our unsung heroes.

To learn more about this year’s winning projects, as well as those from previous years, visit the Unsung Heroes website.  

Unsung Heroes is part of Voya Foundation’s program, Voya Teacher Voices, that focuses on empowering teachers to become leaders by promoting the teaching career, recognizing high-achieving educators, providing training opportunities, and offering financial support to achieve their goals.  For more information, visit www.VoyaFoundation.com

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