Even if nothing is done, the next 10 days could reshape Warwick schools for decades to come, as well as set the stage for a budgetary showdown between the School Committee and the mayor and City Council, and possibly test recently named School Superintendent Richard D’Agostino.
On Thursday, the committee will conduct the first of two public hearings on the recommendation to close Gorton Junior High School. Another hearing on Tuesday, May 7 will follow. Both hearings will be held at Veterans Memorial High School starting at 5:30 p.m. And then on Thursday, May 9, the School Committee will vote on whether to close the school.
In response to declining enrollment, the School Committee has closed four elementary schools in recent years. One of those schools, Drum Rock, reopened as the department’s early childhood center, but basically the structure of Warwick schools – neighborhood elementary schools feeding three junior high schools that, in turn, feed three senior highs – has gone unchanged since the high water mark of nearly 20,000 students in the 1960s. Today, the system has less than half that enrollment and projections show the downward trend continuing.
Closing a junior high school alters the feeder system and, according to the projections of some people, reduces the options for the overall future of the system. With Gorton closed, Aldrich and Winman graduates could go to three possible senior high schools.
“Closing Gorton makes good sense if you’re going to stay with the current model,” said David Testa, a member of the short-term facilities committee that recommended closing the school.
Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi feels similarly.
“You should do the long-term first. How [can you] do short-term without knowing the vision?” he asked yesterday.
Ginolfi plans to address the School Committee to reiterate points he raised during short-term committee hearings. He found the process flawed and lacking transparency, and questions the accuracy of data provided the committee. He contends the department has overestimated the capacity of Winman and Aldrich.
Looking at the enrollment of the three junior highs and their capacity, Testa favored closing one of the schools. But he changed his opinion after looking at the middle school model [6th through 8th grades], which is the preferred model in the state. Closing a junior high would opt out the middle school option, unless the remaining two schools were reconfigured for some time, Testa said.
But more than that, Testa argues the district needs to develop a long-range plan before making short-term decisions that could dramatically restrict what it could do in the future.
Thus far, D’Agostino has argued that action should be taken on the basis that resources are being used to maintain buildings that could be better spent on educational programs. Closing Gorton would save an estimated $1.1 million in operating costs. The biggest chunk of that, after computing the offsetting expense of busing costs, would come from a reduction of 10 teachers.
Closing the school would therefore reduce the committee’s $160.6 million budget request that calls for an additional $3.8 million in city revenues. This has put Mayor Scott Avedisian at odds with the committee, since Avedisian says he was lead to believe schools were going to come in with a level funded budget. It is unlikely that the City Council would feel any differently toward an increase in city funding of schools, especially because enrollment continues to decline and the reasoning is that level funding is actually equivalent to an increase.
Perhaps an indicator of how the committee will vote is the argument School Committee member Eugene Nadeau raised at a recent Ward 3 meeting hosted by Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson. Nadeau raised the issue of the middle school model, linking it to the possibility that the district could be required to provide all-day kindergarten. This is an argument being made by members of the teachers union and Gorton parents looking to keep the school open. Going to the middle school would open up classrooms in the elementary schools needed for all day-K should that be mandated by the state. Nadeau said he has received 138 calls about Gorton, all favoring keeping the school open.
He said yesterday one of the issues he feels the committee needs to discuss is whether to postpone any action until next year.
Committee member Terri Medeiros said yesterday that she is approaching the hearings with an “open mind.” She said calls over the closing of Gorton have been fairly evenly split with a slight majority of them being in favor of it closing.
“I don’t have all the information, yet,” she said adding, “I think of the students and the taxpayer. If everyone is a little mad at me, I guess I’ve done my job.”
Testa, in letters emailed to committee members last week, argues for the middle school model.
“This would allow us to better deliver the new Common Core curriculum in Math and Science – our two weakest areas – to our 6th graders. My understanding is that the Common Core curriculum was written in the context of a middle school model, meaning that there is a ‘specialist’ teaching each of the core subjects – Math, Science, English, and Social Studies. Currently we have to adapt the curriculum to fit into our K-6 model.”
Testa reasons that Warwick schools are “swimming upstream” by failing to institute the middle school model.
The projected savings of closing Gorton is a major consideration, especially in a year where signals from City Hall are that schools won’t see an increase in city funding.
Ginolfi will argue that the projected savings aren’t there. But he says the biggest issue is educational.
He points to plans to close school libraries at Winman and Aldrich once a day to accommodate classes, large classes and how 10 teachers will be required to travel between the two schools.
“I don’t think they [the school administration] have thought this out,” he said.
Committee member Jennifer Ahearn said she has gathered information from a number of sources, including the Rhode Island Department of Education, teachers and the public.
“I’m looking to do what’s right by the children,” she said.