November 20, 2014
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A vision for secondary schools

Is it a matter of saving dollars, or is it a complete new vision for Warwick schools?

Former School Committee member Paul Cannistra thinks attaining both objectives is possible as the school system adjusts to an ever declining enrollment and city and state sources of funding become ever scarcer.

Cannistra is a member of the committee now examining possible consolidation of the city’s three junior and three senior high schools. Each of the junior high schools was designed to accommodate from 900 to 1,100 students but have enrollments of less than 600. Senior high schools were built for about 2,000 students but are averaging about 1,100.

Cannistra’s ideas are resonating within certain educational circles and that aspect of the plan to transform Winman Junior High into a 4-year career and tech center (CTC) is being viewed as a means of reducing dropouts. Cannistra calls it a “win-win” not only for the district and the taxpayers but also most importantly for the futures of our young people.

The key to Cannistra’s proposal is the city’s three high schools.

“I have a philosophical problem with closing any high school,” Cannistra said in an interview Sunday. He compares high schools to “mini-cities” that have their own history and culture.

Yet how can the district justify maintaining three high schools when collectively they have fewer students than what two schools were built to accommodate? Further, if Cannistra’s suggestion of a 4-year CTC is followed, it is estimated to draw from 200 to 250 from each of the high schools, thereby making it all the more reasonable to close a high school.

Superintendent Peter Horoschak, who chairs the consolidation committee, cautions that no decisions have been reached and that, in fact, no additional meetings of the committee have been scheduled at this time.

Essentially, Cannistra would maintain the city’s existing feeder system of elementary to secondary schools, but integrate the junior high schools into the senior high school campuses. While being a part of a high school complex and sharing facilities such as the gym, cafeteria and auditorium, 7th and 8th graders would be segregated from the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders as much as possible. The school within a school would start at different times. Junior and senior high school students would not ride the same buses, although the buses would have the same routes.

By using the same routes, Cannistra estimates the department could save hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said each route eliminated saves the department from $56,000 to $60,000 a year.

In the case of Pilgrim and Vets, Cannistra believes the junior high students would have their own wing. They would be separated to the point of having their own phone numbers. In the case of Toll Gate, Cannistra suggests a floor of the building be devoted to junior high students.

As Winman would be used as a CTC, that would leave Gorton and Aldrich. Cannistra thinks Aldrich could be turned back to the city and developed for commercial uses such as offices or housing. On the other hand, he thinks keeping Gorton makes sense, especially if the state were to mandate full-day kindergartens.

Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education, will host a briefing for Senate members on the topic of pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten at the State House this afternoon. In the case of full-day kindergarten, Cannistra envisions using Gorton as a “super elementary school.” He said a floor of the building could be devoted to itinerant arts and music teachers and giving them a home while cutting transportation costs.

Horoschak is concerned by mandates for full-day kindergarten, especially if it is not accompanied by state funds.

Further, he notes, that at its last meeting the consolidation committee agreed to a strategic study of the system K-12. He said he is in the process of identifying a facilitator who would assist elementary and secondary principals in drafting a plan for the committee, a process that could take three months.

Cannistra’s ideas are getting some traction.

“There’s something to it,” says former Superintendent Robert Shapiro, who retired several years ago after serving 50 years in the Warwick system. Shapiro would want to see that junior and senior high school students have separate environments and doing that, he said, could entail some significant and costly renovations to the three high schools.

Conversely, closing a high school, he said, “would be tough.”

“I don’t think it’s possible right now.”

Shapiro also sees merit in a 4-year CTC and questions whether the existing Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, which is part of the Toll Gate campus, could be expanded to a 4-year program without touching Winman. He sees the answers as being in the numbers – the numbers of students at each of the facilities, enrollment projections and, quite obviously, savings and added costs.

William McCaffrey, director of the career center that also serves students from East Greenwich and West Warwick, sees benefits to a 4-year CTC. Under the current system, high school students remain a student at their home school and are bused for a half-day of classes at the center. They can’t start the program until they are in 10th grade.

This means students who fail the 9th grade can’t enroll at the center until they complete the grade at their home school. Most students drop out of school in the 9th grade, although that is expected to change with legislation introduced by Rep. Joseph McNamara of Warwick that increases the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18.

Instructors at the center, some of who attended it as students, say a 4-year center would give students a base and have the potential of becoming an academy that would draw from a broader region.

A 4-year CTC would act as a home rather than a foster school. The first year of CTC would be an “exploratory” year where students would be exposed to several career paths.

Cannistra imagines maintaining the existing CTC, which is owned by the state, and using nearby Winman as well. This would give the department the ability to expand programs and in the process attract out-of-town students whose tuition payments would flow into Warwick. Extra curricula activities including athletics, band and drama, for instance, would be at the junior/senior school where the student came from.

McCaffrey calls the 4-year center a “good idea” but points to issues that would need to be addressed such as services that it is now sharing with Toll Gate. And given the environment of tight budgets and taxpayer reluctance to underwrite the cost of new programs, he asks if there is the public support for added school expenditures.

Will it reduce dropouts and make for a better system?

“I think if students are engaged they’ll have a better high school experience,” he said.

Cannistra doesn’t believe the changes he’s suggesting could be implemented as soon as the next academic year. He envisions a process involving school department directors, getting all the numbers and public meetings. As alternatives are considered, he suggests involving the mayor, City Council and the state Department of Education. This would be followed by a series of “town meetings” at each high school where people would be shown what went into the reasoning of a selected plan.

“We’re really plotting a new course here,” he said.

Horoschak reminds there are many options under consideration.

As for Cannistra’s proposal for the career and technical center, Horoschak said, “we’ll have to see what the need is.” He said improved accessibility is a primary concern.


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