To the Editor:
The Long Term Facilities Planning Committee’s recommendation to re-purpose Warwick Veterans Memorial High School into a junior high has, understandably, elicited emotional responses from the community. But before we let emotion guide us, it is important to look at the facts.
Since 2000, Warwick’s high school population has gone from a high of 3,878 students in ’03-‘04 to 2,852 in this current school year, a drop of 1,026 students (26 percent). That is historical fact. In the next 10 years, we’ll see a further decline of an additional 400 students (14 percent), to just over 2,400. Warwick’s school population data and forecasting are provided by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), a reputable third party that serves over 400 cities and towns in the Northeast with a variety of education-based statistical and planning services. Historically, their data has a margin of error of 1 percent to 1.5 percent per year, so the picture is very clear.
In that same span of time, our individual high school populations peaked as follows: Vets at 1,299 in ’02-’03; Pilgrim at 1,376 in ’04-’05; and Toll Gate at 1,241 in ’03-’04. Next year’s high school population is expected to be 2,799 students. Current high school populations are as follows: Vets at 907, Pilgrim at 987, and Toll Gate at 958. Splitting the Vets population 50/50 would result in a population in Pilgrim of 1,441 students and at Toll Gate of 1,438 students. Such a split is unlikely since Pilgrim has more capacity than Toll Gate, so let’s assume a 60/40 split. In this case, Pilgrim grows to 1,531 and Toll Gate drops to 1,320. These numbers are quite a bit below each respective school’s maximum capacity, but, more importantly, they’re not significantly higher than the total number of students that each school held just a handful of years ago. So the question of whether we can actually fit the amounts of students into two schools is easy to answer – yes.
Concerns of overcrowded class sizes need to be balanced against the fact that class sizes have been governed by the teacher contract for decades and the maximum class size at the high school level hasn’t changed during the years discussed above. That said, the 28 weighted student class size maximum, which was in place at the start of the millennium, is still in place today. Of course, there will be more students in a class, but nothing like some in the community have claimed.
Because of this, class sizes should not adversely impact the delivery of education to our students because if the schools are at population levels they saw not that long ago, and the same contract-mandated class size maximums are in place that were in place then, then to say that this will negatively impact our students now is to tacitly admit that we somehow short-changed them in past years when the schools held comparable numbers of students under the same class size strictures. And remember that our high school populations continue to decline over the next 10 years.
Concerns about the impact on athletics are certainly valid, but at the end of the day they simply can’t be the primary driver of any consolidation process, just as they shouldn’t be the primary driver for whether or not a student attends school. Common sense says that if we took Warwick’s current athletic talent pool and divided it among two schools vs. three, the result should be more competitive sports teams. Yes, competition for spots on those teams will be more intense, but that is not necessarily a bad thing and it’s quite possible that a student who doesn’t make one team may become a star on another. Indeed, sports are very important, but when push comes to shove, academics have to win out – every time.
As parents, we (and our schools) help prepare our kids for the 21st century economy, and competition, winning and losing, ups and downs are all part and parcel of that. To say that ‘change is hard’ or ‘change is inevitable’ is both cliché and true at the same time. The population data clearly points to the need for consolidation. Reasonable people can disagree on which building should be chosen, but not, in my view, with the underlying need for consolidation.