September 3, 2014
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On a roll to save Vets High
Warwick Beacon photo
READY FOR A RALLY: Vets cheerleaders line the sidewalk in front of the school as students and parents gather for last night's rally to save the school

A group of Warwick Vets graduates, students and parents rallied in front of the school yesterday evening in hopes of keeping the school a high school.

Lifelong Warwick resident Gary Costantino, who graduated in 2005, organized the event. There were nearly 50 people in attendance 20 minutes after it began.

“There are probably going to be more,” said Costantino at press time.

People were clad in blue, gold and white, the school’s signature colors, while Slanomir Hermanowski, held a sign that read, “Save Vets.” Cars and trucks honked their horns, as a DJ played music, offering a microphone to guests in between songs so they could speak about why they think Vets should stay open as a high school.

“This is so wrong,” Costantino said during an earlier interview. “They need to do away with this committee and hire an outside company with zero ties. As a taxpayer, I would feel a lot more comfortable with a professional committee with zero ties.”

On a 13-2 vote last week, the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) recommended to close Vets at the end of the 2014 academic year and re-open as a junior high in the fall of 2015. The plan would close Aldrich and Gorton, with those students attending the new Vets junior high and Winman.

Costantino said he believes a “shady deal” has taken place. He thinks Superintendent Richard D’Agostino is telling members how to vote.

“This is about one person controlling everyone else,” Costantino said. “He’s a puppet master. It’s a conflict of interest because they are not going to go against something that their superintendent or boss wants. They shouldn’t be in the positions they’re in. I would bet my house that there is so much backdoor politics going on. If the facts are there, they’re there, but this committee should not be making this decision. There are too many conflicts of interest.”

D’Agostino said that’s not the case at all. He pointed out that the LTFPC was in place before he accepted the position as superintendent, and he kept the same committee because they are knowledgeable about the district, as well as the issues concerning declining populations and conditions of the buildings.

“They were appointed by the former superintendent,” said D’Agostino, noting that while the accusations are not true, he understands why some people are upset. “This is the same committee that voted 8-7 in regards to closing Gorton. These are the same people that looked at the data that we’ve presented over the course of six months. Everything was done in the open. It was all transparent. I have no control over them. Everybody voted their own way.”

Costantino also questions whether the committee performed an in-depth study on the impact it may have on students. He hopes they will present additional data that backs up their decision.

“There weren’t enough facts and evaluations done for them to just up and decide to close the school,” he said. “It doesn’t sit well with me. It happened too fast and without enough facts. This is a decision that should take years, not months.”

Travis Babcock, who graduated from Vets in 2012, agrees. He called out of work to attend the rally.

“This is a decision that should be made with years of planning and actual statistical data put on public record for the community to see that backs up the ‘statistics’ the LTFPC is using,” said Babcock. “This is a poor decision that I feel has not been thought through.”

The LTFPC has been meeting since June to determine which of the three high schools should be closed. Factors that contributed to last week’s recommendation included location, special programs, possible future use of each facility as a junior high, finances, and building quality, such as structural and cosmetic issues.

D’Agostino, along with School Committee member Terri Medeiros, said it is a decision that has certainly been thought through. They’ve referenced an extensive amount of data, which indicates declining enrollment. Moving toward consolidation, said D’Agostino, isn’t something they are taking lightly.

“The data is live, meaning that we are using the existing numbers in schools today,” he said. “All three highs schools right now are below 1,000. Vets is very close to going under 900 students.”

While Vets has a population of 914, Toll Gate and Pilgrim are at 959 and 992, respectively. Medeiros wanted to remind people that Vets is not closing, rather it’s going be re-purposed. Still, she knows change is not easy to accommodate.

“We have to hear that the kids might have to move, and that throws a kink in everybody’s life,” she said. “Unfortunately, life doesn’t stop. I wish our population wasn’t going down. People just aren’t having as many kids anymore and people aren’t moving to New England anymore because of the cost of living. I wish we weren’t economically strapped.”

D’Agostino feels the same. However, he said the change is necessary.

“When you have buildings that are running at 45 percent capacity, it makes it very difficult to continue running them,” he said. “And not having the resources to do the repairs that are needed to make improvements in those buildings [is also a factor.]”

At last week’s meeting, D’Agostino said improvements at Pilgrim could be done during a summer, while Vets needs a new roof, elevator, boiler and more. He said the enhancements would take at least a year to complete.

Costantino believes D’Agostino is using repairs as a poor excuse. But D’Agostino said there are additional reasons.

During a previous meeting, D’Agostino noted that since Vets is located in the middle of the city, while Toll Gate is in the southern part and Pilgrim is in the north, Vets is in an ideal spot for junior high students who would have gone to Gorton or Aldrich.

Costantino worries about the effect it will have on students of all three junior high schools, and claims he would be rallying if they recommended closing Pilgrim or Toll Gate without doing a proper study.

“I’d be doing the same thing for any of the other schools,” he said. “It could ruin their lives. You’re separating them from their friends. Kids are going to be forced to move into a different environment, and an uncomfortable environment at that. You’re going to force a lot of families to send their kids to private schools.”

Costantino, along with Babcock, pointed out that many teachers would lose their jobs, not to mention impact student athletes.

“More kids will be cut from sports teams,” Babcock said. “And speaking from experience, sports … kept me in school. I know I’m not the only one that falls into that category.”

Costantino also wonders if the change would have a negative impact on local business, as he said parents, students and teachers won’t be in the area during the time the school is closed before re-opening as a junior high.

“I feel like our side of the city is getting targeted because we are the lowest income part of the city,” said Costantino. “I’m here to take a stand. I’m going to fight this tooth and nail. It’s ridiculous and discouraging.”

Costantino said he planned the rally as a means to enlighten people about the situation.

“I want to show the School Department and the School Committee what Warwick Vets means to the city,” Costantino said.

D’Agostino said he is compassionate to Costantino and others who are upset. He also said closing or re-purposing a school is nothing new to the city, as Aldrich and Gorton were former high schools, as was Lockwood, which is now used for condominiums.

“How did those students feel when their schools were changed into junior high schools?” D’Agostino said. “Out of 31 elementary schools in the past 40 years, 16 have been closed because of our declining population. I feel bad that we have a declining enrollment in our city, and I feel bad that it’s coming to a point where we have to close one of the buildings.”


Comments
12 comments on this item

With all due respect to the dissenters, they appear to be the types who howl after decisions are made and didn't inform themselves while the open process was being played out. How else to take the charges that this was rushed? We went thru a preliminary process all of last year as the committee looked at closing Gorton. The truth is, the majority of the current long-term facilities planning committee actually disagreed with the closing of Gorton last year (there were a few abstentions which led to the razor-thin recommendation last spring). The main complaint was that a more comprehensive study was not undertaken. That has been remedied this time around. (For documents and research, go to http://webmail.warwickschools.org/ltfpcpublicdocs/ and read the documents).

Warwick has been losing students for years and the tax base cannot continue to support an underutilized and aging infrastructure. The fact is that the building that houses Warwick Veterans High School will be kept and repurposed - it will NOT be shutdown. There was no targeting of Vets; the building will remain and even be more fully utilized than before, just as a Jr. High instead of a High School. Remember: the ultimate goal is to close the two Jr. High Schools built in the 1930's (Aldrich and Gorton) and replace them with a newer, better building.

School re-districting is hardly an unknown phenomena in Rhode Island or the rest of the country where many districts re-draw lines every 3-5 years! Bottom line is that the arguments against closure will mainly be emotional ones, which is what we are and will be seeing. Students don't like change and will definitely take cues from the adults in the room (so to speak). But regarding a couple specific points brought up, 1) by contract no more than 20 teachers can be fired in the entire district in one year, 2) frankly, I've heard for years from various athletic coaches about how their teams would be so much more competitive if the 'talent' in Warwick wasn't watered down by having 3 high schools! Also, believe it or not, having a bigger population within a school building provides more opportunity to provide a more diverse curriculum (including AP programs) as there is a greater chance there will be enough students to justify offering those courses. Basically, because of contract requirements, there won't be much impact on student/teacher ratios, there will just be more of each in the High School buildings.

Finally, the real travesty is that all of this vitriol will be targeted at the school administration, this committee and the school committee while the city council and Mayor will skate (and may even try to score some political points--wait until the hearings before the school committee to see which councilors "step up" to blame the schools). As has been pointed out many times before, the Mayor repeatedly refused to let $20 million in bonds go to help fix school infrastructure that was required by state law to be fixed--the result was the school department floating bonds on its own (something that has never been done before); 99% of the tax increases in the past 5 years or so have gone to pay for city-side (not school side) service increases and raises (and the population of Warwick hasn't gone up any) while the schools cut staff and programs. There is no where else to cut but in infrastructure. The committee has done more than enough due diligence this time around to justify their recommendation.

This is an issue that has NOTHING to do with studies. It is an issue regarding"best practice" in education. There have been numerous studies that will attest to the fact that students do not learn as well in an environment that has a great number of students. Therefore if students from Vets are moved to Pilgrim and Tollgate respectively they will be in classrooms that contain 40+ students. Unless school will be extended to 7:00 pm, there is no way that a teacher can meet the kin esthetic, visual and auditory needs of students in their classes. Not to mention the fact that classrooms are not equipped with sufficient desks, chairs, etc. needed to provide an educational experience conducive to learning.

Obviously the members of the board and the Superintendent himself have never been in a classroom with students. They do not understand that teachers are not just teachers anymore. The job has evolved to include social worker, nurse/doctor, psychologist, therapist and mom/dad. The role of the teacher is the most important and stable relationship that some of these students have. They rely on their teachers to help and guide them through many difficult situations. If you have 40+ students in a room, how is a teacher going to create a relationship and rapport with those who need them the most? It is impossible.

Lets also take into account the fact that as tax-payers we are entitled to have our children receive the best public education possible. The school board and Superintendent are not providing the best environment for our children. If they are being shuttled by bus across the city to Tollgate, they will be tired, hungry and unprepared to learn and focus. If they are being shipped to Pilgrim then they will be "jockeying" for position in the halls, cafeteria, and classrooms. It will look like a game of "musical chairs" at the beginning of every class.

This is not what I want or expect for either of my children who are being educated in Warwick. Perhaps all the parents of students attending Vets needs to stop paying their taxes until the board does what is best for students not for their pockets. The issue is not an "emotional" one but one that asks the question whether students in Warwick will be able to compete in college with students from other parts of the state. As a teacher of 21 years, and a parent I know the answer is NO. No teacher is capable of doing their best in such a chaotic and hectic environment. No student is capable of learning in such a hectic and chaotic environment. School is about learning not budgets. The members of the school board and Superintendent seem to have forgotten the purpose of education.....to create a society that will be productive. Although I have never agreed with the mandate of "No Child Left Behind" it seems that the Warwick School Board also does not agree with it, as it proposes to leave behind the 914 students that currently are enrolled at Warwick Veteran's Memorial High School.

Where to start. First, it's not that "...people aren't moving to New England". It's that they're not moving to Rhode Island due to a lack of economic activities. They are, however, moving to other New England states where the opportunities are greater and taxes less confiscatory. I can't argue with anything Mr. Barry says. It was time to close a high school five years ago. The problem with the likes of Mr. Constantino is that he has (very liklely) never lived outside RI, and has no idea how the rest of the big, scary world functions. As for Mr. Babcock, who "...called out of work to attend the rally", I'm sure his employer just can't wait to hire more Warwick Vets grads.

Teacher:

1) There will not be classrooms with 40+ students - "class size shall not exceed 28 on a weighted basis" (p.23, Section 12-6.4 (A) of Warwick Teachers contract - http://www.warwickschools.org/PDF_Files/WTUContract2012-2014.pdf). There are also several other, specific caps on the number of students allowed in some specific classroom types, including accounting for students with IEPs, etc. Again, this is all in the current teacher's contract and can't/won't be amended w/out the cooperation of the union.

2) RE: long bus times - that is an "only in RI" complaint, sorry. There are kids in districts in the state and across the country who take much longer bus rides and still manage. Perhaps if the aforementioned teacher contract allowed for longer school days (as per section 12-3, secondary schools are capped at 6 hrs 45 minutes and elementary at 6.5 hrs), there would be more flexibility. Though I doubt 7 PM would be an option (and wasn't one even back in the days of double-sessions when Warwick Schools were bursting!).

3) Historical demographics show that nn 2005 there were 1376 students at Pilgrim and 1236 at Toll Gate (http://webmail.warwickschools.org/ltfpcpublicdocs/FOV1-000629E3/October%2017,%202013%20distributed%20material.pdf). With the closure of Vets, let's hypotheticall split those 900 students in half (450 to each of the 2 remaining HS). That would give Pilgrim around 1450 and Toll Gate around 1400. That's roughly an extra 75 students for Pilgrim (say 3 classrooms) and 160 for TG (6 class rooms). I don't think that the demographics in Warwick have changed that much in 8 years. Obviously, as a bigger school building, Pilgrim would probably get more than TG, though. But again, we're hardly reaching back to the Dark Ages of education here.

4) As for your question as to "whether students in Warwick will be able to compete in college with students from other parts of the state" (and your answer of "NO"), well, there are several more factors that go into that performance than the building the kids are in. Teacher quality, parental involvement, curriculum, etc. It's a long list and I'd put the building issue towards the bottom of the list.

5) As for "hectic" environment---again---the population levels will be slightly more than what they were 8 years ago. And there are creative ways to manage student flow in the halls by creating class or group based wings or areas. Or even carrying the "team" concept from Jr. High to High School. There is plenty of room to innovate and opportunities to think outside the box with this reconsolidation if people are willing to engage.

6) Finally, the long term committee was comprised of administrators, parents of current Warwick school kids and I believe more than a few with actual teaching experience. These aren't number crunchers intent on saving money at the "expense" of the kids (including their own!) education. They are trying to deal with a very real problem and have made a recommendation based on information and analysis. Why? Because the funds for educating Warwick kids are limited and the best way to maximize those funds is to reduce infrastructure (buildings, maintenance, utilities). The goal is to take that money and use it for students (and that includes paying teachers more, btw), which is what everyone wants. You may disagree with them, but to suggest that they are not operating in good faith with the best interests of the students in mind is both disengenuous and unfair.

John Barry,

Thank you for your insightful and fact-based posts. I am a member of the LTFPC and a parent with two children at Aldrich Junior High School. The decision to "re-purpose" Vets and close Aldrich and Gorton was not entered into lightly by any of us. Six of the Committee members are parents with children in the Warwick Public Schools. All three feeder groups are represented. We have parents from Toll Gate area, Vets area and Pilgrim area. We take our responsibility as members of the Committee seriously, and it is difficult not to respond to some of the erroneous and false information that is floating around regarding our recommendation. All of our meetings have been open for the public to attend, and any documents people wish to see can be found either on the WPS website or the Secretary of State's website. The members of the LTFPC are intelligent, thoughtful people who are independent thinkers. Regarding the Administrators on the Committee: Dr. D'Agostino, Mr. Mullin and Mr. Bushell provided us with every piece of documentation we asked for regarding consolidation; financials, population data for the last 15 years, population projections for the next 20 years, mock schedules to see how the integration of three schools into one would impact the day to day schedule at the remaining two high schools, how many classrooms are being utilized at each high school every day. There were transportation studies, and how school location relative to the 95 on ramps will impact athletics, as well as the transporting of students to the vocational school. We were given pages and pages of information to read and impact studies that included the elementary schools. I don't think I listed everything; what I can tell you is we as a Committee, have read, studied and debated all scenarios and this decision we have made is the one that makes the most sense, in my opinion. Also, the work done by Mr. Ferrucci, Mr. O'Hare and Mr. Janssen (financial data, transportation data, facilities data) to provide the Committee with detailed information was extremely valuable when making this difficult decision.

I meant to say "three schools into two."

Excellant comment John Barry. Appreciate the links providing facts to back up your statements. @Jackie, thank you and the rest of the committee for doing an outstanding job of compling the data needed for you to make a difficult but informed decision.

Analysis of the city budget and school budget over the last 7 to 10 years and where all the local tax dollars are being spent with the annual property and car tax increases.

Copy this link and paste it into your browser:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6P1sIPd4PTdTkI5WF9NM1pjVXM/edit?usp=sharing

Just to clarify, Warwick does have caps on classroom size but they are ONLY based on the union contact and they can/are continuously worked around by the additional contract requirement that the teachers with class sizes over the contractual limit are given additional $. Both of my children are in classes over the contractual limit, which may or may not be optimal but the fact that some classes are nearly half the size and the same type, evokes the logical question of whether resources are being significantly wasted in these small classes or my children are being delivered an inferior education. While I am grateful that the union provides some limits on class size, most districts (and many states) have policies and procedures in place regarding "Optimal"class size. They do not rely on union contracts, but proactively define and continually assess what is best for the education of students of all ages and have procedures that ensure the balancing of class size across the district. Optimal class size policies are based on research and values of the district, allow for the responsible allocation of resources as well as the educational benefit of students. Optimal class size is based on and differs by grade level (unlike the union contract) and type of class. Warwick does not have any such policy and it is another example of the type of information that should be analyzed and factored into any long term facilities plan. While I agree that consolidation needs to take place and am glad that this round of planning was an improvement over the last (thanks to the parents on the committee and the majority of the school committee recognizing the issues with the first plan) the current plan still falls well below the national standard for long term facility planning. Many components that should be addressed in this plan have been deferred until implementation and as any facility planning professional knows, the details reveal and many times change the overall direction of the plan. Do we need to start somewhere? Yes, but the school committee could easily approve this preliminary decision, give the committee the green light to begin the phasing/implementation planning, and require approval of the full plan before starting down a road that has not been fully defined and may very well be adjusted as detailed plans for all day kindergarten, grade level configuration for all schools, assessment of the condition and capacity of our elementary schools, detailed capital improvement planning for the entire system, optimal class size by grade/subject level, etc. are incorporated.

Here's a simple class size policy from another district for elementary schools. This has a significant impact on facility planning in that the district has the foundation is in place that guides the proper sizing of schools (not just an across the board formula using contractual mandates that the capacity analysis is based upon). If you look at the Warwick capacity analyses, it is based on a union rule, not the educational values of the system.This is just one example of the type of input facility planning includes. When going through a planning process, there may be policy needs identified (such as no class size policy by grade) and they should be addressed as part of the process as they serve as an important factor in the foundation of the plan. Not only is this a responsible management practice for both resource allocation and education, what if RI moves to mandate class size as many states do? What would that do to the capacity in the schools? Shouldn't Warwick be proactive in identifying/adopting best practices such as this to ensure that substantial changes in the system are viable in the future?

CLASS SIZE

It is the intent of the School Board to provide for class sizes that will support effective instruction for students and efficient use of staff and facilities.

The School Board acknowledges the impact of class size on the learning environment and the value of maintaining optimal class size to foster effective learning. Therefore, the recommended class sizes in the elementary and middle schools shall be determined by several variables including grade level, subject area, nature of the students in the classroom, nature of the learning objectives, availability of classroom space, and budgetary considerations.

Keeping all of the above variables in mind, the School Board provides the following guidelines for determining targeted class size:

Grade K Grades 1 - 2 Grades 3 - 5 Grades 6 - 8

12-15 students 12-18 students 14-19 students 16-22 students

Larger class sizes will be allowed for the scheduling of large group instruction for certain classes including, but not limited to, fine arts, physical education, health, band, chorus, computer or other special classes or events.

These numbers are guidelines to be used when forming academic classes. While it is the hope of the School Board that the class sizes will reflect these guidelines, it is also recognized that instances may arise when class sizes will fall outside these guidelines.

When class enrollment exceeds the targeted class size by more than two (2) students, or drops below the targeted class size by more than one (1) student, the building administrator shall meet with the affected staff to determine the program needs at that level. The Superintendent, working in conjunction with the building administrator, shall develop a plan to meet the students’ needs at that level. The plan may include, but shall not be limited to, maintaining the class size, assigning additional staff (including educational technicians), re-assigning staff, transferring students to different classes, hiring additional staff or exploring staff reduction.

The superintendent’s decision will be communicated to the School Board with the understanding that Board approval will be required to hire any additional staff.

Legal References: M.R.S.A. Title 20A §4252 Chapter 125, Section 7

Adopted: April 3, 1990 Revised: June 21, 2006

It continues to be an issue of money in everyone's view. With all due respect, not one of you has mentioned whether or not you have ANY educational background. While studies can say many things, they can not account for the reality of what happens in a classroom on a day to day basis. Education has evolved greatly in the last 20 years, however the mind-set of those on the outside has not changed along with it.

Students from Warwick Vets WILL suffer if this consolidation takes place. They WILL have larger classroom size which is not beneficial. They WILL lose teachers, who have become very important parts of their lives, and in some cases have made positive changes in their future. They WILL loose in some cases the opportunity to play sports, which for some students is a vital part of continuing their education.

No one is putting the STUDENTS first in the decision making process. Perhaps before the school board moves ahead with anything further they'd should find facts and data on the benefits/hindrance of school closure.

Teacher,

There's a reason the issue is money: it's because without money, we can't continue supply the level (some would argue the bare minimum) of education we do now. Let's cut thru to the root problem here: for most of the last decade too many people--including the Teachers Union--have been silent when the school budget has come before the City Council. They have let Superintendent/School Committee serve as whipping boys for a City Council looking to make political hay by excoriating the School budget while simultaneously taking all of the additional revenue gained from tax increases and putting towards the city budget. As a result, the school department has been left to look for ways to cut because they know they certainly aren't going to get an increase. Yes, the teachers union has made some concessions, but that isn't enough. Standing up to support the schools vocally would have gone a long way towards mitigating some of this. But it was more convenient to let the SC and Admin take the hit than to join them! The opposition to the Gorton closing was proof that you can organize effectively against something you don't like and apply some very real pressure. That sort of effort has been absent year after year as the school budget has been level funded by the City Council. With no evidence that the public or the teachers will support them, the School Committee/Admin is left to trying to come up with other ways to save money and the only remaining option is to close buildings that are expensive to maintain.

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