September 2, 2014
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Panel favors Vets as Junior High
Jennifer Rodrigues
Jennifer Rodrigues
WARWICK VETERANS HIGH SCHOOL

In a 13-2 vote yesterday afternoon, the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) recommended Warwick Veterans High School be re-purposed as a new junior high within two years.

The official recommendation, a motion presented by committee member David Testa, was for each member of the committee to call out the name of the school they wished to see re-purposed, with the understanding that that high school close at the end of the 2014 academic year and be re-opened as a junior high school in fall 2015. The committee also recommended Aldrich Junior High and Gorton Junior High be closed in 2015. Those students would then attend the new Vets junior high and Winman.

Thirteen members of the committee said “Vets,” while only Bill McCaffrey and Catherine Bonang said “Pilgrim.”

The committee has been meeting since June with the goal of presenting their recommendation for the facilities at the secondary level to the School Committee by a January deadline. However, the recommendation could be forwarded to the School Committee next month.

In the summer, it was decided that consolidation would be the recommendation, followed shortly by the decision to recommend transitioning the district to a two-high school, two-junior high school system.

Prior to yesterday’s vote, there was a discussion among the committee members regarding the biggest factors in their decision of one school over another: Location, building quality (structural and cosmetic), special programs at one school versus the other, possible future use of the building as a junior high school, and finances.

Superintendent Richard D’Agostino pointed out that at a previous meeting it was brought up that Toll Gate High School is located in the southern portion of the city, Pilgrim in the north, and Vets in the middle. He said this made Vets a good “swinging location” for those students who would have gone to either Gorton or Aldrich for junior high.

Bonang brought up concerns about population, and a previous estimate that Toll Gate could see 1,200 students and the other remaining high school a population of 1,600.

“If it was me, and I was choosing where my child would go, I would want them to go to the 1,200 school,” she said.

However, D’Agostino and Elementary Education Director Robert Bushell were quick to explain that those numbers were only estimates to create a potential model of transportation needs. If the decision to consolidate is passed, there would be a more detailed analysis of population sizes in each building to ensure a 55/45 or 50/50 split. D’Agostino said the aim would be within that range.

D’Agostino said that process would be done after a vote from the School Committee if they receive the official word that consolidation is approved; what streets or feeder schools would go to what schools, schedule, staffing and other decisions come later.

As for student population, D’Agostino said the state recommendation of keeping a school at 85 percent capacity would be followed.

“Pilgrim is much larger [than Toll Gate],” said D’Agostino after the meeting. “They are not proportional in size.”

When the discussion moved on to building quality, it was once again mentioned that all three high schools are desperately in need of cosmetic improvements.

“Whatever we do here has to include upgrades and renovations to all three buildings,” said D’Agostino.

While many committee members had previously felt that Pilgrim was in need of the most cosmetic improvement (painting, ceiling tiles, etc.), D’Agostino said those items could be done over a summer. Vets, on the other hand, is in need of at least a new roof, elevator, boiler and more.

“These are structural changes; structural changes need at least a year,” said D’Agostino.

Program-wise, it was brought up that Pilgrim hosts the Extended School Year Program, the largest number of special needs students and an 18- to 21-year-old program. Both Pilgrim and Vets host programs from the Career and Technical Center, but those could be moved easier.

The actual setup of the buildings was something Testa was concerned about thinking about the junior high population. How would 12- to 14-year-olds, or 11- to 14-year-olds in the event of a switch to the middle school model, navigate through the buildings?

“To me, Pilgrim is a sprawled out building,” said Testa. “Vets reminds me of a junior high when I was growing up. It’s a square, with the classrooms around the outside.”

Finance was the last item discussed because, as has been previously reported, the savings between re-purposing Vets or re-purposing Pilgrim was $150,000 (saving more if Vets became a junior high). While he admitted the difference was small, D’Agostino pointed out it was still $150,000. He pointed out that $150,000 could buy 300 desktop computers, 15 Google chrome carts with 30 laptops each, or even pay for two more teachers or three teacher aids.

During the discussion, committee members continued to bring up needs in the schools, including technology needs. Patti Nazareth said when she toured the schools she saw drastically different technology; smart boards at Vets, but overhead projectors at Toll Gate.

“Students need to have the same opportunities,” she said.

There was also discussion of future plans further down the line regarding middle school models and all-day kindergarten. D’Agostino said those decisions will come from the administration looking at their plan for curriculum down the road.

The committee will now adjourn for a few weeks while D’Agostino and Director of Secondary Education Dennis Mullen create the report that will be presented to the School Committee, containing all of the information and ideas presented by the LTFPC. They will then call back the member of the planning committee to read through the report and ensure they are happy with the wording of the recommendation and that information is presented in the correct manner; the recommendation itself will not change.

“They have been sitting here since June,” said D’Agostino. “This won’t be a Dennis and Richard document. This is a Long Term Facilities Planning document.”


Comments
10 comments on this item

I guess the middle school idea is dead. At least for now.

There will be a study commission next year that will recommend that Warwick adopt the middle school model and then schools will be opened and closed yet again.

Has the School Department hired any top level administrators that would deal with this kind of questions in a timely and proper manner? Not having top leadership has hurt this district long enough.

Middle school model isn't dead. I think we'll see that initiative in the '16 school year. It makes sense to do that in conjunction with all day K because middle school will free up a lot of space in the elementary's. What's going to happen, should the school committee approve it, is pretty significant. Overdue, but significant nonetheless. I really don't think buildings will close and then reopen during any of this. To throw middle school in the

mix over the next year or two is, I think, asking too much.

I am a graduate student of class of "81" from Vets. I have four children two already graduated from Pilgrim. My son had a iep at Pilgrim with with ms. mcgovern. She would help her students out anyway possible. if you put to many students in one school the teachers cant help all those students.

You are right Dave.

But 2016 is pushing it too. Better set a study commission to look at that date. They can report back by 2017. or 18 if they need time.

Lordy, can anyone make a decision these days without committeeing it to death.

Pilgrim hosts the ESY program? It's usually at Winman, this was the FIRST year for that, not a good reason!

Let the candlelight vigils begin, along with all the union 'bumping' that will go on. After all, we surely wouldn't want the most competent teachers instructing students, but rather the most tenured. What's the over-under on the date of the first "Save Our School" protest? I give it 12/1.

Lots of discussion lately on the poor condition of all the facilities. I am very glad that the neglected facilities(rated as good along with all the elementary schools by the school department) are finally being recognized (even if only at the secondary level for now...I would urge all to compare their local elementary schools with what the committee found to be poor at the high schools). The school committee now needs to ask the question of what it will cost to bring all facilities up to modern day standards and how that will occur with two high schools fully occupied. If Vets and Pilgrim are both in similar condition and Vets needs a year unoccupied to adequately renovate (I would argue it would take longer and cost more than estimated), then what is the plan the renovate Pilgrim (not to mention Tollgate and Winman?) The problem with partial planning is that there will be continual issues/obstacles instead of a comprehensive, integrated plan that we can all understand and see long term benefit for all. I do not understand the reluctance of city wide, comprehensive planning over a long term period. If it seems too overwhelming to those involved then maybe they are not the right people. It is not very difficult, it is the standard expectation of all school systems, health system,and businesses today and for Warwick citizens or the school committee to accept this limited, flawed plan is irresponsible. If the committee could articulate a vision for future state of the art high school facilities, the cost, and the logistics to obtain, then the public would be much more apt to accept. But a vague plan is not acceptable and given the committee's history, anything less than a comprehensive plan with all the public's questions proactively addressed, should not be accepted.

Dr. D was the principal at Oakland Beach Elementary when I was there, I always knew him as a nice and level-headed individual and up until this point, I was so very happy to see him progress to Superintendent of the Warwick School System. I've also come a long way, as I am now an Architectural Engineer pursuing my Master's Degree in Architecture. A fascination of mine has been Urban Planning and thus I've dedicated a lot of time to studying it.

What seems to be lacking in this 4-month analysis is the socio-economical affect this change will have on the city of Warwick and how this ‘Long-Term Facilities Planning Committee’ will want to be viewed 5-10 years from now when everyone realizes that they have not created a solution, but a major problem by Transitioning Vets to a Junior High School Facility. I will put an earnest effort to address the issues and remarks stated by Dr. D’Agostino to which he argues why this is a good decision as a professional rather than Alumni of Vets.

Arguing that Vets is in a central location for displaced students is a moot point as anyone with access to Google can assert that it is in fact the center of the school district. This is not an argument for the transition of Vets; it is actually an argument against it. A centrally located high-school would benefit from staying a high school because the students, whom are there for four years versus two of a junior high school because high school students obtain their Driver’s licenses, and will have an easier time driving to the center of a school district rather than to one side or another. A strong benefit from keeping Vets as a high school is that Mickey Stevens, a major sporting complex is a short walk away. This sporting complex is where all three high schools play hockey, and my assumption is that this will not change. Junior high students are wholly dependent on the bus system currently in place, and in reality, if the decision was made to transition Pilgrim instead of Vets (which I don’t view is a solution either) than the current transit system would suffice for those students who are attending Pilgrim for two years.

My main point for this argument of transitioning a centrally located high school is basic: you are displacing students for four years versus two years. Furthermore, strictly speaking from an Urban Planning perspective – bringing more people to the center is better for the economy, and local businesses would reap the benefits. This is not a new concept, any time someone approaches design, you must think about where you are bringing the users. Bringing a user to the center allows them to choose their own in and out of a space; this is no different in Urban Planning.

Addressing the student population spike to both schools is a volatile situation that I firmly believe is in no one’s best interest that has a student in the Warwick School system. Adding 1,200 or 1,600 additional students to a school where the student/teacher ratio is already 28:1 is a ridiculous argument. Dr. D. argues that the “state recommendation of keeping schools at 85% capacity would be followed” this is numerically impossible with current figures. It may calculate for the year of 2015, but how about 2025? Has there been sufficient studies to see how many students will be in the school system in 5, 10, 15 years? My bet is that the schools would be well over capacity. Adding, nay, essentially doubling the population of Toll Gate & Pilgrim is so detrimental, not only for the parents of these students, but the teachers, and finally the students themselves. The Rhode Island school system has a high school dropout rate of 4.6% (10th Highest in the country) and a graduation rate of only 76.4% (33rd overall in the country). Packing more students into the same sized classrooms, in the same educational system would not bolster these statistics, and it doesn’t take much to assume that the current course of action is again, not in the best interest of the communities of which the school committee serves.

Dr. D. asserts that there are much needed improvements to all three schools, but Vets has the mostly costly and the most time consuming. He references that all Pilgrim needs are “Cosmetic Improvements”. I have a cousin currently attending Pilgrim and when I asked her about the condition of her high school, she stated that yes, tiles are decaying from the ceiling, and some coats of paint would be make the school endurable. However, she went to state that the building doesn’t maintain temperature, and in some rooms it is freezing, while others are unbearably hot. This is not a cosmetic issue; this is a core concern for the overhaul of the HVAC system in the school. There are leaks in the roof which moistens the ceiling tiles which are why they’re falling apart.

Blatantly stating that only cosmetic improvements are needed is a false statement, and I’m sure all three schools need significant updating. Dr. D. argues that Vets would “need to be shut down for an entire year to provide these updates” but completely contradicts himself by saying “Vets would close at the end of the academic year in 2014 and re-open for the school year in 2015”. So basically, no improvements will be provided to the students. So then what does it matter if the students are high school students or junior high students? It doesn’t because the school committee has no intention on providing these updates, nor do they have the budget. But if they did, wouldn’t it make more sense to improve a school with significant updates that last a lot longer than paint and ceiling tiles?

This is a starting point for a better-informed conversation, once sufficient studies have been completed and addressed. I do not feel that that choosing to transition on high school over another is a valid option. Personally, I believe they should have elementary schools take 7th grade students and all three high schools have 8th – 12th grade students. This would limit the influx of students, help limit the student/teacher ratio, and leave the capacity of these schools at 85%. Rushing into a decision like the committee has done is to nobody’s benefit, and the 4 months of conversations they’ve had is not sufficient in any regard.

Lastly, I’d like to address the fact that for decades, Hurricane Pride has been a pillar in Warwick. I am a Hurricane, I graduated in 2004. My father is a Hurricane, he graduated in 1979. All Hurricanes will unite against this committee, we will not make this easy, and we will stand together. Hurricane Pride!

Thank you,

Bryan Buckley

Works Cited

Rodrigues, J. (2013, October 24). Panel Favors Vets as Junior High. Retrieved October 29, 2013, from Warwick Beacon: http://warwickonline.com/stories/Panel-favors-Vets-as-Junior-High,86711

Spetrini, P. (2013, January 24). Rhode Island Dropout Rate on the Rise. Retrieved October 29, 2013, from GoLocalProv.com: http://www.golocalprov.com/news/rhode-island-dropout-rate-on-the-rise/

Bryan, Thank you for your thoughtful and valid points. The urban planning perspective is crucial for a long term school facilities plan and one that the school system and City need to jointly address. I urge you to review the draft Warwick Comprehensive Plan, which as of the last draft I reviewed, failed to adequately incorporate/acknowledge the importance of schools for the future vitality of the City. As a student interested in urban planning, you may be familiar with the state requirements for city planning and the importance given to the schools in most city plans.

As your thoughts further demonstrate, the schools need a long term vision (20-30 years) and an incremental, phased plan to achieve it. A short term, bandaid solution will hopefully not hold up to the public scrutiny warranted for citywide changes that will have longterm consequences. You are absolutely correct in your perception of the condition of Pilgrim and unfortunately, this applies to all the schools in the district, decades of bandaid solutions and lack of annual capital improvement planning has created a dismal situation that needs to be addressed and will take vision and decades of phased, coordinated improvements to do so. I hope many more thoughtful, engaged residents like yourself will provide valuable input and that the school committee will embrace the development of a long term plan and not accept narrowly focused, short-term solutions such as the one described in this article.

Bryan Buckley,

I appreciate and applaud your approach, but there are more sources for you to consider besides those you cited.

1) Re: "socio-economical affect" and central location of Vets vice Pilgrim: Very interesting and illuminating points, specifically "bringing more people to the center." Dr. D's explanation that a centrally located Jr. High (ie Vets) is good brought to my mind the question "then how come a centrally located High School isn't good?" You're attempt to address from the other side is a welcome addition to the discussion and worth giving some thought.

2) Your assumptions regarding the size of the student population in two High Schools and student/teacher ratios are incorrect, which undermines some of your arguments. There are 900 kids at Vets and they will be split in some fashion between Pilgrim and Toll Gate, not all will be going to one of the two (ie Pilgrim), which seems to be a common misconception out there. So no school is going to double in size (in fact, this will put the numbers in each school closer to what they were in 2005). Additionally, there will be teachers going with the students so the ratio won't increase any more (and 28:1 is a weighted ratio that is defined in the Teacher contract). Finally, the school department commissioned population projection studies, all of which show Warwick staying--at best--about the same. In other words, there isn't a looming student population boom coming. (Check out the committee's web site for more info).

3) I agree. Pilgrim may have more "cosmetic" fixes than Vets, but ALL schools need serious help. This is a function of not getting adequate funding for infrastructure improvements. It's a complicated issue, but involves a $20 million bond that wasn't released by the Mayor, the continual battles between the School Committee and City Council/Mayor and the plain fact that 85% (at least--no exaggeration) of the school budget goes to paying people salaries and benefits. That's just a fact. The political and fiscal reality behind the school closure/repurpose decisions is that the Schools have been essentially flat-funded for several years, which has meant basically the status quo. The School committee may come up with the budget, but the City Council approves it. It takes political pressure to get the needed funds to make the improvements you desire. That hasn't happened and the School Committee is, frankly, wary of engaging in another no-win battle with the City Council (and taxpayers, frankly) who don't want to pay for improvements (much less new buildings!).

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