Acting superintendent of schools Richard D’Agostino believes the committee charged with developing short- and long-range responses to declining enrollment will get a clearer picture of its options when provided data on what needs to be done to upgrade schools and usage percentages.
At the end of the committee’s first meeting since January, D’Agostino said the 20-member panel would be provided with information on school capacities coupled with “numbers on where the kids are.” However, D’Agostino did not set a timetable and at least one committee member and some of those in attendance were critical of the effort, saying that it lacked focus and a vision.
Much of Friday’s 50-minute session was devoted to an explanation of the open meetings law by Rosemary Healey, director of human services and legal counsel. Robert Bushell, director of elementary education, gave a historical overview of enrollment. And D’Agostino offered a picture of the challenges faced by the department from changing state regulations, funding sources, technological needs and aging buildings. He said he wants to ensure school dollars are spent “wisely and efficiently.” Pressed for details as to how soon action needs to be taken, he said he considers a plan for secondary schools a short-term issue, meaning that it should be addressed sooner than later.
Options mentioned when the committee met almost a year ago include closing one or more of the city’s six secondary schools by altering grade levels so that either junior highs are expanded from 7 and 8 grades to 6-8 and/or high schools are expanded with grades 8-12. Another option talked about, until the committee concluded a comprehensive study of the system from K to 12 was needed, was redistricting to reduce the existing three-high school feeder system to two. This would result in the closing of junior and senior high schools.
D'Agostino acknowledged the department budget is a driving factor as well as issues including costs to meet fire codes and building renovations to support the latest technologies.
The numbers make a case for action.
The department has seen declining enrollments since October 1964 when Warwick schools had an enrollment of 19,464 and 33 elementary schools. In the last 10 years, according to a study provided by the New England School Development Council, enrollment slipped 2,744, a decline of 22.5 percent to today’s total of 9,464. This differs with the department’s enrollment figure of 9,615 as of this October.
Nonetheless, Bushell concludes, “It’s a pretty good indication of where we are going.”
He attributes the decline to the economy and the cost of living in Rhode Island. He said when he talks to parents leaving the state, he learns that they are out of jobs, faced with high costs and are moving south. Based on births, he projected enrollment would drop by more than 12 percent in the next 10 years.
Bushell and D’Agostino said other factors come into play and they include whether Warwick schools will be required to offer full-day kindergarten as some members of the legislature are pushing for, or increasing medical needs of students; and the age of buildings. At 101 years, Oakland Beach is the oldest of the city’s schools. Many were built during the city’s rapid growth in the late ’50s and early ’60s, with the last of the construction coming in the early 1970s with the schools in the Toll Gate complex.
Full-day kindergarten could require additional classrooms and new construction. Quoting an article from the Pawtucket Times, D’Agostino noted that the Department of Education aims to lift its moratorium on paying a portion of district construction costs, which, in the case of Warwick, would amount to a reimbursement of about 38 percent.
“Technical challenges and computer uses keep on increasing – Are our buildings up to handling it?” D’Agostino asked.
To tackle the issue, D’Agostino recommended the committee divide its work into short- and long-term goals. He broadly defined those terms as five to 10 years and the next 50 years. He said that the administration considered an outside study contract but dismissed that course when it received a six-figure estimate for the job.
The meeting left some members of the audience questioning how the process will proceed and the goals D’Agostino hopes to achieve. School Committee member-elect Jennifer Ahearn had enrollment statistics from the school website – members of the public were not provided the data nor was the information projected – and was looking for a plan and a schedule. She felt the administration should have provided the committee with an outline and options.
Committee member Stephanie VanPatten hoped for much more.
“We need to start with a vision of what Warwick Schools are going to look like in 10 to 20 years,” she said.
She questioned whether the district would have one super high school, offering a range of high quality programs from academics to athletics, or would the system remain focused on multiple schools with fewer and fewer students.