While the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee did include the three top administrators in Warwick Schools, it also included a number of parents who all voted the same, for Warwick Veterans Memorial High School to be re-purposed as a junior high by fall 2015.
“We’ve taken it very seriously,” said Jackie Harris-Connor, one of the parents on the committee. Harris-Connor has been on the committee since former superintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak created it in November 2011.
Harris-Connor pointed out that a lot had been said about members of the committee all having personal ties to Pilgrim, and therefore voted for Vets, but that is not the case.
“We are all from different schools, but we all came to the same conclusion,” said Harris-Connor, who admitted her children are in the Pilgrim feeder system.
Ed Racca, another committee member, said no one to his knowledge discussed which school they were voting for prior to the vote, and the results were surprising.
“I was kind of surprised all of the parents had the same opinion,” said Racca.
And Racca is an example of someone who truly voted for what he thought was the better choice. His wife is a graduate of Vets, his oldest daughter is a sophomore at the school and his younger daughter is in the eighth grade set to go to high school next fall.
“I thought a lot about this,” said Racca.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Racca pointed out that he was unable to attend the tour of Pilgrim with the committee a few weeks ago but felt he knew a great deal about the facility due to his time as a parent volunteer in the building.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in that building over the last six years,” said Racca. “Probably more so than any other school in the city.”
David Testa is another parent who had been on the committee since it was created, and was “thoroughly convinced” that consolidation was going to have to happen.
“No one was questioning consolidation,” said Testa, whose children are in the Pilgrim system. “I think the immediate needs are we have more buildings than we need.”
He added that the birth rate is declining, the population of Rhode Island is declining and the population in Warwick is declining, due in part to airport expansion into the Vets area.
“I don’t see a baby boom like we’ve had before happening,” said Testa in regards to comments about a future population boom.
Amie Galipeau is a parent of students in the Toll Gate system, and is the Warwick Council PTA president. She also has been on the committee since 2011 and says she knew consolidation would be up for discussion over this past session.
“I think at that point, I thought it was a possibility, but I needed to see the facts,” said Galipeau.
All of the members also had their own reasons to vote for the re-purposing of Vets over Pilgrim, but Racca was adamant to say the decision had nothing to do with the performance of either school; the administration, faculty and staff at all three Warwick high schools “are excellent.”
“In my opinion, it was location,” said Racca.
With Pilgrim located in the northeast and Toll Gate High School in the southwest, he believed it made sense to keep those facilities as high schools, essentially dividing the city in half.
Harris-Connor said the proximity of Toll Gate and Pilgrim to an I-95 on-ramp played into her decision because it allows for easier transport of sports teams and students to the Career Center.
She also felt the Vets facility was easier to navigate and more suited for younger students, and could be divided by hallway to maintain the learning teams format of the junior highs now.
Also, Racca pointed out that the Pilgrim feeder school system historically has the largest population, a trend that is predicted to continue.
Testa, who said he often conducts his own individual research in addition to the information provided to him through the committee, agreed with that.
“Pilgrim tends to be the highest population. Looking at the future, from kindergarten on, Pilgrim is still the highest,” he said.
“The majority of students come from Pilgrim,” said Racca, adding that projection models he has seen have that remaining to be true.
Racca also felt Pilgrim was better for possible expansion, especially in the vocational program.
Testa said the layout of Pilgrim versus Vets is one of the key factors that he used to make his decision.
“I visualize the kids that are walking through the building,” said Testa, recalling his junior high school that was a big square building. “Pilgrim is a big sprawling building,” he added. “I though the layout was more appropriate for a high school.”
But Testa did point out that the condition of the two buildings was very balanced. For example, Testa felt Vets Athletics was better, but Pilgrim had a better library.
“There’s absolutely a balance,” he said.
Galipeau said there were a number of factors that made her lean toward Vets, including the necessary improvements to the roof, boiler and elevator, Pilgrim’s special ed program and population, as well as location.
“I just felt that [Vets] was more centralized for a junior high,” said Galipeau.
It was actually Racca who first proposed a two-high school, two-junior high school system for the district back in January.
“We don’t have the enrollment [for three high schools],” said Racca. “We can barely form a sports team at any location.”
Racca believes consolidating to two high schools will be an advantage in both athletics and academics.
“When you’re on a team having losing season after losing season, that doesn’t encourage you to stick with that team,” said Racca.
He also believes by consolidating, the number of students in AP and honors classes at each school will increase, as well as regular classes and extra-curricular, allowing for more dynamic discussions in the classroom.
“It’s very difficult to run a class with five or six kids,” said Racca, admitting that there is less one-on-one interaction between a teacher and a student but more opportunity for interaction with peers.
Testa recalled when Racca first proposed the two-high school, two-junior high school model, calling the idea “provocative” and “interesting.”
Testa compared it to Cranston Public Schools, which has a larger population with only two high schools. He believes the two schools are more than equipped for increased population.
He also pointed out that according to population data, Pilgrim has 1,400 students as recently as 2005.
“The two remaining high schools are going to see populations they saw not too long ago,” he said.
Testa also brought up the benefit of the $4.4 million that will be available to the School Department should Vets become a junior high and Gorton and Aldrich close.
“They’re talking a lot of savings. Every cent of those savings needs to go into the schools, not salary and benefits,” said Testa. “I believe the administration when they say they are going to pour the money into the building.”
Harris-Connor said she did not expect the plan to have two high schools and two junior highs, but she feels it will work.
“I think we can all live with it,” said Harris-Connor. “It allows us the availability of space. There will be enough room at either building for more students.”
All of the parents agree that they are happier with the process the committee followed over the summer and fall than compared to the situation with Gorton Junior High School last spring.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with this recommendation than the recommendation last year [to close Gorton],” said Galipeau, saying it was shortsighted. “It was putting a Band-Aid on it.”
She also pointed out that it would have delayed the middle school model and all-day K, and cost millions of dollars.
“Those junior highs were going to cost a lot of money to get them where they need to be,” said Galipeau of the condition of Aldrich and Gorton.
“I liked how he [Superintendent Richard D’Agostino] included all of us and made the effort to make sure we had all the information we needed. They were terrific, all three of them,” said Harris-Connor.
Last time around, Harris-Connor said the use of a short-term and long-term committee left half of the people in the dark, but this summer was like night and day.
“We were given every bit of information. We worked really well together,” she said. “It was positive this time around.”
Testa said he was pleased that the committee now has a long-term vision; something he believes was missing last time around.
“What we’ve come up with now, closing a high school and re-purposing it as a junior high, then closing the two junior highs [Aldrich and Gorton],” said Testa, “it still allows you to fit middle school, which I hope happens quickly. Then it frees up room in the elementary schools for all-day K.”
Testa feels that once people see those other improvements on the horizon, it makes more sense.
“Once you strip the emotion out of it, it’s hard to say why not to consolidate,” said Testa. “I understand you get attached to your school.”
Testa also pointed out that even though Pilgrim is not closing, his family would be affected. His youngest daughter is in sixth grade and will attend Aldrich, the new Vets Junior High, and then (likely) Pilgrim in just three years should the recommendation pass.
“Am I impacted? Technically, yes,” he said.
Both Harris-Connor and Testa said had the votes gone the other way to close Pilgrim, they would have been fine with it.
In response to comments they are in the administration’s back pocket or are puppets, they say that is far from true.
“We’re not run like puppets. This is a well-rounded committee; no one tells me how to vote,” said Galipeau.
Although Harris-Connor is not sure how long it will take the administration to compile the committee’s findings into a report and have the committee approve it, she did predict the final written recommendation would be ready to go to the School Committee within the next month.