Normally, attendance at school committee meetings is sparse, but it was a different story Tuesday. Not even the rain could stop students, teachers and parents of the Gorton community from showing up to defend their school.
A recommendation to close Gorton Junior High has been presented to the School Committee following a decision by the short-term facilities planning committee, and once word got out, Gorton supporters and defenders showed up in force to voice their concerns.
Some spoke of the positives of Gorton, such as ease of access with being a neighborhood school or boasting the best NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program] test scores of the district’s three junior highs, while others voiced their displeasure with the way the short-term facilities planning committee handled the decision-making process.
James Ginolfi, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, referred to the short-term planning committee as the “school closing committee” and limited his comments to the decision-making process.
“The committee’s actions, in the public eye, are reflective of you as a School Committee member,” he said. “The majority of members on the committee did not vote in favor of the recommendation to close Gorton.”
Ginolfi said only eight out of the 19 members voted in favor of the recommendation.
“There’s been a sense from the beginning that the outcome was pre-determined,” he said.
Ginolfi then gave a list of examples to illustrate his point.
“When the committee was asked by the public to define a timeframe for ‘short-term,’ one member said, ‘we’re looking at two to three years,’ and within 20 minutes, there was a recommendation to close Gorton by August of this year,” he said. “At one of the meetings, the crowd was overflowing and someone asked if the venue could be moved and they did not even get an answer.”
Ginolfi concluded, saying, “It seems the facts and figures were one-sided, manipulated or ignored to bring about a pre-determined decision to close Gorton.”
Tom Hughes said he was also concerned with the process.
“You’re looking at a recommendation from a short-term committee without a long-term vision. And the recommendation came from a minority,” he said.
Darlene Netcoh, an English teacher at Toll Gate, said she’s attended most of the meetings of the short-term facilities planning committee.
“It’s become very clear that the committee’s hand is being forced,” she said. “Two women that are parents on the committee repeatedly asked questions and were ignored until a member of the audience repeated the question, then there were no more meetings for a while after that.”
Netcoh said the short-term committee has met multiple times while the long-term facilities planning committee only met last week.
“I’m disappointed with the way the process has been preceding and with the decision to close Gorton,” she said. “Principals on the committee said ‘yes, it could fit [if Gorton were closed and students were divided among the two remaining junior highs], but it won’t be easy.’”
Netcoh asked how the district would be able to implement the new STAR Enterprise system and the PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers] test, which will eventually replace NECAPs, both of which are computer-based assessments, if schools don’t have the necessary technology to support them.
“Until you get that, you can’t decide to close a school,” she said.
Susanne Racca, president of the Gorton PTO, said Aldrich has two computer rooms, with 26 computers in each that are required for keyboarding classes.
“PARCC and STAR are great assessment programs, but how will students benefit if they don’t have access to the technology?” she asked. “Are we going to have a problem like we did at Vets years ago with students having to sit out [of keyboarding classes] to allow other students to take the PARCC and STAR tests?”
Bill Malone, a parent of a former Gorton student, said an important aspect to education is involved parents.
“I think you have that at Gorton,” he said, motioning behind him to a crowd of supporters who cheered and held up signs whenever people spoke in favor of saving Gorton. “Plus, Gorton has the highest NECAP scores of the three junior highs.”
“I bleed Gorton Green, for better or worse,” said Stephen Andolfo, a retired Gorton teacher, who wanted an answer as to whether or not mayoral academies were ever discussed by the planning committees.
“The question was asked at a committee meeting and we were told that’s the city’s decision,” he said. “You see the clouds and then go outside and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s raining!’”
David Testa, a member on the short-term committee, said at no time was a mayoral academy ever discussed at any of the committee meetings.
Michael Pierce, a teacher at Gorton who also has a son at Park School, the cons of closing Gorton had nothing to do with the quality of education.
“The cons you’ve listed include a loss of community identity, crowding at the other junior highs and busing issues – there is nothing to do with the impact on the quality of education or the state testing regimens,” he said. “The money savings is coming from cutting faculty and staff, not closing the building. Closing the school and then convening the committee and saying what you want the community to look like – that’s putting the cart before the horse.”
One audience member who identified himself as a descendant of Samuel Gorton said he didn’t feel the School Committee was paying attention to what the students, faculty and parents had to say about their school.
“It seems like the decision has already been made,” he said. “What I want to know is, are you going to the close the school or not?”
A parent in the audience said he was concerned if Gorton closed, his son would have to travel a further distance to attend one of the other two junior highs, “at least an extra 20 minutes at the minimum,” and would have to walk home after dark during the winter months.
Alanna Morrison, a seventh grader at Gorton, said she doesn’t think she should have to move to another school.
“I’ve moved a lot in my life and I haven’t felt more at home anywhere but Gorton,” she said. “I have been in crowded classrooms and it was hard to get attention, but I can get that at Gorton. We need to stay together and not close any schools at all.”
Amanda Gorton, another descendant of Samuel Gorton, said she has a son that will be 2 years old in April and she’s looking at buying a house in East Greenwich.
“I don’t know if my family will receive the education they deserve, that I, my brother, my father, our grandparents, were all granted,” she said. “I hope what you choose to do is for the best and out of wisdom, not fear.”
Juliann Dutra said it means a lot to students to see their school close and for them to lose all their friends.
“It hurts,” she said, as she choked up with emotion.
Gary Marsh, who described himself as a proud parent, concerned citizen and worried taxpayer, said he’s tried to look at the school budget for the past four years online but said it’s hard to follow because “it’s always in a different format and the numbers don’t match up.”
“Why are we closing a school and putting students in a smaller area and asking them to do more with less, like we did with [the closure of] John Greene and then move in administration staff?” Marsh said. “I was under the impression that building was beyond repair.”
John Sullivan, a teacher at Aldrich, said Warwick seems to be behind the times.
“More effective teaching is done in smaller schools,” he said, adding he felt something was missing at the planning committee meetings. “I felt the committee meetings lacked a passion and a pride for your district. I’m not sure you’re doing everything you can here. This is about the students, so make the good decision for them.”
Gloria Rossiter, a teacher at Aldrich who also has children in the Warwick school system, said the committee should start looking at students as people with rights.
“These students are people, they’re human beings, that have feelings, needs and need to be taught,” she said. “I’ve always been proud of my city, but you’re not ranking at the top anymore because you don’t put education first.”
Julia French, an eighth grader and Gorton class president, spoke on behalf of the school and her classmates and gave a list of reasons why it should remain open.
“If you go to a middle school model, will the other two junior highs be able to sustain it?” she asked.
French said her years at Gorton in seventh and eighth grade have been the best of her life so far.
“Some of the best teachers I ever met are at Gorton. You can trust them with your problems,” she said. “My sister is in fifth grade at Sherman and she was so excited to start junior high at Gorton, but she was devastated when she heard the news and asked me to try to save the school. I want her to have the privilege of walking through the halls at Gorton, just as I have.”
French listed many programs the school is involved in, such as Rachel’s Challenge, saying the school really took the program to heart and there have been more than 1,000 random acts of kindness performed at the school since being introduced to the program.
“Longer bus rides will take a toll on after-school activities, “ she continued. “Students won’t get the proper attention if Gorton closes, with 97 percent [projected] capacity at both [remaining] junior highs.”
French said if Gorton closes, a part of the community would be lost with it.
“Keeping all schools open is the better choice,” she said. “For the sake of the education of students to come, we’re asking you to reconsider closing Gorton.”
Seventh grader Mary Greenwell said students’ education will be negatively impacted if they are crammed into larger classes.
“I think closing Gorton will seriously affect my education and what I want to accomplish in life,” she said.
Following audience comments, School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado thanked everyone for their “impassioned pleas and respectful comments.”
Committee member Eugene Nadeau also had some comments for the audience.
“I’m looking at the largest crowd we’ve had in many months,” he said.
Nadeau said he’s received close to 100 e-mails, phone calls and personal contacts regarding the recommendation to close Gorton.
“I know the anxiety of the students, parents and teachers of the community and I offer my heartfelt appreciation to all who have contacted me for their respectful and gracious comments,” he said. “There was also anger there, but I never experienced it and I will not forget such courtesy. I urge you, if you feel deeply about a subject, make your voices heard, whether from Gorton, Aldrich or another school.”
In other committee news, the School Committee approved the adoption of a revised school budget as presented by Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci. According to the revised budget, Ferrucci projects a $45,417 surplus, which when added to the $44,338 surplus included with the most recent revised budget approved in December, results in a total net surplus of $89,755 for the fiscal year 2013 budget.