As the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee unanimously agreed to forward a recommendation to re-purpose Warwick Veterans Memorial High School as a junior high school to the School Committee, those opposed to the decision turned out to save the school.
The committee has been meeting since June to discuss plans to consolidate schools, but this was the first time the meeting room at the School Administration Building was filled to capacity. Almost 60 people were in attendance, with more filling the hallways and even more picketing outside. Most wore Vets clothing or the school’s colors, blue and gold, holding signs reading “Save Our School” and “Community Schools are the Key to Success.”
People gathered just before the 4 p.m. start of the meeting and remained until it closed at 5:30. The crowd included many Vets teachers, such as Nancy Kennedy, the school’s choir director and music teacher.
“I’m sympathetic to their issue, but I don’t agree with the solution,” said Kennedy, adding that the need to deal with budget issues is understandable but there are other options besides closing a community school. “The Vets community, and the Gorton community, is a special community.”
Kennedy, who was outside the administration building with other Vets supporters, also brought up the importance of Vets to current and future students in the Vets feeder system.
“For kids, their personal identity is attached to [Vets],” she said.
Kennedy also took the time to lay out some of the other arguments from those who are against consolidation, citing the importance of community schools, poverty causing low-test scores and underachieving students and not the conditions of a building, the rush of the process, decision and ultimate consolidation, and the fact that many feel the process was still not transparent to the public.
She also said that while she knows committee members have “the best of intentions and the kindest of hearts,” they do not have the expertise to assess the situation at hand.
Also at the protest were Vets freshmen Natasha Savage, Brittney Boyd, Julia French and Brianna Boyd.
“I think we just wanted to save the school,” said French when asked why the four field hockey players decided to attend the protest. “We just started and we already love it.”
Savage said that the decision to close Vets would separate the students who have been together for years and would make classroom sizes larger.
“People pay for smaller class sizes at private schools,” she pointed out. “It would make Warwick schools more attractive to people if they had smaller class sizes.”
The girls also believe that larger student populations will make it harder to make the different sports teams. They also don’t want to leave the community they are already such a part of, calling Vets a “family.”
Inside the administration building, Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino set out to go over the details of the drafted report, which can be found in its entirety on the School Department’s website, with the committee, but the restless crowd outside made that difficult. Those left outside of the meeting room chanted, “Let us in,” “Vets,” and “save our school,” both from the hallway and from outside the building. Some even resorted to banging on windows and doors.
The chanting stopped when Ptlm. Osvaldo Monteiro warned the hallway gathering they were being disruptive. Backup officers were called before the meeting ended.
Despite the chanting, the meeting continued as planned with the committee ultimately approving the report 14-0, with one absence. D’Agostino read portions of the report during the meeting covering all of the steps the committee had taken to come to their recommendation since May, when the School Committee tasked the group with coming up with a five-year plan for the school facilities to address declining enrollment.
They began by examining student population, which has been declining continuously over the years. During the meeting, D’Agostino specifically cited the peak of student enrollment was in 1968 with 19,464 students; as of October 2013, the enrollment is 9,313 students. From 2012 to 2013 alone (using the student enrollment as of Oct. 1 each year), the enrollment dropped by 302 students (9,615 students to 9,313).
The report also shows that since the start of this school year, both the elementary and secondary levels have seen a decline in enrollment, a total decline of 98 students since Sept. 10 (34 in elementary, 64 in secondary). This decline is seen in data from the city, school district, state and New England School Development Council (NESDEC) that performed projections 10 years ago for a 20-year projection. Their predictions have been within 1 percent of what the enrollment was in the past decade, and their data predicts continued decline for the next decade.
The report also mentions the results of Rhode Island Department of Education’s Public Schoolhouse Assessment, which says Warwick junior highs have excess capacity of 55 percent and high schools have excess capacity of 50 percent. Elementary schools only have excess of 13 percent, but those schools were most recently consolidated.
Necessary updates and renovations to the buildings is also included in the Schoolhouse report; Gorton Junior High and Aldrich Junior High are two of the oldest buildings in the district and require more than $18 million each to be brought up to standard.
The committee’s report continues to explain how they began to discuss consolidating at the high school level to re-purpose a high school facility as a junior high school and be able to close Gorton and Aldrich, avoiding the cost to improve those buildings and finding an answer to the decline in enrollment.
D’Agostino then continued to explain the other steps taken by the committee, including classroom utilization studies, tours of the facilities, transportation needs, etc. There was also a reminder of the financial impact; re-purposing Vets as a junior high would save the district $4.4 million, while re-purposing Pilgrim High School would save $4.3 million.
D’Agostino also reviewed the discussion points from the conversation that ultimately led to the committee voting Vets be re-purposed as opposed to Pilgrim; topics included location, building conditions, special programs, finances, and which building is better suited to house 12- to 14-year-olds as a junior high (or eventual middle school).
The report closes by detailing the various phases of the proposed consolidation should the School Committee vote to close and re-purpose Vets. Between June and August 2014, Vets would be closed, students, equipment and materials moved over, and renovations to Toll Gate and Pilgrim High Schools completed. Between August 2014 and August 2015, renovations would be done to Vets in preparation for becoming a junior high. Planning for the junior high consolidation would begin in January 2015, such as student population, transportation routes and staff. Aldrich and Gorton would officially close in June 2015, with students moving to a new Vets Junior High and Winman Junior High for September 2015.
Feedback would be collected on the high school and junior high school consolidation throughout the process. Once that consolidation is completed, the central administration will get together to discuss moving the sixth grade up to the junior high and beginning an all-day Kindergarten program. Depending on the results of that discussion, the committee would reform to see if any upgrades, needs or consolidation would be necessary at the elementary level.
The committee brought up few suggestions for edits to the report, just a few word changes for clarification. For example, Ed Racca wanted to make sure that when the report says the committee felt the Vets building “resembled” a junior high, it says Vets is more “accommodating” for sixth, seventh and eighth graders to navigate instead.
Many of the committee members also wanted the report to include their support of moving the district to a middle school model and full-day K program, although that discussion will be had by the administration.
“We’re way behind the curve,” said David Testa, committee member. “So if it’s a question of semantics or what words we use, I think the School Committee needs to know that the sentiment of this committee is that we get into middle school and all-day K as soon as humanly possible, and I even hate to be that broad.”
Rosemary Healey, who was on hand to provide legal and HR guidance during the meeting, also pointed out that using the term “middle school” does require certain certification for teachers, so for now it may be better to refer to the possible future configuration as moving sixth grade up to the junior high.
Although public comment is not allowed during the committee meetings, the audience was able to make their opinion known, laughing when it was said that Vets’ structural improvements would take a year while Pilgrim’s repairs could be done in a summer, and when it was mentioned that Vets more closely resembled a junior high school.
Ultimately, the committee accepted the report with the noted changes and D’Agostino addressed the next step, presenting the report to the School Committee and public hearings.
There is no date for the special meeting where the committee will present their report to the School Committee, but D’Agostino said they are working with the School Committee members to find a date when everyone is available in the next few weeks for the presentation and public hearings. But the superintendent is preparing to deliver the presentation with help and support from the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee.
“We will be doing a presentation. We will have all the Long Term Committee members there,” said D’Agostino, adding that he will serve as narrator, with Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci, Secondary Education Director Dennis Mullen and Elementary Education Director Robert Bushell presenting data they have collected. However, other members of the committee will also speak, letting the School Committee know why they voted the way they did and explain the discussion they had in the meetings over the past few months.
“This is a very united committee,” said D’Agostino. “This group of people truly believes they are doing what’s best for the students.”
D’Agostino also said he understands the emotion behind those standing against the recommendation, some of whom were reportedly saying harsh remarks to members of the committee (forcing the members to defend their positions) and continued to cheer and make noise outside of the administration building after the meeting ended. D’Agostino said he knew the decision to close a school would cause emotions to run high, but he hopes that everyone understands this decision was made based on the facts of declining enrollment, excess capacity and the need for better technology and programming, and much more.
To see the committee’s entire report, go to www.warwickschools.org, click on the LTFPC link on the right-hand side of the page, and select the Nov. 15, 2013 meeting folder. A PDF of the draft can be found there; an updated version with the few wording changes will be up when it is completed.