Most talk about school consolidation overlooks the fact that while Warwick’s population has not changed greatly over the last few decades, public school enrollment has plummeted. It is expected that a huge decrease in the school population should correlate with a large decrease of the population of the city as a whole. But it hasn’t. No one has asked: Where have all the kids gone?
According to the U.S. census, Warwick reached its highest resident population in 1980, at 87,123. As of 2010, the population of Warwick stood at 82,672 – a decline of 5.1 percent from its 1980 peak. Warwick School Department enrollment peaked in 1968 at 19,464. Using numbers presented in the draft proposal that number has dropped to 9,615 in 2012, a drop of almost 50 percent.
Could this decline be attributed to a mass exodus of our city’s children to private schools? In 1970, with public school enrollment close to its 1968 peak, the census reported that over 13 percent of school-aged children (K-12) attended a private school. Using census data from 2010 about 12 percent of school-aged children attended private school. Furthermore, privates have also seen less Warwick children: The number of Warwick children attending private school has dropped from 2,990 to 1,475 from 1970 to 2010, a decrease of almost 50 percent. So private schools are not having a significant effect on Warwick Public School enrollment and have also seen a similar decrease.
So, where have all the kids gone?
It’s an important question, one any long-term plan must answer. How can we reverse this sobering fact? What about Warwick is repelling families from moving here? Maybe it is something out of our control; such as general demographics, i.e. the baby boom and the echo boom have passed us. Perhaps the exodus of youth from Warwick is a side effect of some overall condition of the state.
Any policy designed to encourage families to move to our city needs to include all-day kindergarten. It is absolutely essential that all-day kindergarten be a right for the residents of Warwick. Full-day kindergarten allows more time for teachers to identify the needs of students, more time for greater breadth of curriculum, and more time for children to learn and play. Perhaps the greatest evidence is this: The vast majority (as of 2006, greater than 75 percent) of private schools offer full-day kindergarten.
Full-day kindergarten is just one aspect a long-term plan needs to address. It must also identify the reasons for our shrinking youth population and how we can better our schools to attract new residents. Recently, the School Committee voted to hire an outside consultant to investigate the issue more closely. I wholly support this decision. We need expert opinion on such a difficult decision. Small high schools have benefits such as greater academic achievement and greater extracurricular participation. But the financial aspect of the plan can’t be ignored: One of the main driving forces of school consolidation is the cost avoidance of not having to repair Aldrich and Gorton. Personally, I feel that outside experts will agree that Warwick Veterans should be consolidated and that money be diverted to programs such as full-day kindergarten. However, we need that expert opinion to fully justify what we are doing is what’s best for our students.
While I would sacrifice having a lower student-teacher ratio that results from maintaining Vets as a high school for all-day kindergarten or ALAP, I am not an education expert and while the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (LTFPC) has invested much of their time and effort into studying consolidation fully, they are not experts either.
Warwick should formulate a long-term plan with the help of outside education experts and use this opportunity to form a comprehensive education plan that not only tackles declining school enrollments, but also provides innovative ways to better the education of its youth by maximizing the resources we have. The consultants should not merely repeat the hard work of the LTFPC, but formulate a plan to revitalize our schools, update our curriculum and provide the greatest public education to our students as possible.
Joe McClanaghan is a senior at URI studying Microbiology and a recent graduate of Warwick Veterans. One of his classes was an honors course on public education. As a final project, he wrote this about Warwick Public Schools’ declining enrollment.