This week, the mood at Warwick Veterans High School is positive as the students celebrate Spirit Week and Homecoming. However, last week, following the recommendation of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee to transition Vets to a junior high, spirit was less than optimistic.
Thursday afternoon, Principal Gerry Habershaw said his students, faculty and staff were upset and concerned when they heard their beloved school had been the one suggested by the committee to be closed for the 2014-2015 school year and re-purposed as a junior high for 2015.
Knowing that his students would hear the news over social media and react, Habershaw got his students, faculty and staff together for an assembly first thing Thursday to address the situation.
“I want to handle this is a dignified manner,” said Habershaw on Thursday afternoon.
He knows his students, as well as his faculty and staff, are upset but is encouraging them to stay positive and enjoy the time they have together.
This recommendation is the latest development in a process that began in early 2013. The short-term and long-term committee recommended Gorton Junior High be closed, however, following lengthy public hearings and outrage, the School Committee turned down the recommendation. They tasked the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee with conducting more research and presenting a recommendation for the future of the secondary school facilities by January 2014.
The committee reconvened in June, looking not only at junior highs but all secondary schools. They came up with the plan of a two-high school, two-junior high school model for the district, and looked at student populations, determined potential transportation needs, toured all three facilities and studied the financial impact, which showed a savings of $4.4 million to operate Vets as a junior high and close Gorton and Aldrich Junior Highs.
Habershaw pointed out that the rumor mill had been going crazy since the start of the school year that Vets would be recommended for closure, long before the committee had gathered all of their data and made their vote.
“I tried to dispel the rumors,” said Habershaw.
When that rumor became fact last Wednesday, Habershaw knew his students would have questions and concerns.
“Kids get close to their school,” said Habershaw.
Aliese Sabalewski and Sarah Zincone are two sophomores who feel incredibly connected to their school.
“My whole family comes from this school,” said Zincone. “It’s kind of heartbreaking.”
Zincone learned about the committee’s decision Wednesday night through the power of social media; she said a number of students were venting about the decision on Twitter. Sabalewski’s mother attended the committee’s meeting and told her daughter what had been decided.
In just the year and two months the girls have attended Vets, they say they already feel comfort and connection as they walk down the halls.
“I’m used to walking down the halls and knowing all of the teachers and students,” said Zincone. “We’re all one big family.”
Zincone said she feels everyone at Vets gets along and truly cares about one another; she is sad that relationship is at risk.
Sabalewski said she feels that having some of her classmates move to Pilgrim High School and others go to Toll Gate High School next year will be confusing and make an already difficult situation even worse.
“The change would be stressful,” she said, explaining that it is not going to be easy to have to relearn to navigate a school and possibly get to know new teachers.
Habershaw agreed that any change would be stressful on his students, faculty and staff, but he pointed out that it is still early, there are a lot of questions yet to be answered and the School Committee will still hold public hearings before making their final decision about Vets’ fate.
“There’s always a chance,” said Habershaw.
Zincone and Sabalewski are both cheerleaders, and they hope Spirit Week, Friday’s Pep Rally, Homecoming game and tailgate, and Saturday’s Homecoming Dance will be a welcome distraction from last week’s announcement.
“We want them not to think about the negative things,” said Zincone. “Take it day by day, like Habershaw said.”
In addition to having an assembly, Habershaw sent an e-mail home to Vets parents explaining the recommendation and how the process works going forward with the School Committee. “So they could be prepared if their kids have questions,” explained Habershaw.
He also said he had already heard from a number of his students’ parents regarding the possibility of consolidation.
“They are upset; they are going to be vocal,” said Habershaw. “I’ve tried to tell our students and parents that we need to do this in a dignified way.”
Habershaw explained that in his conversations with some parents, especially those in his school’s PTO, it doesn’t appear they are completely against consolidation, but more so the timeline.
In a suggested timeline from the Warwick School Administration submitted to the committee a few weeks ago, the recommended high school, Vets, would be closed following the completion of this school year, its students sent to the two remaining high schools, and the facility would undergo renovations during the 2014-2015 school year. It would then re-open as a junior high for the 2015-2016 school year, in conjunction with Aldrich and Gorton closing.
Habershaw says parents question why the school would need to be closed for the start of the next school year in less than a year. Why not wait until school year 2014-2015 to start this process, giving students, and parents, time to adjust and prepare for the change?
Overall, Habershaw said people are “concerned” about the future, in terms of where they will attend school and their jobs. Habershaw says the staff, faculty and students at Vets are incredibly close and this recommendation has already taken its toll.
“People get comfortable,” he explained. “We have a great work environment here.”
Habershaw also feels passionate about the Vets facility.
“When I look at the facility, I think we have the best facility,” he said.
He explained that almost all of the athletic fields had been updated or improved in recent years, the elevator undergoes regular maintenance, and as for the roof, it had yet to be repaired because it was always the roof deemed to be in the best shape. Academically, Habershaw also said Vets has the unique academies for their students to be a part of that are not offered at any of the other high schools.