Access, a better layout of rooms and proximity to the rest of the school district all went into Robert Bushell’s concluding it makes sense to keep Aldrich open and close Gorton Junior High School.
Bushell, director of elementary education and a member of the committee studying closing a junior high school, made the motion to close Gorton at the committee’s meeting last Wednesday. It passed by a 7-2 vote, with one abstention. It now goes to the School Committee for a vote.
But the closing is far from a done deal.
The Gorton community of teachers, parents and students are mounting an effort to save the school. It includes petitions, calls to City Council and School Committee members and letters to the editor. Also, at the urging of some members of the short- and long-term committees, the school administration has agreed to convene meetings of the study committees before passing along a recommendation to the School Committee. Those meetings are scheduled for this Wednesday with a joint meeting at 3 p.m. followed by a long-term meeting at 3:30. The meetings are at Toll Gate High School.
Amie Galipeau, who opposed the motion to close Gorton, feels the two committees should work together and report back to the School Committee.
“We have to look at the long-term effect,” she said. “I feel like the decision was based on finances, not what’s best for the kids,” she said.
Jackie Harris-Connor, of the long-term committee, said the mission of the committees has changed, from looking at options to actually closing a junior high school.
“I don’t know why closing a school became so important in the last couple of months,” she said.
She questions what impact closing will have on curriculum and whether that has been fully considered.
Asked about the process, Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said the administration would notify the School Committee of a recommendation and it would schedule a public hearing before conducting a vote. He did not have a date for a hearing or vote.
“It’s a very emotional subject,” he said observing that Gorton, which opened in 1939, has a long history and it is hard for people to accept change.
“It’s the mindset of people,” he said.
Nonetheless, D’Agostino called consolidation of the district “a positive thing for kids … this is how we’re looking at it. We need to run schools as efficiently as possible, as they [parents] do at home.”
As the city’s three junior high schools are operating at about 50 percent of capacity, Bushell says, “We’re totally underutilized.” And, referring to the budget, he adds, “we’re way in the hole the way we’re going.” Closing either Gorton or Aldrich would save an estimated $1.2 million in operating costs and avoid the costs of bringing the schools in line with fire codes.
“It’s a better facility because it has more access for buses and it’s easier to get to,” Bushell said when asked why he picked Aldrich to remain open. He called Gorton “isolated” and said Aldrich has additional classrooms and, “To me, it’s just a better building.”
Still, some questions remain. What of converting the junior high schools to middle schools with grades 6 to 8, which would open space in elementary schools for full-day kindergarten? What proposals will the long-range committee make?
“To close a building without knowing what the district is going to look like is putting the cart before the horse,” said David Testa, a member of the short-term committee who voted against closing Gorton. Testa said he found most systems had middle schools and that those systems provided students with greater instruction in math and science.
He said most systems are built like a pyramid, with the high school at the top “and we’re like an hour glass.” Because of “class weighting,” which counts students who have special educational needs as more than one in calculating class size, Testa argues with the closing of a junior high, the district won’t be able to go to a middle school model. There won’t be the room for the 6th graders.
“It’s a short-term gain, but I think it’s tied our hands,” he said.
Harris-Connor also asks whether closing a junior high school will inhibit the district’s ability to use the middle school model and apply the common core standards as being required by the department of education.
Bushell, who once resisted the middle school model, feels students are “more mature” today and that integrating 6th graders with 7th and 8th is workable. That would open the way to all-day kindergarten. But, while there is state pressure for all-day kindergarten, Bushell said there isn’t funding. To do it, he said, would require hiring an additional 21 teachers and aides at a projected cost of more than $3 million annually.
“Here’s the thing, that’s not a definite,” D’Agostino said of all-day kindergarten. And he sees a middle school “happening down the road” when projections call for even further reductions in enrollment.
Peter Stone, a Gorton teacher, said the recommendation to close the school cast a pall over the school Thursday and Friday. He said the faculty sought to remain as upbeat as possible and to not have the news affect school operations. He described the school as in “full protest mode.” Actions include a petition to save the school, calls to City Council and School Committee members and meetings of the student council.
“It came out of nowhere,” he said.
School Committee member Eugene Nadeau said he had received about 35 calls about closing Gorton as of Sunday evening.
The recommendation to close Gorton came as a surprise to many because others considered some of the very reasons Bushell saw as assets as liabilities. Being on a busy artery – Post Road – and next to a fire station was seen as a hazard to kids. Also, being contiguous to the former Christopher Rhodes School, which is closed and has been turned back to the city, the two properties were viewed as potentially marketable for redevelopment.