Panel eyeing school closures visits Vets
The Long Term Facilities Planning Committee went back to school Tuesday, roaming the halls of Warwick Veterans Memorial High School to assess the facility and determine if it should remain a high school or become a junior high school in their plan for consolidation.
The meeting began with a tour of the facility from Principal Gerry Habershaw, who took his time to point out some of the unique features of Vets, as well as provide important occupancy numbers for rooms such as the auditorium and cafeteria.
The tour of Vets is the first of the high school facility tours the committee will take. Discussions in previous meetings have led to the possibility recommending the closure of an existing high school, disbursing those students into the two remaining high schools and moving students from Gorton and Aldrich Junior Highs into the vacant high school facility. Gorton and Aldrich, the oldest schools in the district and in need of the most renovations, would both be closed.
The committee decided seeing the facilities was an important part of the process to see not only what features each one has but to determine if the school could handle an increased population or function well as a junior high school (and possibly a middle school down the line).
As a group, the committee decided not to discuss or “grade” the quality of the Vets facility until they tour Pilgrim High School next week for comparison purposes. However, valuable information was provided to the committee and important questions were raised.
During the tour, Habershaw pointed out a number of features, including a writing center, library, greenhouse, four academies (biotech, career, leadership, athletics), and marine engineering room (Vets’ Warwick Area Career and Technical Center program).
Habershaw explained the school’s large auditorium holds 1,008 people and, with four lunches at full capacity, the cafeteria can accommodate 1,520 students each day. There is also a mini-auditorium attached to the cafeteria that could provide overflow seating.
The committee also toured fields and gym facilities, with Habershaw adding the football field has new state-of-the-art lighting. Habershaw also said if the investment was made in making Vets football field astro-turf, the school could play host to state championships and other tournaments, turning a profit.
Habershaw also said the school is within walking distance of Thayer Arena, McDermott Pool and a local gymnastic and dance studio where teams practice.
At the conclusion of the tour, Habershaw was available to answer any questions about the facility. Questions regarding occupancy, necessary improvements, community use and accessibility of the building for students with physical disabilities were all brought up.
“If I had to name the three areas we need to work on, it would be lockers, ceiling tiles and the boys’ locker rooms,” said Habershaw.
When it comes to community access, Habershaw said there are events from outside parties all of the time.
“I think we’re the only school used,” he said with a laugh. “I have building use forms all of the time.”
In regards to parking, Habershaw said Vets has “more than adequate” parking. He also pointed out that over 50 percent of the population either walks, drives or is driven to school, so there is adequate room on busses for students.
“The congestion coming in here in the morning is tight, but it’s the same at Pilgrim,” said committee member Ed Racca.
The committee also seemed especially interested in Vets’ four academies. Habershaw explained that one of his goals as principal a few years ago was to create smaller learning communities, which he called academies. For example, the Career Academy is for freshmen that may be at risk but could succeed in the Career Center as sophomores.
“If we could get this ninth grader through to the Career Center, we could save them,” said Habershaw.
He pointed out that the first class that participated in Vets’ Career Academy graduated in June with a 50 percent success rate. He believes that will only improve.
The Bio-Tech Academy is more career-based, while the Athletics and Leadership Academies are leadership and community service centered.
Later, the discussion turned to if a tour of Toll Gate was needed. It is essentially decided Winman Junior High School will not be touched and the Career Center is housed in Toll Gate as well. As a result, it is assumed by many that Toll Gate will not change.
However, the committee decided a tour of Toll Gate should be done in the spirit of fairness, as well as to judge possible expansion of the Career Center down the line and to see how the school could accommodate increased population.
“Logistically, it’s probably not going to happen,” said committee member Nancy Plumb about closing Toll Gate. “But it’s probably good to see what facilities are there.”
Committee member David Testa said it was important to look at the building that would see increased population. This could become increasingly necessary since Toll Gate is the smallest of the three.
“I think we need to see exactly what we are putting these kids into,” said Testa.
The possibility of expanding the Career Center 10 or 15 years down the road also came up as something the committee should consider as they make consolidation plans.
While Superintendent Richard D’Agostino was in agreement that a tour of Toll Gate would be fine if people want to, he seemed to lean toward Toll Gate being taken out of the conversation.
“When you look at the facility, it’s not our fault they built a high school and a junior high school right next to the elementary school and the career center …We can’t be penalized by what they did,” said the superintendent in regards to if people question Toll Gate not being looked at the same way as it’s counterparts.
D’Agostino continued, however, to express that no decision has been made regarding what will happen to the three high schools. This is just a discussion looking at student population and facilities.
“We purposely haven’t said anything about what high school. We’re just taking high schools, number-wise; do we need three high schools?” said D’Agostino.
And that discussion will continue until the committee has to present their proposal for consolidation to the School Committee in January. In addition to the two upcoming tours of Pilgrim and Toll Gate, the committee also requested a possible schedule breakdown for a possible combined high school. Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, is still going through the process of creating mock schedules and class sizes for that situation. He explained that he is taking the smallest facility, Toll Gate, and seeing how the increased population from the largest high school, Pilgrim, fits.
“If that fits, which I’m confident it will, then this building [Vets] will fit as well,” said Mullen.
The committee is set to tour Pilgrim with Principal Marie Cote on Monday afternoon; the Toll Gate tour was not scheduled but will occur.