There was nothing bittersweet about the party Friday afternoon and evening at John Wickes School. It was all bitter.
That’s not to say kids didn’t have fun doing interpretative dancing to the booming music in the all-purpose room, getting their faces painted or mugging for their photos with plenty of props at the photo booth. And there was nothing bitter to the fond memories shared by many who had attended the elementary school. Some, in fact, were students when the school opened in 1955. Darius Goff was mayor then, and Warwick was on the verge of its rapid growth as the population moved to the suburbs was a city of 53,000 residents. Today, it has more than 82,000.
But there was no escaping that closing a neighborhood school is difficult – it’s bitter. There’s no way of sugarcoating it. If it’s any consolation, Wickes is not alone. When schools close on June 20, Wickes, Randall Holden and John Brown Francis Schools won’t be reopening in September. Wickes and Holden will be shuttered. JBF will be re-purposed as the Early Childhood Center that is presently located at Drum Rock that is part of the Robert Shapiro Toll Gate Complex. Drum Rock will be re-purposed by the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, which is also part of the complex, for its programs.
Roy Costa, principal at Wickes since 1999, was not good at hiding the loss he feels, although he put on a happy face to greet students, families and visitors during the four-hour event. He welled up as he headed down an empty corridor to his office, words to describe his feelings impossible to find. Costa has been offered the principal’s job at Greenwood, where some of the Wickes students will go. In all, Wickes students will be divided between six schools.
All elementary schools will go through a transition in the coming academic year, as they become K through 5th grade schools. Sixth graders will be housed in what are now the city’s two junior high schools – Vets and Winman – that will transform into middle schools housing grades 6, 7 and 8.
Friday evening’s open house was a reunion for some and an occasion to reminisce. Roberta Herchen related how she was a first grader at the school when it opened; she was joined by Glena Topp and Diane Perreault, who likewise attended Wickes in the early days. They traded names of teachers – they all could remember them – and talked about walking to school through the woods from Buttonwoods. They also walked home for lunch.
Ironically, in one way or another, they all ended up working in education. Topp became a teachers’ assistant; before retiring, Herchen was a teacher in Johnston and Perreault spent 14 years as the secretary to the principal at Wickes.
Herchen said Wickes hasn’t changed that much in all the years. The only addition was the all-purpose room that required a portion of the auditorium to create a corridor to the room. It’s still a solid building in spite of its age. But that’s not determining the school’s future.
With declining student enrollment across the city, consolidation is hardly new. This time it is Wickes, Randall Holden and JBF and there’s no escaping the loss being felt, although it was the adults, more than the students, who were talking about it Friday.
Costa summed up the end of an era for Wickes in a letter to parents, faculty and students.
“This is not the end but the beginning of a new, scary and exciting chapter in all our lives,” Costa wrote.
Then quoting Walt Disney, Costa, renowned for his love of Mickey Mouse, added, “Goodbye may seem forever. Farewell is like the end, but in my heart is the memory, and there you will always be.”