By JOHN HOWELL The city is faced with a compressed schedule to get a question on the 2022 ballot asking voters if they support a bond to build new schools to replace Pilgrim and Toll Gate. The first of those deadlines is Feb. 15. Not only is February
The city is faced with a compressed schedule to get a question on the 2022 ballot asking voters if they support a bond to build new schools to replace Pilgrim and Toll Gate. The first of those deadlines is Feb. 15.
Not only is February critical for the department to proceed to the second stage for the department to advance the plan with the state Department of Education, but ultimately should voters approve the new schools to have them operational by 2026.
Foremost questions to many are what will the schools cost, will voters approve the money to build them and can the city afford them?
The projected cost of the two schools was being calculated as of Friday and was not expected to be finalized as of last night when the City Council was to be briefed on the project. Based on the cost of the East Providence High School that opened last fall, new Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools with projected enrollments of 1,100 to 1,200 students each could collectively cost upwards of $380 million. Also critical to the financial picture, apart from other bonding the city may seek, is state reimbursement. School Committee member and chair of the school building committee, David Testa thinks reimbursement could be 50 percent of the cost of the schools and maybe as high as 55 percent.
The East Providence High School cost $189.5 million of which RIDE considered $143 million eligible for reimbursement at a rate of 74.5 percent.
Mayor Frank Picozzi said Tuesday he is scheduled to visit East Providence High today. He is concerned by the cost of the schools and whether the city would be in the position to pay for them, but if the numbers work he favors the approach.
“I’d rather build new rather than refurbish. It’s quicker and in the long run will probably cost less,” he said.
Testa said the plan for both schools is to be built on their current football and adjoining athletic fields. When construction is completed in a year to a year and a half, the existing buildings would come down and the fields relocated to those sites.
Testa said the details haven’t been worked out as to where athletic teams from the two schools would practice, or for that matter, hold games. As career and technical instruction classrooms would be incorporated into both of the new schools, the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center on the Toll Gate campus would be partially razed.
Steve Gothberg, director of construction and capital projects, said some of the career center might be retained as a field house for the athletics program as well as the Tides Restaurant that is part of the Career and Technical Center’s culinary program.
The former Drum Rock Elementary School that is now being used for Career and Tech Center programs would be demolished. Testa said RIDE views removal of the building as a plus and as an incentive would increase the city’s current base reimbursement rate of 35 percent to the 50 to 55 percent he is hopeful the city could receive.
Toll Gate is Warwick’s newest school and it was built almost 50 years ago.
“That’s nearly three generations,” said Testa observing that a student today is taking classes in the same room that his father and grandfather used. There is more to building new schools than the same buildings being used for generations. Today’s schools are designed to reflect the work place with flexible space where students can collaborate. Common work places as well as areas where students can find a space of their own are incorporated into the designs of the buildings.
Plans for the two schools have been developed by Saccoccio and Associates of Cranston in partnership with Saam Architecture of Boston.
Planning for the upgrading of the two high schools started more than five years ago following consolidation of both elementary and secondary schools. With the reduction from three high schools to two, Veterans High School transitioned into a middle school to house students who would have otherwise gone to Aldrich and Gorton. Winman Middle School also picked up students from Gorton and Aldrich.
After community workshops where options to address the high schools were discussed including a single new school for the entire city and just a new Pilgrim and a refurbished Toll Gate a consensus was reached to refurbish the existing schools without closing them. The School Committee was in the final stages of those plans when the pandemic hit and everything was put on hold. When the wheels started turning again, RIDE had the experience of Lincoln’s decision to rehab its high school and that of East Providence to build anew. What RIDE found is that the extended project to rehab Lincoln not only extended the process but also negatively impacted the educational process.
Gothberg said RIDE feared the same thing would happen in Warwick, and while the committee favored rehabbing the schools, RIDE recommended new schools.
In order to gain RIDE Stage 2 approval of the new schools, the plan needs City Council endorsement. No vote was projected at Wednesday night’s meeting - the meeting was designed to be informational and, besides, no cost estimates were expected. Those estimates are anticipated to be available by the Feb. 7 meeting when a vote would be needed to meet the RIDE deadline.
Gothberg said the two schools would essentially be the same, which could save on design and construction costs. He said the facades would differ to give them individuality. They would also be oriented differently with the three Pilgrim education wings facing east toward the Pilgrim Senior Center while those at Toll Gate would face west toward Route 2.
“We should be in the top five school districts in the state,” said Testa. He believes new high schools would have a positive impact on students and teachers and go a long way to enhancing Warwick as a place to live and raise a family. But he doesn’t see it as a panacea to Warwick’s poor performance in statewide testing. One change he wants to make is replacement of the seven period high school schedule with the block schedules used in other districts. The block schedule doubles classroom time.
“We’ve got to make as many opportunities for kids as we can,” he said.
Tetsa doesn’t see a single new high school as an alternative. Apart from having 2,000 to 2,200 students, he asks where could it be located. The center of the city is not an option because of the airport.
“I think Warwick is a two high school city,” he said.
As for what happens in the classroom, Testa said, “we’ve got to be laser focused on achievement. And referring to the statewide testing by which they are measured, he added, “we’ve got to teach them what we expect them to know.”
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