Panel likely to call for closure of high school


Yesterday, as the Long-Term Facilities Planning Committee was preparing for their third and final high school tour, Warwick School administrators felt the tours were an important step moving toward a final recommendation, which is likely to include the closing of a high school.

The committee, which has been charged with creating a proposal for facilities to present to the School Committee in January, has been discussing consolidation at the high school and junior high school level and began taking tours of the three schools three weeks ago. Warwick Veterans Memorial High School was followed by Pilgrim High School and a tour of Toll Gate was done yesterday.

“The committee has decided to reserve comment [on the individual buildings] until all three buildings have been toured,” said Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino in a phone interview yesterday.

In previous meetings, discussion has been focused on the possibility of closing a high school, taking a year to convert the facility into a junior high and then closing Gorton and Aldrich Junior Highs. The committee decided taking tours of the schools was important before recommending any closing.

Director of Secondary Education Dennis Mullen said the committee is looking at how easy it is to transition from a high school to junior high, but they should also consider the possibility of a middle school model down the line.

“I think any of our high schools could be converted to fit the middle school model,” said Mullen in a phone interview yesterday.

The proposed scenario would be to close the high school facility for one year, take the year to make necessary improvements, student schedules and other transitional decisions, and open as a junior high the following fall.

D’Agostino explained that a committee member was kind enough to create a rubric that members have been bringing with them on tours. He said the committee members have yet to complete the rubrics but are taking notes during the tours based on the items listed, such as classroom sizes, facilities available and technology. The school principals give the tours, and the committee members are encouraged to ask questions.

D’Agostino said that although the committee has been presented with population and room utilization data, actually being in the buildings and seeing rooms firsthand is important.

“Looking at numbers is one thing,” said D’Agostino. “To say we have three or four computer labs is one thing.”

The superintendent said it is important to actually go into the building and see the technology in those computer labs, as well as the physical set up of the space. He said paying attention to things such as the condition of the buildings, access to the building, the technology needs, room sizes, and the condition of important areas such as the cafeteria and auditorium are just some of the important things to consider.

“I think it’s important they see those types of things,” said D’Agostino. “Those are all questions I think are important.”

Mullen, who was previously principal of Pilgrim, agreed that seeing the building is key to the process.

“I think it’s important to see the buildings where the students will be going,” said Mullen.

As someone with experience in the high school, Mullen said he recommends looking at room size, the configuration of the building, how easily students can travel through it during the day, and other simple yet important things, such as the number of lockers.

Going into the tour of Toll Gate, D’Agostino admits that the approach is different. Because Winman Junior High is not under consideration to be closed at this time, it has been speculated that Toll Gate would not be selected as the high school facility to be converted to a new junior high. There was even discussion as to if a tour of the newest high school (it was built in 1970, Vets in 1955, and Pilgrim in 1962) would be necessary.

It was ultimately decided that Toll Gate would be toured to see classrooms.

“When you look at Toll Gate, the committee decided they wanted to see Toll Gate so they can at least look at a classroom,” said D’Agostino. “We want this to be equitable across the board.”

Should Toll Gate remain open, the committee will need to make sure the size of classrooms is appropriate for a larger population.

“I think what we are going to find is if you take the name off the building, the classrooms are interchangeable,” said D’Agostino. “They are very similar.”

He said if the classrooms at Toll Gate are comparable to those in Vets and Pilgrim, there is equal playing ground. He says he found that looking at Vets and Pilgrim.

At a meeting over the summer, a motion was passed that the committee’s recommendation would include consolidation at the secondary level.

“I think the motion was we need to consolidate,” said D’Agostino. The superintendent believes that consolidation is still the path to go down.

“The data we have produced [enrollment, room utilization, etc.], the continuing decline in our [student] population, warrants consolidation,” said D’Agostino. “Consolidation, I believe, will strengthen our academic support and our athletic support.”

Mullen suspects the transition to two high schools will be the final recommendation.

“I think, based on what I have heard through discussions, [the committee members] are amenable that we need to look at closing a high school first,” said Mullen.

In addition to the tour of Toll Gate, Mullen presented his population scenario for a combined population in the high school last night. For a few weeks, Mullen had been working to see if Pilgrim would fit in Toll Gate, the smallest high school.

Mullen explained that he took 50 percent of the population of Pilgrim, including special education students, combined it with the population of Toll Gate and created mock schedules, room utilization and staff needs.

“It ended up being close to 1,500 [students],” said Mullen. “It fit.”

Mullen had previously explained that if collapsing Pilgrim into Toll Gate fit, any closing combination the committee decided on would fit. Mullen also pointed out a 50/50 split of the population of the closing high school is not guaranteed; it would depend on transportation needs and other factors.

Mullen also presented the October student population to the committee last night; the October figure is considered the constant figure looked at.

“It’s down,” said Mullen of the population trend. “The junior high is pretty static, but the high school, for the most part, it’s downward trajectory.”

Now that Mullen has been able to present a lot of data, he believes the data collection portion is now complete. He feels the next step will be a lot of questions and answers, as well as looking at the financial and transportation impacts.

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