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Parents explain selection of Vets
Jennifer Rodrigues

While the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee did include the three top administrators in Warwick Schools, it also included a number of parents who all voted the same, for Warwick Veterans Memorial High School to be re-purposed as a junior high by fall 2015.

“We’ve taken it very seriously,” said Jackie Harris-Connor, one of the parents on the committee. Harris-Connor has been on the committee since former superintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak created it in November 2011.

Harris-Connor pointed out that a lot had been said about members of the committee all having personal ties to Pilgrim, and therefore voted for Vets, but that is not the case.

“We are all from different schools, but we all came to the same conclusion,” said Harris-Connor, who admitted her children are in the Pilgrim feeder system.

Ed Racca, another committee member, said no one to his knowledge discussed which school they were voting for prior to the vote, and the results were surprising.

“I was kind of surprised all of the parents had the same opinion,” said Racca.

And Racca is an example of someone who truly voted for what he thought was the better choice. His wife is a graduate of Vets, his oldest daughter is a sophomore at the school and his younger daughter is in the eighth grade set to go to high school next fall.

“I thought a lot about this,” said Racca.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Racca pointed out that he was unable to attend the tour of Pilgrim with the committee a few weeks ago but felt he knew a great deal about the facility due to his time as a parent volunteer in the building.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in that building over the last six years,” said Racca. “Probably more so than any other school in the city.”

David Testa is another parent who had been on the committee since it was created, and was “thoroughly convinced” that consolidation was going to have to happen.

“No one was questioning consolidation,” said Testa, whose children are in the Pilgrim system. “I think the immediate needs are we have more buildings than we need.”

He added that the birth rate is declining, the population of Rhode Island is declining and the population in Warwick is declining, due in part to airport expansion into the Vets area.

“I don’t see a baby boom like we’ve had before happening,” said Testa in regards to comments about a future population boom.

Amie Galipeau is a parent of students in the Toll Gate system, and is the Warwick Council PTA president. She also has been on the committee since 2011 and says she knew consolidation would be up for discussion over this past session.

“I think at that point, I thought it was a possibility, but I needed to see the facts,” said Galipeau.

All of the members also had their own reasons to vote for the re-purposing of Vets over Pilgrim, but Racca was adamant to say the decision had nothing to do with the performance of either school; the administration, faculty and staff at all three Warwick high schools “are excellent.”

“In my opinion, it was location,” said Racca.

With Pilgrim located in the northeast and Toll Gate High School in the southwest, he believed it made sense to keep those facilities as high schools, essentially dividing the city in half.

Harris-Connor said the proximity of Toll Gate and Pilgrim to an I-95 on-ramp played into her decision because it allows for easier transport of sports teams and students to the Career Center.

She also felt the Vets facility was easier to navigate and more suited for younger students, and could be divided by hallway to maintain the learning teams format of the junior highs now.

Also, Racca pointed out that the Pilgrim feeder school system historically has the largest population, a trend that is predicted to continue.

Testa, who said he often conducts his own individual research in addition to the information provided to him through the committee, agreed with that.

“Pilgrim tends to be the highest population. Looking at the future, from kindergarten on, Pilgrim is still the highest,” he said.

“The majority of students come from Pilgrim,” said Racca, adding that projection models he has seen have that remaining to be true.

Racca also felt Pilgrim was better for possible expansion, especially in the vocational program.

Testa said the layout of Pilgrim versus Vets is one of the key factors that he used to make his decision.

“I visualize the kids that are walking through the building,” said Testa, recalling his junior high school that was a big square building. “Pilgrim is a big sprawling building,” he added. “I though the layout was more appropriate for a high school.”

But Testa did point out that the condition of the two buildings was very balanced. For example, Testa felt Vets Athletics was better, but Pilgrim had a better library.

“There’s absolutely a balance,” he said.

Galipeau said there were a number of factors that made her lean toward Vets, including the necessary improvements to the roof, boiler and elevator, Pilgrim’s special ed program and population, as well as location.

“I just felt that [Vets] was more centralized for a junior high,” said Galipeau.

It was actually Racca who first proposed a two-high school, two-junior high school system for the district back in January.

“We don’t have the enrollment [for three high schools],” said Racca. “We can barely form a sports team at any location.”

Racca believes consolidating to two high schools will be an advantage in both athletics and academics.

“When you’re on a team having losing season after losing season, that doesn’t encourage you to stick with that team,” said Racca.

He also believes by consolidating, the number of students in AP and honors classes at each school will increase, as well as regular classes and extra-curricular, allowing for more dynamic discussions in the classroom.

“It’s very difficult to run a class with five or six kids,” said Racca, admitting that there is less one-on-one interaction between a teacher and a student but more opportunity for interaction with peers.

Testa recalled when Racca first proposed the two-high school, two-junior high school model, calling the idea “provocative” and “interesting.”

Testa compared it to Cranston Public Schools, which has a larger population with only two high schools. He believes the two schools are more than equipped for increased population.

He also pointed out that according to population data, Pilgrim has 1,400 students as recently as 2005.

“The two remaining high schools are going to see populations they saw not too long ago,” he said.

Testa also brought up the benefit of the $4.4 million that will be available to the School Department should Vets become a junior high and Gorton and Aldrich close.

“They’re talking a lot of savings. Every cent of those savings needs to go into the schools, not salary and benefits,” said Testa. “I believe the administration when they say they are going to pour the money into the building.”

Harris-Connor said she did not expect the plan to have two high schools and two junior highs, but she feels it will work.

“I think we can all live with it,” said Harris-Connor. “It allows us the availability of space. There will be enough room at either building for more students.”

All of the parents agree that they are happier with the process the committee followed over the summer and fall than compared to the situation with Gorton Junior High School last spring.

“I feel a lot more comfortable with this recommendation than the recommendation last year [to close Gorton],” said Galipeau, saying it was shortsighted. “It was putting a Band-Aid on it.”

She also pointed out that it would have delayed the middle school model and all-day K, and cost millions of dollars.

“Those junior highs were going to cost a lot of money to get them where they need to be,” said Galipeau of the condition of Aldrich and Gorton.

“I liked how he [Superintendent Richard D’Agostino] included all of us and made the effort to make sure we had all the information we needed. They were terrific, all three of them,” said Harris-Connor.

Last time around, Harris-Connor said the use of a short-term and long-term committee left half of the people in the dark, but this summer was like night and day.

“We were given every bit of information. We worked really well together,” she said. “It was positive this time around.”

Testa said he was pleased that the committee now has a long-term vision; something he believes was missing last time around.

“What we’ve come up with now, closing a high school and re-purposing it as a junior high, then closing the two junior highs [Aldrich and Gorton],” said Testa, “it still allows you to fit middle school, which I hope happens quickly. Then it frees up room in the elementary schools for all-day K.”

Testa feels that once people see those other improvements on the horizon, it makes more sense.

“Once you strip the emotion out of it, it’s hard to say why not to consolidate,” said Testa. “I understand you get attached to your school.”

Testa also pointed out that even though Pilgrim is not closing, his family would be affected. His youngest daughter is in sixth grade and will attend Aldrich, the new Vets Junior High, and then (likely) Pilgrim in just three years should the recommendation pass.

“Am I impacted? Technically, yes,” he said.

Both Harris-Connor and Testa said had the votes gone the other way to close Pilgrim, they would have been fine with it.

In response to comments they are in the administration’s back pocket or are puppets, they say that is far from true.

“We’re not run like puppets. This is a well-rounded committee; no one tells me how to vote,” said Galipeau.

Although Harris-Connor is not sure how long it will take the administration to compile the committee’s findings into a report and have the committee approve it, she did predict the final written recommendation would be ready to go to the School Committee within the next month.


Comments
12 comments on this item

I support the committee's recommendation as a long time coming. However, the declining population in RI and in Warwick is NOT "...due in part to airport expansion into the Vets area." Rather, it is due largely to deteriorating economic opportunities in RI. Somehow, communities adjacent to Manchester Airport in NH continue to expand at the same time the continues to expand. Why? Economic opportunities in NH ALSO continue to expand.

Second, I don't buy Mr. Racca's argument that Warwick's athletic futility is attributable to enrollment. Pilgrim is not significantly smaller than Shea, Central, or West Warwick, while being significantly larger than Rogers and St. Raphael. Yet, the Pats' football team either has been or is soon to be rolled by all those schools. Ditto Tollgate, who was beaten 35-6 by a smaller Johnston High, and 40-14 by a small Westerly High. High school teams, for the most part, play against schools with a similar enrollment. The difference is that many other communities still place importance on high school athletics, while many in the Warwick school system (adults, not the kids) stopped caring years ago. It will be interesting to see if Pilgrim and TG move up to Division 1 in most sports next year when their new enrollments would justify it.

The reason Toll Gate and Pilgrim suck in football is the coaching! enough said

There are so many points that I would like to refute in this article I could write an editorial. So, since this is a comment section, I will just keep it simple, as food for thought for everyone. My vote, keep the 3 high schools open and come up with another plan. My thoughts for all...

1. Why are the 3 administrators on the committee?

2. Why drop the committee from 19 to 15?

3. Google search 'vacant schools vandalized", its stunning, shocking and hopefully not in your neighborhood.

4. Who is cutting the grass, maintaining empty buildings, providing security for closed schools?

5. Ms. Harris-Conner needs to map quest her " I-95 on-ramp played into her decision" Vets is closer to WACTC, and there is less than 5 minutes difference in travel time to ANY other school in the state from either Pilgrim or Vets. ie... Mt. Hope, Westerly, East Greenwich, or Burriville..it does not matter.

6. Since we're on the net...lets search "class size and success" I'll agree that classrooms will be full and that is cost effective, but do you want your child or your neighbors child in a class of 35 others?

7. Please explain this one to me...“It’s very difficult to run a class with five or six kids,” said Racca, admitting that there is less one-on-one interaction between a teacher and a student but more opportunity for interaction with peers." eh?

8. Sports teams in Warwick are fair because the kids have no Jr. High programs. Westerly does, WW does, Coventry does...any wonder why our teams are mediocre?

9. How about the 8th grade to the high schools?

10. Thank you for the forum.

NickJohansson:

1) The committee, like just about any kind of study committee I can think of, was comprised of administrators, teachers, parents - in other words, stakeholders with a variety of backgrounds. This is nothing out of the ordinary.

2) I don't know why, but I suspect it had more to do with people leaving than a purposeful paring of "dissenters" (which I assume is your implication).

3) Those pictures aren't from Warwick, are they? Yes, vacant buildings do get vandalized. So do occupied ones. That has more to do with the type of community and policing being done than the fact that they are empty. The schools, even the closed ones, are in neighborhoods where people are concerned and will notice things (and so will the police). No one wants a blighted school in their neighborhood and, for the most part, Warwick has done a decent job of preventing the sort of vandalism found on Google. This leads to.....

4) The City of Warwick actually owns the school buildings-not the school department--but the school dep't is responsible for maintenance/upkeep. However, when a school closes it is turned back over to the City to maintain and, ultimately, to sell or dispose of. This is nothing new. Several elementary schools were closed in the 80's and have been converted to offices or a women's shelter (the old Conimicut Elementary). More recently, they have been utilized for other educational/school admin purposes (Drum Rock/John Greene). The most recent grievous example was Potowomut, but that is apparently on track to be torn down and replaced with a fire dept. by the City of Warwick. In other words, the buildings don't stay vacant or unwatched.

5) This was one of MANY factors that went into the decision-making process, but I agree that it isn't that big of a deal.

6) As I pointed out in my comments on a previous story (http://warwickonline.com/stories/On-a-roll-to-save-Vets-High-,86833?category_id=4&town_id=1&sub_type=stories) , simply put, the Warwick Teachers contract won't allow for 35 kids in a classroom ("class size shall not exceed 28 on a weighted basis" (p.23, Section 12-6.4 (A) of Warwick Teachers contract - http://www.warwickschools.org/PDF_Files/WTUContract2012-2014.pdf). The max is 28 and the desired goal is 25. That includes weighted numbers, by the way, so the actual bodies in classrooms could still be far less.

7) That quote is directly linked to his previous statement about having more kids in a school provides more opportunities for more and different AP (or regular) class offerings as well as more "dynamic" classroom discussions. There are two points embedded in this comment. 1) Right now, it's difficult to justify a class for 5 or 6 kids who may be interested in AP Basket Weaving but with more kids there may now be 10 or 12 interested and the class can be offered. 2) For those AP classes offered (say, AP History) with only 5 or 6 kids currently, more kids will lead to more dynamic discussions. Yes, the student/teacher ratio my jump to 15:1 (and no more than 28:1!), but my guess is that most teachers can still probably handle that. This is not a bad thing.

8) I completely agree with you on this point! And maybe some of the savings that are captured from closing old buildings like Aldrich/Gorton can be used to start up Jr. High sports programs and better fund current student activities. That is the real goal here and it is up to the public to ensure that the money saved really does go back to the kids (not adults)!

9) Maybe that will happen, but I suspect many parents are wary of little Jack or Jill being in the same building as HS seniors.

10) Yes, thanks!

I understand stakeholders need to be part of a committee. I love that idea, and that would be a major oversight if they were not on the committee, however, I assume this LTFPC will recommend to the school committee, what the majority of the LTFPC votes. So if 3 administrators are on the same page, which they better be, and if only 15 members are on the committee, then they need just 5 of the other 12 votes to meet their agenda. That sounds a little fishy, don’t ya think? If the committee was comprised of more members, (members who toured all the schools, by the way), then I would have no problem with the recommendation. PS, I am aware of the 13-2 vote. I don’t believe that teachers we’re part of the 15. I see the Superintendent, three directors, the PTA president, 3 principals, a teacher assistant, an administrative assistant and few parents.

2. Seeing the above committee, yes my assumption has those implications.

3. and 4.Those photos are NOT from Warwick and your correct Potowomut School was damaged. In the 1980’s vandals were not after the copper like they are now.

5. You misunderstood or I was ambiguous in my comment over I-95 and the Career Center. This committee member’s vote “played into her decision” over which school to recommend. Had she really been told what the truth was, was her vote changing?

6. 35 kids in a classroom was an over-exaggeration for emphasis. As much as many cities rail against unions, and for many good reasons, I am thankful the class size requirement is in the contract language. And if you think more AP classes will run, I think you are respectfully out of your mind. I think the extra classes will be more math labs, more English labs, and more ways for kids to pass the NECAP/PARCC tests. You have to admit I am correct there. Talented and Gifted programs have almost disappeared, in place of remedial work. Who really suffers?

7. Do you think the money saved will go to Athletics? Athletics??

8. My point…why are we rushing this for next year? Parents need to plan. If this is the recommendation, fine but, let’s have this discussion. A discussion of clear heads, not something done during the holidays, or a public meeting at 10am, when no one can attend. Let this city NOT be the one with backdoor deals. Transparency please.

9. And one more thing, when will the committee tell the parents which schools will go to which high school? Why are they waiting to tell the parents?

NickJohansson,

1. You do realize the Warwick School Committee has the final decision regarding the the recommendations made by the LTFPC?

2. You do realize that the LTFPC meetings have always been open to the public, and that all documents involving the LTFPC are available to anyone who wishes to have access to them?

3. Are you familiar with the contractual agreement between the WTU and the WPS? The WTU does not allow for 35 students per classroom.

4. Regarding 95...It was NOT the main reason for anyone's decision....the MAIN reason was Vets requires costly improvements and the other two high schools do not. All three high schools need repairs, replacement of lockers, desks and an overhaul of the locker rooms which can be done in a short amount of time. Vets (alone) needs a new boiler, roof and elevator (very important).

4.5 Everyone on the Committee, myself included, felt that the access to the highway was ONE of the reasons Pilgrim and Toll Gate would be preferable, it certainly wasn't the most important. It was not a deal breaker. Please be realistic.

5. At this time, the schools are between 40 and 45% capacity...MONEY PITS! Consolidation is necessary, there is no MONEY for improvements for the buildings, for technology, for arts and music programs, athletics...shall I go on?

6. Do you know where 86% of the budgeted money for the WPS goes each year? It's not to the buildings that house the students of Warwick. It's not to the textbooks for the students of Warwick. It's not for athletics for the students of Warwick. It's not for technology for the students of Warwick. Shall I go on?

7. It is not the decision of the LTFPC to advocate for curriculum models. We have been charged with finding a way to utilize the existing facilities in a cost effective way. The LTFPC is making a "recommendation" not a decision. Two very different words, with very different meanings. For all we know, the School Committee might look at the "recommendation" and say "Back to the drawing board." If that is the case, then we will begin the process again, and we will devote our time until we find the right plan.

8. Teachers on the Committee? I cannot say for certain why there are no teachers on the Committee at this time. Maybe that question can be directed to the Committee Chair, Dr. D'Agostino. As to why the Committee was reduced from 19 to 15? People dropped out. Simple. Dr. D'Agostino did suggest we might work more efficiently with a smaller Committee, BUT Committee members expressed a different view, and the majority of the original Committee stayed on.

9. Gee, I wonder why the junior high schools have no more intramural sports programs? Could it be because there is NO MONEY for them?

10. In the 15 years since I have lived here, I've had a child successfully graduate from Pilgrim and become an Emergency Room Nurse, and I have two other children, currently in junior high. In those 15 years...NOTHING has been done to improve the buildings our children are educated in and it is a travesty. Where has your outrage been focused? Don't belittle the members of the Committee because their thoughts and opinions are different from your own. Do something productive.

1) There should be teachers on the LTFPC.

2) Athletics/related transportation costs, in my opinion, should not be an OVERRIDING factor on which school(s) to close or reclassify.

I was surprised that the committee recommended that Vets become a Junior High & that Aldrich & Gorton be closed. I expected that one HS & one JHS would end up be recommended/closed but the committee basically has arrived at the same point. The LTFPC committee/The Warwick School Committee/Warwick School officials NOW NEED TO SCHEDULE PUBLIC FORUMS to explain to taxpayers/parents/teachers/students how it arrived at its recommendation & WHEN(Sept.,2014 or 2015) the plan will be implemented.

It appears from this article/& the comments within that, apparently, Aldrich & Gorton require extensive improvements long term; & that Vets becoming a JHS will help solve some of these issues.

Now, the Warwick School Dept. administration needs to convince the education community that this recommendation is what is BEST for Warwick education long term. Population in the city & student enrollment have been/& are expected to continue to decline. Warwick has TOO MANY school buildings that are costly to maintain. The education dollars to continue to fund it, at its present level, will not be there/available.

As far as whatever buildings/facilities are closed, I suggest that they SOLD with the proceeds used specifically for education programs(AP & other education course offerings).

I realize its difficult to close schools within a neighborhood/community that parents/students/teachers/etc. have grown attached to through time & tradition; it appears Warwick has reached a crossroads-it basically is the same size as Cranston(a school system that has experienced & IS STILL experiencing financial difficulties because of choices/decisions it did not make in a timely manner). For Warwick to continue to be a good school system, it needs to make those decisions now.

John Stark

1. Yes I know.

2. Where are those documents now? I know many people looking for those documents.

3. I told you the 35 kids was an over-exaggeration for emphasis. I have read the contract, its online.

4. Now, hold on here....As a referee I have been in practically every school in RI. Every school except the private ones and the new ones all need new locker rooms. Ever smell the sewer in the TG locker room? How much does a new boiler cost? 100k?, I thought the Pilgrim roof leaked like a sieve and the tiles were all coming down. That sounds like a bigger problem than the ones at Vets. And the committee wants to send upwards of 600 more students to Pilgrim? A teacher friend told me one small section of Vets does drip during heavy rain, but needs a new roof and that recommendation came from the NESAC committee. Don't get me started on those characters.., and an elevator repair, (which rises one floor), my how much money can that actually be?

Ok this is the last time I'm going to say this. I am being realistic. Pilgrim and Vets are virtually the same distance from route 95. That shouldn't be a consideration at all! If we're talking about sports teams, did anyone consider the smaller busses for some of the smaller teams? Tennis, track, x-country, golf, gymnastics, swimming, all smaller teams, less fuel, more savings.

5. Before you go on, where does the 40-45% capacity come from? Are you telling me that walking thru the school halls, more or less 6 of every 10 classrooms are empty? At all 3 schools? Or are you saying that at full capacity +/- 2000 students there are only 900ish students at the school?

Moreover, if there is not money for improvements for the building, tech, arts, etc...where is this money coming from, the electricity costs and building maintenance of the jr. high schools?

And by the way, who is moving all the equipment from Vets to Pilgrim this summer? Who is setting all those computers up? Getting them online? What about technical education? The art rooms, shops, etc. How about all the science equipment? God knows what they have in those rooms. The smartboards, the printers, the overhead projectors, the sports equipment, the textbooks. Shall I go on? ? Imagine a Hurricane (no pun intended). Imagine a wet summer when it's really hard to move electronic equipment or like this past summer when we had 5 weeks of 94 degree weather. Someone has two months to do this? gulp...

Where is the money for the new boilers, elevator and roof at Vets for 2014-15? And most importantly to fix the fields, fix the roof, paint the walls, improve the technology at Pilgrim for the influx of 600 kids during the summer?

6. Where does the 86% of the money go? I think your hinting at salary and benefits. 669 teachers? Remember, 19 school librarians at $81k each? 28 guidance councilors at $80k? 3 groundskeepers and 3 painters at $50k each or maybe (line 5110 three helpers) at $41k. Schools are not a business. As you know there is little form of revenues in schools.

8. Ya, teachers on the Committee!!

9. Lastly and importantly, I am very happy for you and your ER Nurse child. I am not belittling the committee in the least. I am having an adult conversation and thank you for being civil. Too many comments from others on this topic or others are short sighted to say the least. I want the school committee to go back to the drawing board and come up with a different plan and not RUSH into something. Thank you for your time, if you were on that committee. I just had questions, and this is the forum. I hope to speak up and I hope you will speak up also if you see 'shady' deals happening. This decision needs to be about YOUR kids and shouldn't be how much money the city can save.

NickJohansson: It wasn't John Stark you were addressing in your last post, it was me.

I would be happy to let you make copies of my documents that I was given. I am also positive that you can get copies of the documents from the school department..any documents handed out at the meetings are in the public domain. Contact the School Department and they will provide you with either a link (so that you may download them yourself) or maybe they will copy them for you, I believe the Beacon also has copies of the documentation. Good luck.

I have read through all the materials publicly available and have not seen any form of a "long term plan". What I have seen are some very important questions raised by committee members that were disregarded. In response to a question about a 10 year plan for the Career Center, one committee member stated that ten years was too far out to think about. That comment is very indicative of the mind frame of the majority of the committee - short-term, bandaid solutions in absence of a long range vision/plan for our schools. One committee member stated that the birth rate and population are declining. While the RI population is aging, the state population is expected to increase slightly and the birth rate is expected to remain stable. There may be a projected decline in Warwick's population, but other cities/towns are expected to grow. Another parent asked a very thoughtful question regarding why the school population is declining. That is something the City and School Committee should be jointly addressing as surrounding communities are growing and Warwick continues to shrink. Many parents/families have already given up on the Warwick schools (I can name 20-30 in my area without pause), the remaining engaged families are awaiting this plan to determine their commitment and I venture to say that without a real plan to improve our schools, they will give up and the schools will continue to decline. Why not look at the actual census numbers of school age kids and examine how many are not enrolled in Warwick schools? Analyze the age groups that are shrinking, are they school age children and their parents? That would be a indicative of families leaving the City due to the schools. Even if the recommendation is to close a high school, a full analysis of all day kindergarten, middle school model, operational planning, technology planning, comprehensive capital improvement plan for all schools should be integrated to have a full understanding of the costs/viability of the recommendation over the long term.

Does anyone recognize the hypocrisy in the Mayor and the City Council soon to decide whether to authorize the Warwick Sewer Authority permission to borrow $60 million on infra-structure improvements and new sewer projects while Warwick School were denied the same right and its building continue to deteriorate and no new school being built in over 40 years?

Yes.

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