On December 12 the Cranston School Committee hosted the first of three community meetings for the families of Chester Barrows Elementary School to air their concerns about the proposal to close the building at the end of the current school year. The group gathered in the Media Center at Cranston East numbered approximately 30 and included the principals of both Barrows and Rhodes Elementary Schools as well as union representation.
School committee chairwoman Janice Ruggieri thanked all for coming and noted that the potential school closure issue was an important one and one in which it was important to have all information available.
Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse also thanked all for coming and summarized the events of the past weeks, in which a letter was sent home to Barrows families in November explaining the recommendation being made to the school committee for the closure of the school at the end of the year. At the December 4 work session of the school committee, Nota-Masse had further explained the reasoning for the recommendation.
“The considerations that were made for this recommendation include the decline in population in the area over the past several years, the fact that we have closed five classrooms at Barrows just this year alone and collapsed the classrooms, the fact that we are seeking to use resources more efficiently, and the support services and itinerants, those are staffing efficiencies we are seeking, the cost of maintenance and repairs and upkeep of an old building unfortunately which Barrows is, and also consideration of the new education requirements for construction all of that together comprised my reasoning for the closure to the school committee,” she said.
She continued, “The hearings that start tonight and two more after this in January in February is the public’s opportunity to ask questions and give information to the school committee before they vote on the recommendation. At this point, it is a recommendation. While I don’t believe that it came as a surprise to the community, I am fully aware that it is still a part of the community that is loved and respected by parents and students alike. Being here, listening to the conversation is important and I thank you for coming out. We don’t take this lightly. This isn’t something that I as the superintendent woke up one day and said ‘I think I’ll close a school,’ that’s not it. I am tasked with running the district efficiently and to the best of my ability and that is where this recommendation came from. We are working very hard with you as parents, Mrs. Antonelli, Ms. Williams and Mrs. Gamba who can’t be here tonight. We are making sure that if the school committee does approve this recommendation and go through with this, the transitions for your students will be a positive one with your input and with the collaboration of all of three schools going forward.”
Guests were given handouts that detailed the proposals for which students would attend which of the two elementary schools according to their street addresses. According to that data, “the students who live on Ashmont, Lynn, Dunham, Gail, Pearl, Villa, Calvin, Aumond, Kenmore, Western Promenade, Haddon Hill, Clifden, Beachmont, Netherland, Ingleside, Henry, Ferncrest (134-185) and Edgewood Blvd. would all be attending Edgewood Highland Elementary School while all other streets currently assigned to Barrows would be attending Rhodes Elementary School with the exception of this year’s fourth graders who will be in fifth grade next year and who live on Eldorado, Strathcona, Arcadia, 530-540 Park Ave., Park View Blvd., Lakeside and Fenner will attend Edgewood Highland for fifth grade.”
Assistant Superintendent Norma Cole addressed the proposed assignments of students from Barrows who would be attending the two other schools and how those decisions were made.
“When we looked at the streets in terms of making a determination for what students who live on which streets would go to Edgewood versus Rhodes, we looked at the number of students. Edgewood Highland already has two classes per grade. It is not our plan to open up another classroom at this time. However, we will be opening up classrooms at Rhodes to accommodate a higher percentage of students that would be shifted from Barrows to Rhodes if the school committee does vote on this recommendation,” Cole said. “The numbers on the sheets that you see on the bottom for each grade level, those are the numbers for each grade. Those are the students as of today. It is our grade to keep the numbers low going forward. We are not closing a school to overload two other schools. This is taken into consideration because of the population in the area. We also recognize that it is more efficient and effective for a school to have two classes per grade. It helps with support, teachers are able to collaborate together, and we’re enthused about being able to open up five classrooms at Rhodes to be able to accommodate a percentage of the Barrows students.”
Questions were then taken from the audience and a question arose about the Fielding Nair assessment report in which the Rhodes building had received a lower score than the Barrows building.
Ed Collins, director of plant operations for the district, explained that the FCI assessment score does not indicate that one building was worse than another but also took into account the replacement costs and repair costs for each building versus building new. “I think the replacement costs for both of them was close to $14 million so they’re very close in that. I think part of the reason they went that way is that Rhodes is a bigger school, it has more educational space and it can fit more students,” Collins said. “We could probably go back and forth about what buildings should go and what buildings should stay because the majority of our schools are in tough shape and they all need work. Just be careful of that FCI number. It’s not really ranking which schools are better or worse, what it’s ranking is what schools are better off for a replacement and I think this is the first move in a long line of improvements that the school district needs to make.”
Nota-Masse addressed the issue of transporting students to the schools and whether or not the new distances were too far for the students from Barrows. She explained that all of the students being transferred to Rhodes or Edgewood would be bused. “We feel that the transportation system can get them to school without an extended bus ride,” she said.
Another significant concern arose regarding the fact that the numbers of students per grade level leaving Barrows and attending Edgewood Highland Elementary School is very low in certain grades, with just four students attending from the second grade, five from the third, five from the fourth. Families of those children were concerned for those few children being separated and sent to Edgewood, versus the numbers going to Rhodes. In comparison, there would be 20 second graders, 26 third graders, and 27 fourth graders attending Rhodes from Barrows.
The decisions regarding those numbers were explained as being made based on addresses, but both the school committee members and the school department emphasized that the issue could be examined again and parents with those students in question could reach out to the school department to further discuss the issue.
The question about a transition plan for students was raised and plans were discussed which included both receiving elementary schools hosting welcome events and open houses during the school year for the students who will be transitioning and it was also noted that the parent organizations from both schools were also making plans, should the proposal be approved. There would be tours and introductory activities by grade level as well as by whole group for those who would be transitioning.
When it was asked what would happen to Barrows if closed, Ruggieri explained that as with all the city-owned school buildings, the building would revert back to the city and the city would be responsible for any future plans for it. Because a final decision hasn’t been made for the closure at this time, there are no plans for the building to be re-purposed.
A concern was raised as to whether or not a charter school could move into the building once it was closed and the question was asked whether or not the school department could guarantee that would not happen. Superintendent Nota-Masse expressed her agreement with those concerns and expressed that the city is well aware of the school department’s aversion to that type of decision, but could not guarantee what the city would or would not do.
When the question was asked as to whether or not in the future an opportunity could exist for new buildings to be built on either Rhodes or Barrows sites, Nota-Masse explained why that was not likely.
“With the new standards that RIDE has put forward with school buildings, problems arise in sites such as Barrows because it’s a very small parcel of land, that even if we wanted to raze the building and rebuild, there simply isn’t enough room at that parcel of land.”
Parents were encouraged to send any additional questions or concerns between now and the January meeting to the central office staff so that they can be addressed and compiled for the next meeting. Additionally, the questions and answers from the December meeting would also be compiled and shared out to families before the January meeting.
The next meeting will take place on Monday, January 28 at Chester Barrows Elementary School at 6:00 p.m. Families were reminded when asked, that the meeting is a public community meeting and is open to all families from all three schools affected, not just the Barrows families.