The first of three public hearings on the school administration’s plan to implement the next phase of school consolidation with the closing of three elementary schools will be held next Thursday beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Veterans Junior High School.
Developed over the summer by a team of administrators with the help of consultants SMMA, Randall Holden, Wickes and Governor Francis Schools would close at the end of the current academic year. John Brown Francis would reopen as the district’s Early Childhood Education Center next year. The center is currently located at the former Drum Rock Elementary School at the Toll Gate Educational Complex. The building would not go unused. Rather, it would be used by the Warwick Area Career Technical Center, also located at Toll Gate, that is experiencing expansion.
There’s more to this plan than responding to declining school enrollment. It also involves a reorganization of the system.
Since a high of almost 20,000 students in 1968, Warwick school enrollment has slipped to 9,018 as of this fall. Elementary school enrollment is 4,704 – not including about 200 pre-schoolers – and, according to SMMA, projections will further decline to 4,676 next fall. Meanwhile, the district’s 16 elementary schools have the capacity to accommodate 6,388 students.
In response to the surge of students in the late ’60s, the district built Toll Gate High and Winman Junior High, adopting a citywide three-district system where specific elementary schools fed into junior and senior high schools. That changed this year with the closing of Gorton and Aldrich as junior highs and Vets as a high school. Vets reopened as a junior high.
Beginning next fall, the city’s two junior high schools – Vets and Winman – will transition to middle schools with the addition of sixth grade. This is projected to reduce total elementary school enrollment to 4,000.
There’s logic to this overall plan to bring efficiencies to the system. It is the path the School Committee has chosen to right-size the district.
It has not been easy. Consolidation on the secondary level has proceeded in spite of the lack of a teachers’ contract and in violation of the former contract that the union considers binding until a new agreement is reached. Further, as Superintendent Philip Thornton has stated, there are philosophical differences between him and the union over the weighting of classes by students with individualized education programs. Thornton wants to do away with the system that treats special needs students as more than one when establishing a maximum class size.
Without question, the lack of a teachers’ contract has exacerbated consolidation and made it impossible for Thornton to develop a team effort and vision for the system. Resolving a contract must be a priority.
But this shouldn’t defer the discussion and action over consolidation.
As the hearings get under way, there will be arguments consolidation is proceeding too quickly and that the selection and number of schools for closure is wrong. And while the rationale for shuttering the three elementary schools is spelled out, we would expect a discussion on the alternatives.
Most wishful, and perhaps this is too much to expect, we would ask that the discussion be civil and the focus be set on what is best for our children.