The school department will once again address the touchy issue of how to handle declining enrollment, although at this point acting superintendent Richard D’Agostino says it’s too soon to know which schools could be closed and when.
In the first meeting since January, the long-term facilities planning committee will get an idea of where district enrollment stands today and what is being forecast for the next 10 years.
Currently, the Warwick system has an enrollment of 9,700, less than half the students it had during its high water mark in 1968-69. The district has also reduced the number of schools over the years from a high of 31, said D’Agostino, to today’s 23.
D’Agostino said he wanted to save projections for the committee when it meets from 3 to 4 p.m. in the school administration building rather than having it read the numbers in the paper.
The trend, however, is continuing downward and the city’s three junior and senior high schools are a shadow of what they once were in terms of enrollment. Senior classes in the 1970s were as large as the entire enrollment of high schools today.
Thus far, the committee’s approach to declining enrollment has been to maintain the existing districts and reduce the number of feeder elementary schools. Most recently, the committee closed Potowomut by sending those students to Cedar Hill; Christopher Rhodes School in the Norwood neighborhood and Drum Rock, which is one of the system’s newer schools, albeit now more than 40 years old, as part of the Toll Gate complex. Drum Rock was converted into the early childhood center; that significantly reduced costs when the department assumed the role of special education services it had previously contracted for.
Last year, Superintendent Peter Horoschak, on administrative leave since September, identified closing one or more secondary schools as the next step in adjusting to declining enrollment. Various proposals were made that included reducing the grades in elementary schools to K-5, to expand the middle schools and integrating junior high students into the existing high schools – a two-schools-under-one-roof concept – so that the junior high schools could be closed.
At its last meeting in January of this year, the special committee, which numbers 20 and includes parent representatives and a representative from city administration, the group voted to include a look at elementary schools as, it was argued, without a comprehensive look, it could not make recommendations on secondary schools.
The committee requested a comprehensive study of the entire system. That apparently wasn’t done, as D’Agostino said there is no new report. The committee will get enrollment projections provided by an outside consultant.
Chief of staff for Mayor Scott Avedisian Mark Carruolo, who served as an advisor for the committee, said he has been asked to be a voting member of the group.
“I don’t know what the intent is moving forward,” he said. “I’m interested to see where it is going.”
D’Agostino said Robert Bushell, director of elementary schools, will offer a historic overview of elementary school enrollments at the meeting. D’Agostino will serve as the committee chair. He said he plans to have the committee meet at different schools to get a perspective on those buildings and how conducive they might be to renovations. As an example of some of the issues to be considered, D’Agostino said Oakland Beach School is 101 years old and, while providing a good educational environment, was not designed to accommodate today’s technology. He said some wireless systems refuse to work in some buildings.
Further, D’Agostino noted, more students are coming in with medical needs and demands for space and support are changing.
Asked whether the school committee instructed him to revive discussion on how to respond to declining enrollment, D’Agostino said, “As acting superintendent I have certain responsibilities to look at.”
He said he wants to weigh the needs of students over the next five to 10 years against how to effectively and efficiently operate the system. He said he also plans to make the committee aware that as of 2014 the state Department of Education will lift its moratorium on school building and picking up a portion of those costs.
D’Agostino did not say whether he expects the committee would have a report in time for implementation by the start of the next academic year in the fall.