Parents, teachers, students, past graduates and community members filled the Warwick Vets auditorium Tuesday night to voice their opinions and concerns regarding the potential closure of Gorton Junior High School.
Tuesday marked the last of two scheduled public hearings on the matter before the School Committee votes Tuesday, May 14.
The majority of the crowd didn’t appear to be interested in what Superintendent Richard D’Agostino had to say in his attempt to address questions posed during the first hearing held last Thursday, as they interrupted his PowerPoint presentation with raucous laughter and shouts of “lies!” about halfway through when he talked about how bus routes and transportation times would be affected by consolidation. D’Agostino had to pause and wait for the noise to die down before finishing the presentation.
During his brief remarks, D’Agostino addressed questions regarding the number of students and school buildings other districts have; the average class size at each Warwick junior high and how it will be affected by consolidation; why current school data was used as a starting point instead of next year’s data; and classroom usage. Dennis Mullen, director of secondary education, also touched on the junior high model versus a middle school model.
D’Agostino said Warwick currently has 9,615 students enrolled in 23 schools, while Providence has 23,872 in 41 schools; Cranston has 10,664 in 18 schools; and Pawtucket has 9,300 in 16 schools.
D’Agostino said the new configuration class size average at the junior highs would be 17.02 with consolidation, as compared to the current average class size at each junior high: 15.94 at Aldrich; 14.67 at Winman; and 14.28 at Gorton.
“The current school data was used to offer the School Committee and the audience the opportunity to see the numbers that were used during the short-term meetings that provided a view of our district 10 years out to 2022,” D’Agostino continued.
With 59 teachers at Winman, it’s slightly more than the 55 at Aldrich and 53 at Gorton. D’Agostino said this is because “Winman has more intensive special education programs and students,” while Gorton has 100 fewer students than the other two junior highs.
Addressing the suggestion to move away from a junior high model in favor of a middle school by moving the 6th grade into the junior highs, D’Agostino said contractual restrictions and certifications pose a problem.
“As of May 6, 2013, we have 247 elementary teachers with only seven having middle school certification. Presently, of our 38 6th grade teachers, only two have middle school certification and we have 40 secondary, grade 7 to 8, teachers that have middle school certification,” he said. “The dilemma is 36 elementary teachers would be dismissed.”
D’Agostino said adopting the middle school model could also result in increased costs and “a school within a school” situation.
He continued by explaining classroom usage.
“Classroom usage was examined by the principals of each school as to the number of rooms in each building and the capacity of those rooms as classrooms and not what they were presently being used for,” he said. He used examples such as a math room and a team room, each of which could hold 14 students; a conference room that could hold 28 students; or a department head office that could hold 14 students.
The following slide is what sent the crowd into an uproar of laughter and shouting. The slide read: “Question: With students having to be transported to Aldrich and Winman instead of Gorton, how will this affect the time students are on the bus? Answer: Minor to not at all.”
Longest ride is 40 minutes
D’Agostino said the present longest bus ride in the city is from Potowomut to Winman, which takes 30 to 40 minutes. He said the present Gorton bus ride from Warwick Neck is 23 to 26 minutes. The proposed ride from Church Avenue to Gorton is projected to be 23 to 26 minutes. He said the present Gorton bus ride from Suburban Parkway in Oakland Beach is eight minutes and the proposed ride from Oakland Beach Avenue/West Shore Road to Winman is projected to at 9 to 10 minutes, adding that the routes were driven and timed.
“The numbers are there and the district is there. You can go on Mapquest and look it up,” D’Agostino said in response to shouts of “lies!” and laughter at the estimated travel times. “I drove it myself starting at 6:30 a.m.”
Addressing the junior high versus middle school model, Mullen said there is literature to support both sides of the argument.
“Researchers have raised concerns with the middle school model,” he said.
Citing a research study conducted by Bedard and Do, entitled “Are Middle Schools More Effective? The Impact of School Structure on Student Outcomes,” Mullen said some of the concerns raised include lack of personal attention and monitoring in middle schools; decline in 6th grade math and science scores; the elimination of middle schools in New York City in place of a K-8 model; lower on-time high school completion rates and graduation rates, and less able students.
The public comment portion began with the 17 people that had signed up to speak during the first hearing that were unable to do so as time ran out.
Gene Andreozzi was the first to speak.
“Warwick is a very good system. The reason not to close any school is safety. I don’t know where your heads are,” he said. “You’re thinking about the money when you should be thinking about the safety of the kids. You can’t see the numbers because you’re playing with them; the numbers don’t mean anything.”
Numbers don’t add up
City Councilman Ed Ladouceur said he hasn’t seen transparency in the process and won’t support closing any schools until accurate information and numbers that balance are presented.
“There’s been arrogance in the presentation. The numbers don’t add up; numbers don’t lie, they always tell the truth,” he said. “I take issue with the buck being passed on to the City Council. I suggest that you start cutting costs in administration.”
Jennifer Wrench, who said she’s a bus driver, disputed the estimated travel times.
“You don’t take into account bus stops and traffic and the fact that you need to drive slow,” she said. “It will cost more money because you will need more buses and the kids will be on the buses longer, creating more problems because they can only sit still for so long.”
Stephanie Van Patten, a member of the long-term facilities planning committee, said the decision to close Gorton is shortsighted.
“The Warwick Public Schools need a comprehensive plan to build the infrastructure we will need in 2025 and beyond. School closure, realignment and construction will all be necessary parts of the plan implementing that vision,” she said. “Any school closure, realignment or construction without that vision and plan is, at best, a waste of valuable taxpayer resources and, at worst, incompetent public management.”
Van Patten said a vision for the district has not been communicated to her.
“From my perspective, the only vision the administration has is to close schools, and its only plan to implement that vision is to close Gorton,” she said.
Van Patten said the administration took unilateral action to separate the original planning committee into “long-term,” comprised of members like herself that believe the district needs a vision, and “short-term,” comprised of people they believed would “rubber stamp” a junior high school closing. She added that her request to be a liaison between the two committees was denied and her “detailed written questions” regarding the interaction of the two committees were not met by a response from the administration.
Sarah Taylor Evans, an English teacher at Gorton, Warwick has made policy decisions based on bad budgeting and poor administrative choices and is not in step with the rest of the country when it comes to the middle school model.
“Aspects of the middle school are there; what’s missing is the sixth grade – bring them up, we’re ready!” she said. “Don’t believe that the sky is falling; Chicken Little doesn’t run Warwick, you do!”
Alanna Morrison, a seventh grader at Gorton, said the school makes her feel safe and welcome.
“I don’t want to get home after dark because I wouldn’t feel safe. I like to stay after school to finish my work, and if I get home late, I won’t have time for homework or after school sports,” she said. “I’m nervous to be taken away from friends and comfort to be moved to a new school for one year only to do it all over again for high school. It makes no sense.”
Mary Townsend, who’s been in special education for more than 30 years and has a medically fragile grandson in Warwick schools, was one of the few that said schools need to be consolidated. She also said she was appalled to hear people complain about the bus routes when there are special education or medically fragile students that travel between 30 and 45 minutes, without an issue, to places like Meeting Street School or Bradley Hospital to get the best education possible.
As president of the Warwick Independent School Employees union, Townsend said, “No matter how the vote goes, we’re committed to working with the teachers and administrators to move forward.”
Fun memories gone
Angelina Steinberg asked School Committee members to put themselves in the shoes of students, even those that have already experienced consolidation at the elementary level.
“Think about being tossed out of your elementary school and going to Gorton and now have to be tossed out again,” she said. “All I see is every fun memory we had as children being taken away from these children.”
Bud Andolfo, a teacher at Gorton, asked how Gorton will be used in September, or if it will be used.
D’Agostino said there are no plans for Gorton at this time.
“Only you have the power to decide what to do here,” Andolfo said, addressing the School Committee. “If you really, truly believe closing Gorton is the right decision, then you should vote to close, but if you have the slightest doubt, why can’t we put this to a vote next year when things are in order?”
Kevin Shepherd, a recent Gorton and Vets graduate currently enrolled at the University of Rhode Island, said he came with a prepared statement but felt like he wouldn’t be taken seriously.
“A 12-minute bus ride from Warwick Neck will not be a 12-minute bus ride unless we all get in helicopters and fly around,” he said. “The smallest class size I was in was 18, and I, nor my friends, nor teachers ever saw 14 in a class. You’re making this a place where I don’t want to foster a family and I’m heading for the hills.”
Michael Pierce, another Gorton teacher, said the committee shouldn’t feel forced to make a decision right away.
“You have time and all the choices in the world. Administrators will make you think you don’t, but you do,” he said. “The numbers aren’t clear, the savings aren’t clear, planning is not clear and questions have not been answered. Dr.
D’Agostino is my boss, but he’s not your boss. You are his boss, and I say that with all due respect to everyone sitting up there. Don’t make a hasty a decision.”
Gorton teacher Jason Gervasini said he was at the meeting not as a teacher or parent, but as an advocate for the students.
“I’d agree to close Gorton if the only reason was enrollment was down, but we can fix that by bringing the sixth grade up and adopting all-day K [Kindergarten],” he said. “Grades six to eight are what the common core [standards] is built on, how can we not do that? If you think education is expensive, what about ignorance?”
Following his comments, Gervasini approached the front of the auditorium with several students who held posters with the lyrics to the Gorton anthem on them, which Gervasini led the audience in singing despite exceeding his allotted speaking time limit of three minutes.
“While I appreciate the enthusiasm, there are people that want to talk that won’t get a chance to speak,” said School Committee chairwoman Bethany Furtado.
To illustrate how many people will be affected by Gorton’s closure, Gorton teacher Sheri James asked anyone in the audience who is a Gorton student or was at anytime to stand up and wave to the committee, to which the majority of those in attendance rose.
“These are the children you are affecting,” she said to the committee.
Tensions rose again before the hearing ended at 7:30 p.m., as two women approached the front of the auditorium and tried to explain that they added their names to speak last Thursday but were skipped over during Tuesday’s session. Shouts of “Let them speak!” rang throughout the auditorium as Furtado scanned through the list to see if the names had been skipped, but Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and legal counsel for the school department, said due to how the meeting was posted, which was scheduled to begin at 5:30 and end at 7:30 p.m., it could not be extended and the meeting was adjourned. Despite being told they couldn’t speak, one woman attempted to address the audience anyway but could not be heard since the microphones were turned off. With visible frustration and anger, the crowd slowly began to exit the auditorium.
The School Committee is scheduled to vote on closing a junior high school at a meeting on Tuesday, May 14 at 7 p.m. at Toll Gate High School. It is expected that Mayor Scott Avedisian will reveal his budget for the city that same day, and all indications are schools will not get the $3.8 million increase it has requested in city funding.