To the Editor:
There’s a Chinese Proverb that says, “If you do not change your direction, you will end up exactly where you are headed” and John Adams once said “facts are stubborn things.”
It’s a stubborn fact that our school population is in a slow, steady decline. Since 2003, our high school population has declined from 3,878 kids in 2003 to 2,859 today – 1,019 in total or the equivalent of any one of today’s high school populations. By 2023, we’ll lose 400 more for a total decline of nearly 40 percent over 20 years. It’s ugly but the idea that this will reverse itself anytime soon is pure fantasy.
It’s a stubborn fact that our secondary schools are under-utilized and RIDE [Rhode Island Department of Education] has identified this to be a problem throughout the state. The issue is how we deal with it. We can employ past practices and avoid it altogether, or we can do something. The plan of the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee (whose name should really be the Facilities Planning Committee) addressed that. After looking at all the data, the committee unanimously agreed that we could move to a two-junior high, two-high school system. Closing Gorton and Aldrich (the two oldest buildings in our secondary system) allows us to save over $2 million on the final stage of fire code improvements in addition to other funds that would be required to maintain and modernize them, all while their population continued to decline. And, two junior high schools still gives us enough space to accommodate a grade 6-8 middle-school model.
It’s a stubborn fact that under the recommendation, the two remaining high schools would not have populations that are in any way, shape, or form significantly higher than they were a handful of years ago and that our contractual class size restrictions were the same then as they are now. Will we have more kids in a class? Of course, but nothing remotely close to what some would lead us to believe. To those who think the miniscule rise in our NECAP scores from 2008 to 2012 is related to smaller class sizes due to the declining enrollments, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. As a district, we are, and have consistently been, in the middle of the pack NECAP-wise versus the rest of the state, even though we enjoy one of the highest per-pupil expenditures and, yes, buildings are part of expenditures. If one removes the charter schools from the analysis, it’s even worse. How’s that for “bang for the buck?”
It’s no secret to anyone who pays attention that the City Council is no friend of the schools. Every time school consolidation is proposed, members scold the department for even considering it. When budget time comes, however, they exact their pound of flesh and for the last six years, they’ve level-funded our schools. During those years the School Department has closed schools, reduced staff, and privatized busing, just to name a few. More importantly, virtually every dime of property tax increases over those years has gone the city side of the ledger, not to the schools – more stubborn facts.
It’s shameful that we’re behind most of the state by not providing all-day kindergarten because the new Common Core curriculum all but demands it.
It’s shameful that we’re behind most of the state and the country by not providing a middle school model, even though Common Core is written for it. We short-change our sixth graders in math and science because middle school allows those subjects to be taught by content specialists but, evidently, very few seem bothered by that. And I’m not talking about simply moving sixth graders up. I mean real middle school and the community should not accept any impediments, contractual or otherwise, to its implementation.
It’s shameful that we’re behind many other districts in our use of, and availability of, technology in our schools because today’s education requires it.
One of the reasons for all of this is that for too long, we’ve done nothing to address our enrollment problem, which resulted in underutilized facilities and high overhead costs. And during that time, we’ve raised the practice of deferred maintenance of our buildings to an art form.
The School Committee’s decision may not be an easy one – but it’s also not rocket science. They are elected to act in the best interests of the entire school community and that means providing all-day K, middle school, building modernization, and more technology – and do it all while most likely being level-funded by the city, so running the same number of buildings in the face of a steadily declining student population makes no sense logically or fiscally. Further, they need to be mindful of those who pay the freight – the taxpayer. The recommendation met the immediate needs of 1) dealing with declining enrollment at the secondary levels by closing the two oldest buildings, thus avoiding millions of dollars in upgrades that could be put to better use elsewhere for other capital needs and 2) allowing for all-day K and middle school, along with their associated costs. Both are crucial, in my view, and inter-related. These two initiatives will not benefit my kids, as they’ve already missed out on them, unfortunately, but most other families in the district will benefit, as would the district as a whole. It seems we’re afflicted with the syndrome of letting the “Perfect be the Enemy of the Good.”
“If you do not change your direction, you will end up exactly where you are headed” and “facts are stubborn things.”
Amen to that!