Comfort is key at state's largest middle school
In about an hour the approximately 800 new sixth and seventh graders at Warwick Veterans Middle School would exit the doors at the end of their first day and head out into the oppressively muggy air to find their buses or other ride home. It would be a scene best described as frenetic. However, principal Dave Tober wasn’t breaking a sweat – figuratively or literally – inside his office.
“I’m sitting here in a climate-controlled, 68-degree central office and it’s not just like, ‘Oh the principal has A/C in his office.’ No, everyone has A/C and every hall has A/C. I don’t take that for granted,” Tober said. “We are very fortunate to have what we have here. This building has come a long way in three years. A long way.”
Warwick Vets, like many schools in the Warwick Public Schools district, has gone through some significant changes in the past few years.
First opened in the ’50s, the school transitioned from its original purpose as a high school to a junior high school during the summer of 2016. Students from the former Gorton Middle School and Aldrich Middle School buildings then came to Vets, a process Tober referred to as relatively “bumpy” during that first year.
Last summer and into the school year, extensive renovations morphed the school from one that had once garnered numerous school safety complaints – steam shot from the antiquated heating system through floors and walls, air quality was questioned, etc. – into a place with a new sewer line, a state-of-the-art HVAC system and brand-new ceilings and wiring throughout.
The results, to Tober – a Warwick native, Toll Gate graduate, long-time district teacher and now principal – have been amazing.
“This was an old high school. This was a dated high school building,” Tober said. “What they’ve shown they can do here should be the model. I take pride in thinking that it is the model. So many people cried for new schools to be built, and they’ve taken this old school and made it into a new school.”
This year now marks the first year of Vets being a full-fledged middle school, where kids in grades 6-8 attend the same school. Completing this transition required even more work over this summer, including extending the cafeteria and renovating offsite buildings to accommodate more classrooms, in order to ready the school for an influx of about 30 new faculty members and about 400 incoming sixth graders who would have, in previous years, continued to attend the area’s elementary schools.
With the consolidation complete, and all approximately 1,210 students starting school on Wednesday, Tober confirmed that the faculty and staff of Warwick Veterans Middle school is now responsible for educating the largest student base of any middle school in the state of Rhode Island. For some context, it takes 19 buses to ferry the students to and from school.
“It’s a little daunting but we take pride in it,” Tober said of the distinction. “Some people will flinch and I don’t feel like we’ve flinched. I think we’ve taken on the challenge of being this large and it’s challenging. There’s a lot to do with the schedule and the planning, there’s a lot to think about when you have this volume.”
Tober said that there are about 175 adults in the building, consisting of teachers, administrators, staff and support staff. He said that crucial to the success of such a large conglomeration of people is fostering an “educational community” where everyone feels welcome and everyone shares a common goal of creating the best environment for teachers to teach and students to learn.
“It’s thinking about the entire educational community here. It’s the teachers, the faculty, the staff and the kids when it comes to trying to create that feeling of comfort and that place of ‘this is where we belong,’” Tober said, thanking a group of teachers who stepped up to create a sort of welcome committee when the consolidation started. “Let’s have everyone new feel comfortable right away. I feel like we’ve done that.”
To welcome students, Tober spoke highly of the week-long welcoming program known as SIMS, which gives a large group sixth and seventh grade students a chance to essentially attend a trial week of school in their new building. They had the chance to attend sample classes, perform activities with future classmates and get to know the lay of the land prior to the real first day this past Tuesday.
“That program has a huge value. The people that put that together have done wonders in just two years,” Tober said. “To get them in here and see the transition from their first day of SIMS to the last day of SIMS, the comfort level was amazing.”
Comfort is the key word for fostering success in education, according to Tober.
“You have to feel comfortable to do great things in the classroom. You have to feel comfortable to be a major contributor,” he said. “It goes with the kids coming in here feeling physically comfortable, socially comfortable and feeling academically comfortable – that contributes to it. Having a great building like this to do that in, that’s icing on the cake.”
Tober also finds comfort in having two assistant principals – one who focuses on the climate and culture of the school and takes on the role of a more classic, hands-on vice principal; the other who focuses on the teaching and learning aspects of what goes on in the classroom. The two-vice principal model has garnered criticism from some as excessive, but Tober sees value in the system.
“I feel we have an appropriate admin team here,” he said. “Certainly in a building this size, there are other things that sometimes pull me away from it, so knowing I have an assistant principal of teaching and learning, it gives me comfort to know that a lot of that is being done.”
However, feeling comfortable does not mean that Tober is allowing himself to get complacent.
“I felt with that approach of buy-in and with the way that we’ve tackled becoming a successful school, it’s been very successful,” he said. “Does that mean we’re at the exact place we want to be? Of course not. We all have goals – academic goals, social goals, behavioral expectation goals. These are things we set and we strive to get to them. We’re not there yet, but I see us growing.”
Tober, when asked of the political climate surrounding the school district – one that has seen a great deal of conflict over the years – insisted that the team at Vets could only focus on what they could control, from how teachers utilized strategies in the classrooms to the programs they offered or the climate that school staff foster and encourage.
“Speaking to what we do from our level, I feel like we’ve done a lot of great things in just over two years. We can’t control anything outside of our walls,” he said. “In that realm, I feel we’ve been very successful. And it’s with the help of every adult in this building. You need that fidelity. You need the buy-in from the people in the building working together.”
Tober said that, on a day where some schools in the state let classes out early and on a day where many other schools in Warwick went without air conditioning as temperatures hovered in the mid-90s, said that students should appreciate the great opportunity and privileges they have at Vets.
“We have great things here, so let’s use them. But we have to understand that others don’t have everything we have,” he said. “A lot of schools are very hot today and a lot of kids are very uncomfortable in the classroom, as are teachers. So just understand we are benefiting from a beautiful building.”