Today the hallways of John Brown Francis Elementary will echo with a somber silence not heard since the building was constructed in the early 1950s. There will still be people packing boxes and moving furniture and the sounds normally associated with such activities, but there will be no more elementary students – not next autumn and, as of this writing, not ever.
The school is one of three, along with Wickes and Randall Holden, to be victimized to the necessary evil of consolidation – a product of declining enrollment in Warwick and costs that are anything but lessening elsewhere throughout the district. JBF will re-open as a strictly Pre-K facility in the fall.
There is no proper way to put into perspective how much it hurts to lose a true-blooded community school like JBF. For people like school secretary Deb Norman, who have spent their entire careers and nearly half their lives in the building, it is akin to losing a beloved family member. For people like former principal Frank Ricci, it was a place to call his own.
“Francis always was and will be my second home,” he said during the moving on ceremony for 5th and 6th graders, held at Pilgrim High School on Tuesday morning. This year both grades were included, as both will be moving up in the first full year of Warwick utilizing a traditional middle school model, where grades 6-8 will inhabit Winman and Warwick Vets schools.
The ceremony at Pilgrim harbored a lot of emotion from public officials, staff, administrators and parents who were a part of the final elementary school classes to walk the halls.
“Today is both happy, yet solemn,” said Mayor Joseph Solomon. “Solemn in the way that you are the last class graduating from John Brown Francis; happy in that you’re going onto a new adventure.”
“This is both a sad and happy day for me, because I’ve been with the John Brown Francis Elementary School for 47 years in various positions. I want to thank all those who joined me in trying to keep John Brown Francis as an elementary school here in Warwick,” said School Committee Vice Chair Eugene Nadeau. “Unfortunately, we lacked one more vote.”
Former principal Ricci was given a clock that once hung within the school as a parting gift for his years of service from 1994 to 2013 as the school’s leader. Current principal Michelle Depot, who will be assuming the role of principal at Cedar Hill Elementary next year, was given a t-shirt and much praise for how she handled a difficult situation as the final principal for the school for a single year.
“In that year she has brought energy, enthusiasm and efficiency to John Brown Francis. Taking a job that was pretty much guaranteed to disappear after this school year, Mrs. Depot approached her term as if she was planning to be at JBF forever,” said PTA co-president Liz Gambuto. “Combining a firm hand with a healthy dose of compassion, Mrs. Depot has been able to deal with whatever comes her way with skill and grace. Cedar Hill is very fortunate to have her.”
On Wednesday, the mood in John Brown Francis was not so down, as the excitement for summer vacation was palpable from the students, who were happily roaming the halls and signing one another’s yearbooks. There was, however, plenty of bittersweet smiles from staff and teachers who packed boxes and prepared for an uncertain future ahead.
Kristen Ripley-McNamar , librarian at JBF for five years, was one of the 72 teachers and staff served with a layoff notice as part of the school consolidation and effort to carve out funding to balance the school budget. While she was sad to be leaving a place she quickly grew to love, she kept her head high and a smile on her face while parent Kerri Livesey helped her pack up books. She said wherever she was meant to go next would be exactly where she wound up.
Back on Tuesday during the moving on ceremony Nadeau, voice quavering with audible emotion, had the graduating 5th and 6th grade stand up and look backwards from their seats towards the audience – consisting of their family members and friends who came out to see them as they advance towards a new chapter of their lives. He said he hopes he remembers this moment for the rest of their lives.
“Because what you just did, you looked at the audience and you saw the faces of your mothers and fathers and of your grandparents, other relatives and the best of friends,” Nadeau said. “And every day of every week of every month of every year they have also been your teachers.”
“They are the most magnificent of teachers because they teach you with love,” he continued. “Don’t you see? They teach you with love. They always have. They always will.”