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Loose Ends / David Tranchida: We can’t have empty icons

The value of small neighborhood schools is up for debate in Westerly, Stonington and Hopkinton, and though the degree of immediacy is different for each, the potential demise of what many consider an integral part of their town is looming for all three.

In Westerly, school district leaders have proposed for the second time in less than one year closing the Bradford School (and there has been talk of closing the school in the past as well), where this year there are 201 students, including 82 pre-kindergarten children. Bradford is the smallest of the four elementary schools in the district. Westerly Schools Superintendent Roy Seitsinger Jr. has said that closing Bradford makes sense for fiscal and educational reasons. He said research shows that optimal school size is 300 to 400 students.

In Stonington, the talk is about closing West Broad Street School, where there are fewer than 127 students in third and fourth grades, and combining all Pawcatuck elementary students at West Vine Street School, where there are 214 students in kindergarten through second grade. As with Bradford, West Broad, with its small enrollment, has been targeted in the past as a candidate for closure. The century-old building has no elevator though it has three floors, and some say it just isn’t conducive to education in the 21st century.

In Hopkinton, the issue is perhaps the most prickly of all three. As one of three towns in the Chariho Regional School District, the debate is not so much among the folks in Hopkinton as it is among the folks in neighboring Richmond, who feel their neighbor can get by with one elementary school. Charlestown and Richmond each have just one elementary school, after all. Some Richmond leaders, looking to reduce education cost for the district, last month suggested that their colleagues from the other two towns and leaders from the school district discuss relocation of the 247 students at Hope Valley School to Ashaway Elementary, where there are 193 students this year.

In all three cases, emotion runs rampant, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit I’m one of the many who would oppose closing West Broad. It’s in my neighborhood and I walked my two sons to and from the school every day for years. More than that, though, West Broad, like the others in Westerly and Hopkinton, sits in a prominent location. I can understand the need for controlling expenses and wringing every efficiency out of every supply order and staff member, but these discussions can’t be about just educational efficiency. While our children are in school, the local school is considered the heart of the community. And our small New England towns are made up of villages and sections of towns, which many consider their entire community. That feeling wanes once they move out of the school system, but the building holds fond memories as we drive by nonetheless. And these neighborhood schools are icons for these sections of our towns. In the new economy — maybe in any economy in the 21st century — a school with 200 kids is hard to rationalize based on cost factors. But empty buildings in prominent places can’t be the option.

The decision to close a neighborhood school is tough, but the concept should include yet another burden: a plan for that big icon in the heart of our communities.

David Tranchida is the editor of The Sun.

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