100719 WES WHS Babcock Hall 1379.JPG

Westerly High's Babcock Hall. | Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — Proposals to move eighth grade students from Westerly Middle School to Westerly High School's Babcock Hall are getting a range of responses, including concern, opposition, support and even a call to lobby the Town Council to reconsider the $50 million borrowing cap it has imposed on a final school redesign plan.

Moving the eighth grade to Babcock Hall is part of the two school redesign plans the School Building Subcommittee has identified as being worthy of further exploration. The two plans were deemed worthy of additional consideration after the subcommittee reviewed 16 plans, scoring them against a set of criteria, including cost. In March the Town Council, citing other financial needs in the town, voted unanimously to establish a $50 million borrowing cap for the project, regardless of reimbursement from the state. Reimbursement rates start at a base of 35% and can exceed 50%.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau recently asked the School Committee for input on the concept of moving the eighth grade to Babcock Hall. Garceau has at times discussed the idea separately from school redesign proposals, saying it might get students interested in Westerly High School by exposing them to educational and extracurricular offerings and could slow the tide of students leaving the district to attend other high schools.

Garceau recently emailed parents and asked them to share their views on moving the eighth grade students to the high school. On Wednesday, several parents opposed to the idea spoke during a School Committee meeting.

A few common criticisms emerged, including concerns that the eighth grade students would feel isolated in a "school within a school," whether such a change should be made as students continue to adjust to life in the time of COVID-19, and concerns that eighth grade students would have too much interaction with older high school students. Parents also said they were concerned about transportation, participation in sports and other extracurricular activities, and whether eighth grade students would have appropriate access to student support systems such as guidance counselors, mental health professionals and deans.

Parents also said enrichment education programing should be offered at the middle school and that efforts could be made to expose middle school students to the high school's career and technical education courses at the middle school rather than moving the eighth grade to the high school. Parents also questioned indications school administrators might sign off on implementing the change by the end of this year.

"There are a lot of known unknowns. If we are sure we want to do this, it would seem that we need more time," said Jim Nyberg, one of the parents who spoke during the meeting.

Andi Kenyon, a parent and teacher in a different district, asked for evidence that eighth grade students flourish in high school environments. She also discussed the effects of the pandemic on students.

"Rigor and stamina is greatly diminished. Even the highest of the highest students — it is like they haven't worked this muscle in a long time," she said.

Jennifer Brinton, a parent who developed one of the two redesign proposals under consideration by the School Building Subcommittee, said her son excelled at Westerly Middle School when he he took advanced course work. The opportunity gave him a head start that positioned him well for success in high school and college, Brinton said.

The subcommittee's selection of the two proposals under consideration involved acknowledgment that some residents have called on district officials to develop a plan that is based on existing school buildings, not new construction, Brinton said. While senior citizens might have been responsible for voting down a $71 million plan in 2019, Brinton said, they would have supported the plan if they thought it would have improved student outcomes. The $71 million plan, which included a new elementary school, was believed to meet the criteria for 50% reimbursement from the state. A $38.5 million school building project that focused on renovations was voted down in 2016.

"Even if money was not an issue and we started brand spanking new, it doesn't guarantee we will pick the right configuration, but we would make it work, and we can still do the same with the buildings that we have," Brinton said.

On Wednesday, the School Committee approved the subcommittee's request to hire JCJ Architecture, which has offices in Hartford and Boston, to serve as architect/engineer for the redesign process. The firm's staff includes an education planner who will assist the subcommittee to analyze the plans and understand the pedagogy of various grade configurations, said Justin Hopkins, School Building Subcommittee chairman. The subcommittee had previously asked the School Committee to include the proposal to move eighth grade to the high school as an agenda item as a means to generate discussion on the topic, Hopkins noted.

Hopkins thanked the parents for their input and asked for them to stay involved. Hopkins said he hoped parents would rally around the need for improving the district's elementary schools and said student enrollment is a factor to be considered. "We do typically have more space than student population. There is no silver bullet. There's going to be pros and cons with all plans," Hopkins said.

School Committee member Christine Cooke noted that one parent expressed frustration that the 2019 plan, which called for a new school to replace the current State Street Elementary School, was voted down.

"I would suggest to parents now is the time to mobilize. I would support the [2019 plan] again if I was given the option, but our Town Council has given us a $50 million cap...You might want to talk to your Town Council because they have put us in a position now that we can't take another run at that," Cooke said.

School Committee member Rob Cillino offered a similar perspective and addressed some of the parents who attended the meeting.

"I agree with Mrs. Cooke. We need to keep this fire going ... we are getting hamstrung by the Town Council on this. We listened to you and they need to listen to us as well," Cillino said.

School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said she had heard from several parents who favored moving the eighth grade to the middle school, but said she was becoming unsure of the timing.

"I'm starting to think that maybe it is more of a timing issue," Chiaradio Bowdy said.

Garceau stressed the importance of receiving input from parents, but also questioned how much evidence there is that any particular grade configuration is preferable to another. "Any model can be made to work really well...grade configuration is not the end all and be all, but people's concerns are recognized," Garceau said.

Spending on education reflects the community's values, Garceau said.

"Maybe the answer is just to wait. Maybe wait until there is a Town Council that sees fit to support education in the town by supporting a new build and removing the arbitrary $50 million cap to support our facilities and fields, and to support our teaching staff," Garceau said.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.