No, I do not have a plan for the Westerly schools, but I do have some thoughts to share. Thirty-plus years ago I was very much involved in the local school system. I was the second principal to serve at State Street School. When State Street closed and was released to the town, I was assigned to Tower Street School. At that time Tower Street housed pre-school through grade 2. Babcock School housed grades 3 through 6.
School enrollment numbers were in flux. Provisions within the district for students with special needs required additional classroom space. Eventually Tower Street lacked adequate space and two kindergarten classrooms were housed at Babcock. One challenge we faced was that the urinals designed for junior high did not accommodate 5-year-old boys. This was addressed with the addition of some foot stools in the boys’ lavatory.
The following year classroom space was reclaimed at State Street School and I returned to that building. We shared space with the senior center, the Adult Day Care program, and some other community services. After one year of this cohabitation, the building was released back to the full care and control of the School Department. In that transition time, my portfolio included a variety of districtwide responsibilities, including long-range planning.
I know from first-hand experience the challenges and foibles of the State Street and Tower Street facilities. I am aware that major renovations have been made to the buildings, but they are very energy inefficient and not designed for New England winters.
When building usage and locations are deliberated, there are many factors to be considered. The task is far greater than simply finding enough desks and chairs to accommodate the student enrollment. Each individual building has basic operational needs and requires personnel in addition to classroom teachers. Not only is the availability and condition of a specific building to be considered, but also the myriad of other factors that impact the overall plan.
Buildings located in outlier areas bring additional, long-term transportation costs. We often get nostalgic about neighborhood schools and we often cherish the memories of earlier days. But today’s educational needs far exceed those days when one teacher stood before a classroom with eight grades in the one room.
With neighborhood schools, teachers in specialized areas are often assigned to two or more buildings. Time that could be used in instruction is now redirected to travel between buildings. The scheduling of itinerant teachers can become a challenging and time-consuming task.
Good education is not dependent on any one organizational or grade-configuration plan. State-of-the-art buildings are not a prerequisite for effective education. The recognition recently received by State Street School bears witness to that. It is the instruction and the relationships that take place within the structure that make the difference.
Vision 2020 set goals for Westerly’s educational system. A new middle school was built, major renovations upgraded the high school, and it was the expectation that by 2020 the facilities at the elementary level would also be addressed. We are a bit behind, but it is not too late to do what is right for all our students. I have no vested interest, as my grandchildren and great-grandchildren all live in other states, but I want my neighbors’ children and grandchildren to have safe, secure, and educationally sound schools in which to be educated.
Whether the decision is to build a new school, perhaps at some yet to be determined location, or to refurbish existing buildings, the commitment must be made to properly maintain the school facilities. Repainting the water-stained ceiling does not remedy the roof leak.
We need to assure that equitable opportunities are available for all our students. Transportation costs need to be considered, and the educational program for our children must be the driving factor.
Our teachers no longer need to know how to thread a 16mm film projector, but they do need to have classrooms equipped to educate our students in the 21st century.
I challenge those responsible to set aside their political and ideological differences and collaborate to develop a plan that will garner the support and pride of our community.