As has been discussed previously, the Westerly Public Schools Building Subcommittee has been reviewing a number of different proposals for addressing our school building needs. These reviews began in the early winter of 2020 and continue now as the subcommittee strives to put for forward a proposal that can ultimately be supported at the ballot box.

The subcommittee has done this with the understanding that: 1. Our learning spaces (particularly at the elementary level) are in need of significant upgrades; 2. The current Westerly Town Council has made clear that it will oppose and block any project costing more than $50 million from going to the voters; 3. Westerly has witnessed two very different building proposals (in 2016 and 2019) fail to gain the support of a majority of voters.

Of the many proposals submitted to the Building Subcommittee over the last year and a half, two (so far) have risen to the top for consideration because it is believed that they meet the criteria of aligning with the district’s educational mission, they fall within our cost restrictions and realities, are longer term approaches as opposed to “Band-Aid” fixes, they make the most of all available physical and human resources, and they are seen as viable solutions to current and anticipated needs.

Both of these community member submissions call for the relocation of Grade 8 back to the Westerly High School campus.

Separate and apart from the building project work (or as it is sometimes called, “Redesign”) is the question of whether consideration should be given to relocating Grade 8 irrespective of what recommendations ultimately come from the Building Subcommittee. The question being, “Would having Grade 8 on the WHS campus, and the benefits of access to upper-level courses, career and technical education exploratory courses and pathways, additional art, music, foreign language and other offerings, make sense from an educational standpoint?”

Last spring, the administration was asked to consider the feasibility (in terms of space) of bringing Grade 8 to Babcock Hall. We determined that it would be possible to designate a floor to Grade 8. This would provide for something near a “school within a school” approach, which would keep Grade 8 substantially separate from Grades 9-12, but would also allow for Grade 8 students to go “off-team” at points during the day in order to take upper-level courses or electives and to explore career opportunities based on interest and readiness. Grade 8 would have their own designated dining space, separate building entrances and exits and other plans.

Whenever any building projects are considered, there is always much discussion among parents and other stakeholders about the “right” or “developmentally appropriate” grade configuration or the pros and cons of different structural models. Many of us experienced various grade configurations growing up (my own “middle school” was grades 7-9). What’s always more important than grade configurations, however, is the quality of instruction, the access to opportunities and the supports that students receive when they are there. All kinds of successful (and unsuccessful) schools use all kinds of grade configurations. They are most often far less important than we believe them to be. Again, it’s what happens in those configurations that matters most.

Again, at this point the School Committee is only considering the relocation of Grade 8.

I would encourage all families to consider attending or at least watching upcoming School Committee and Building Subcommittee meetings and sharing their thoughts on the proposals under consideration.

Upcoming School Committee meetings are scheduled for Nov. 10 and Dec. 8.

Mark Garceau is the superintendent of schools in Westerly.

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