PAWTUCKET — Faced with the prospect of severe overcrowding at most of the city's elementary schools, Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke is proposing that a majority of the incoming sixth graders be relocated to classrooms at Goff or Slater junior high schools in September 2013.
Cylke told the School Committee of her plan at Wednesday night's meeting, saying that it seemed to be the best option for dealing with a projected shortage of classroom space at six of the 10 elementary schools. She said the only other solutions, leasing classroom space at a private school building or bringing in portable classrooms, will cost the school district money that it simply doesn't have.
Cylke said that the projected enrollment numbers for September of 2013 are based on kindergarten registrations and other data that was developed by former Deputy Supt. Kim Mercer. She said the enrollment report was one of the last tasks done by Mercer before she left two weeks ago to assume her new job as school superintendent in East Providence. While acknowledging the figures are estimates, she said she trusts in their basic accuracy given Mercer's longtime experience with enrollment and planning.
Cylke said the only vacant classroom space in the district is at Goff and Slater, where a total of 12 classrooms are available. She acknowledged this is just a temporary fix and not a complete restructuring to a middle school concept because the incoming class of 6th graders in the following year, 2014, is projected to be even higher, and these 12 classrooms won't be enough.
Under Cylke's plan, three 6th grade classes from Baldwin Elementary and three from Cunningham Elementary would attend Slater Junior High. Additionally, one 6th grade class from Curtis Elementary, two 6th grade classes from Curvin-McCabe, three 6th grade classes from Potter-Burns and 35 students from Fallon Memorial would attend Goff Junior High.
The 6th grade classes at Greene, Little, Varieur and Winters elementary schools, where overcrowding is not an issue, would remain there.
Cylke spoke positively about the benefits of the sixth graders being able to attend classes at the junior high schools, saying they will have access to the academics, extracurricular activities and sports programs available to the higher grades. She also noted that the principals at both Slater and Goff “are fully committed that these students are part of their schools and not just 'housed' there,” said Cylke.
Cylke said that the “middle school” model, where 6th graders attend schools with 7th and 8th graders, has proven to be a successful educational structure. Yet, the superintendent also noted that with the space considerations facing Pawtucket's schools, no district-wide changeover to middle schools is possible in the near future. In fact, she said the classroom shortage in 2014 looks to be so severe that the school district might have to rent space in the former St. Leo's school building on Central Avenue. That school is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
Cylke said she will soon be holding informational meetings for 5th grade parents whose children would be involved in the changeover to the junior high schools next September. She also said that transportation and some other considerations still have to be figured out.
School Committeewoman Nicole Nordquist voiced strong opposition to the proposal. She said that while she is supportive of the middle school model in general, she doesn't like the fact that this move would only place some of the district's 6th graders at the junior high schools while others would remain at their neighborhood schools. She urged the move to be put off until a true middle school concept can be “done right.”
However, Cylke responded that the space issue is pressing and that unless the enrollment figures drop dramatically from what has been projected, she must find classrooms for these sixth graders. She reiterated that while there are other solutions, such as renting portable classrooms or leasing space elsewhere, there would be a significant cost attached. “Do we spend a half million dollars on mobil classrooms or leased space when the public will wonder why we're not just using our space?” Cylke asked.
Cylke said she has experience in shuffling grade levels around at both the junior high and middle school models. “Is this a challenge I want on my plate now? No. But I'm up to the challenge,” she said.
The topic of both money and enrollment came up later in the meeting, during a discussion of the school budget and the deficit reduction plan that will address how school officials will pay off the budget shortfall from fiscal year 2012. The School Committee had previously agreed to use some of the surplus projected for 2013 to pay off its FY12 debts, although school officials say they do not yet know how much that surplus will be.
Cylke said that, ironically, part of the school's FY12 deficit was due to city officials withholding about $1.5 million that year because they said school enrollment had decreased. She said that while Pawtucket's enrollment had dropped from the figures of a decade ago, it had actually increased in FY12 and has continued to rise, as evidence by the current space crunch.
Cylke commented that if the city ends up with a budget surplus for 2013, city officials should acknowledge that part of the schools' FY12 deficit was created by that cut of $1.5 million that was done because of lower enrollment. “This would be an opportune time to be generous,” she said.