Barrows closure plan not 'knee-jerk,' officials say

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The second public meeting focused on the proposed closure of Chester Barrows Elementary School drew a large turnout to the school Monday night, with parents, students, faculty, staff, administrators and neighborhood residents on hand to discuss the plan and its implications for the community.

Concerns were raised over students leaving teachers and friends. Some questioned whether the school’s closure could lead to future zoning changes and the arrival of charter schools or unwanted businesses nearby. Administrators were asked whether long-term considerations were truly taken into account in the school closure plan.

Ward 5 committee member Janice Ruggieri sought to assuage those concerns, and said officials are committed to hearing from the community before making a final decision.

“This administration does not do knee-jerk [decision-making],” she said. “They really are thoughtful about what they do, and it’s not just about the money, although money is very limited. Sometimes it is about money, but it isn’t only about the money.”

Cranston Public Schools Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said the proposed closure of Barrows stems from a decline in student population and the closing of classrooms at both Barrows and Rhodes Elementary School.

Assistant Superintendent Norma Cole spoke of plans to shift Barrows students to both Rhodes and Edgewood Highland Elementary School by using Park Avenue as the dividing line. She said officials have made every effort not to split up neighborhoods through the plan. She also said the new structure would allow for two classrooms at each grade level at both Rhodes and Edgewood Highland, which promotes teacher collaboration, partnerships and planning.

The meeting was run in a question-and-answer format, with Dan Wall, the committee’s chairman and Ward 6 representative, allowing one question at a time. The meeting lasted for 90 minutes.

Ruggieri cited a question she had received by email about fourth-grade students from Barrows being split off from their classmates. Four students would be separated from the other 23 for their final year of elementary school.

Another parent raised a similar question about the split being made at the first grade level. She said four or five children would be split off from the larger group, but her child was the only girl and the rest were boys.

Many concerns were raised as to whether the social-emotional well being of students is being adequately taken into account.

“It’s not just the Common Core and the content that we teach them,” parent and fifth-grade teacher Tara Sweeney said. “It’s the community that we build in the classroom with their teacher and their principal and their peers and their librarian and their art teacher and everybody there. This is a small school. There’s not a lot of kids here, but there’s definitely a strong sense of community within the classrooms and within the school at large.”

Sweeney said separating students from peers and introducing them into a new environment constitutes an “incredible amount of stress and anxiety to put on little kids.”

Questions were also raised about staffing and whether or not school staff would be increased in order to accommodate the larger class numbers.

According to Nota-Masse, staffing concerns played a significant role in the closure proposal, as staffing is based on student population at the schools and low student populations cause fractured positions, shared staff and staff members having to travel between schools.

When asked whether the staff members from Barrows could be placed at Rhodes, Nota-Masse said the teacher contract rules must be followed and that the teacher assignment process, per the contract, is based on seniority.

Both Ward 2 committee member Stephanie Culhane and Ruggieri expressed their interest in a renewed conversation about redistricting the entire city using growth and demographic data collected recently, rather than a limited redistricting now and a larger redistricting plan later on, as there will eventually still be a need to redistrict the city and the proposal has not been looked at in nearly a decade.

Nota-Masse reminded the group that the School Committee and central office staff are made up of educators and parents who understand the concerns being raised.

Culhane agreed.

“Five of the seven of us are parents in the district, as is the superintendent,” she said. “Four of us are educators … We know that families want community schools and we are trying to honor that as best we can. We also know that kids are resilient and they’re going to be OK.”

Edgewood Highland Principal Marlene Gamba echoed that theme of resiliency when she spoke to the parents about all of the transitions she has seen in her 18 years as the principal at Edgewood. She also emphasized the good things going on at her school, including the Boston Kindergarten program and the various supports that are in place for the students.

“This district is so supportive,” she said. “The principals all work really hard at the transition, and the kids will be OK.”

Citywide committee representative Michael Traficante told those present that their concerns over long-term planning were valid, but he noted that the district faces fiscal constraints.

“You’ve got to be there for us when we talk about budgets and goals and the strategic plan,” he said.

The next meeting regarding the Barrows closure plan will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m. at Cranston High School East.

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