By Meg O’Neil
The newly formed Elementary School Enrollment Options Subcommittee met for the first time on Wednesday, Oct. 24 to discuss how to handle a possible enrollment surge when the new Pell Elementary School opens in September 2013.
The 13-person committee is comprised of Newport School Committee members Patrick Kelley and Rebecca Bolan, two elementary school principals, two teachers, and seven parents. An additional 15 parents attended the meeting.
When the initial planning of the new Pell Elementary School began several years ago, enrollment in Newport’s public schools was gradually declining. However, in the past two years, the number of students has been increasing at a steady rate, raising the question of whether the total capacity of the Pell School is too small.
The school was originally designed to hold 800 students. When extra funds became available in the construction budget, the school committee voted to add two additional classrooms, upping the capacity to 850 students in 39 classrooms.
Even though adjustments have been made to increase capacity, the new school still may not be large enough. The most recent enrollment numbers show an expected total of 905 elementary students.
“If we opened the school last September, we would have been three classrooms short,” Kelley said. “That leaves you with an uneasy feeling that requires us to be flexible.”
That flexibility is what the subcommittee will examine over the coming weeks.
Their objective is to identify, assess and recommend facility configuration options to the Newport School Committee at their regular monthly meeting in December.
The options committee spent Wednesday’s meeting examining enrollment predictions from several studies. What became apparent was the impact that military families have on the student population.
The number of Navy families who come to Newport every year with their children is hard to track. Although there is communication between the school department and the Naval War College about how many families will arrive to the area in June, those families’ housing situation fluctuates. One parent on the committee, who is also active Navy personnel, said that some families are only assigned to Newport for one year, some for six months. He also said they are mostly renters.
“It’s tough to tell,” he said. “Fort Adams is generally a very transient area, and renting in the Fifth Ward is not the easiest. Some families go to Jamestown and Middletown for their schools … there’s an ebb and flow of military families. The ages of the kids that come in are different. Every year at the college, it could be a completely different run of people. You can’t guess the numbers.”
Underwood Elementary principal Kim Townsend concurred, saying that on
average, she can lose or gain up to 40 students a year from military families that move to Newport.
Another bump in enrollment in the past five years has been the redevelopment of the city’s North End. When enrollment studies were being conducted in the mid-2000s, new public housing there was just becoming available. Since then, families have moved in, and the number of units of public housing continues to grow.
The consensus of the committee meeting was that it is still too early to predict what will happen next year. But until then, members will look at all viable options.
“When this school opens, it is going to be a marvel,” Kelley said. “We just have to be sure that when it opens, it’s not overcrowded, and kids have the educational facilities they need.”
The committee will also examine which of the existing school properties might be maintained to give flexibility.
One parent on the board, Aida Neary, suggested examining a grade level shift: Could the eighth grade at Thompson Middle School be moved up to Rogers High School, making that facility grades 8 – 12? By doing that, the fourth grade class could be moved up to Thompson Middle School, leaving the Pell School to house grades k – 3.
Other suggestions included moving the special education pre-k to the old home economics wing at Rogers High School, and keeping at least one elementary school property for future use.
“There are a lot of options when you talk about flexibility,” Kelley said. “That’s what we need to be talking about and thinking about … Everything has to be on the table in terms of pros and cons.”
The enrollment options committee will meet again on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at 4:45 p.m. at the Triplett School on Broadway. The public is encouraged to attend.