By Meg O’Neil
NEWPORT -- With an unforeseen jump in enrollment at the start of the school year last September, the looming question was brought to the table: Is the new Claiborne d. Pell Elementary School, which has yet to be built, already too small?
According to the latest enrollment reports from the school department, there are 882 students in the city’s four elementary schools. The potential problem with that is that the school plans are designed to hold a capacity of approximately 840 students.
To combat the possibility of opening the largest elementary school in the state that can’t house all of its students, the Pell Building Committee voted to approve the construction of two additional classrooms on the second floor of the lower school wing at their meeting on Wednesday, March 28, with Newport City Councilor Justin McLaughlin being the lone opposing vote.
In the current plans for that section of the building, there are two low-lying roof areas that can be modified to accept two classrooms above them.
The cost of the two additional classrooms will remove $342,174 from the budgeted $2 million construction contingency. Jim Farrar of Farrar & Associates, the project manager hired to oversee the construction process, said the building is “designed perfectly to accept the additional classrooms.”
With an immediate vote needed for HMFH architects to being preparing new construction documents, Pell Building Committee Chair and school committee member Jo Eva Gaines said, “We have to prepare for an enrollment surge … I would think the two additional classrooms is a given.”
No enrollment figures or statistics were provided during the meeting.
McLaughlin called the quick vote a “dramatic decision,” saying, “you’re talking about spending a substantial amount of money that ought to be based on enrollment numbers.” After casting his vote, McLaughlin said, “I think the [committee] should have provided stronger evidence to help make a decision as to why the two rooms are necessary.”
The recent jumps in enrollment in Newport’s schools have been somewhat of a “conundrum” according to Superintendent John H. Ambrogi.
“Given the most recent information we have, something’s happening in this city and that something is relating to increased enrollment for us,” he said.
“[Projecting enrollment] is a roll of the dice. It’s an imprecise science and the information we have is that we’re right on the cusp.”
Over the last several years, Newport’s schools have seen a slump in enrollment, a trend that was reversed this past summer when 178 new students registered in a matter of weeks before the start of the school year.
The two new classrooms will accommodate up to 50 additional students, and will add 2,158 square feet to the second floor.
If by the time the school opens in 2013, the school department finds that the enrollment numbers have leveled off, building committee members and Cranston Calvert principal Jennifer Booth said, “From an educational point of view, there is nothing better than having these extra rooms – it will give us space to expand programs.”
The Newport School Committee is expected to vote on the building committee's next week.
The Pell Building Committee will meet again on Tuesday, May 1 at 4 p.m. in room 924 of the Newport Area Career & Technical Center at Rogers High School.