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Letter: 10 Reasons Why the Fifth Avenue Elementary School in Woonsocket Should Not be Closed

Letter submitted by Cynthia Boss, a Tenured Resource Teacher at the Woonsocket Middle School for 16 years.

Introduction and Background

Woonsocket Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan’s plan to close the Fifth Avenue School before the opening of classes in late August 2012 is outlined in an August 2, 2012 article in the Woonsocket Patch.[1] Here are some key points from the article:

  • Dr. Donoyan’s plan was not brought before the Woonsocket School Committee or the City Council prior to the August 2 Budget Commission meeting.
  • She estimates the financial savings for closing the Fifth Avenue School would be: $187,372 in salaries; $159,719 in medical coverage; $25, 034 in fuel oil, electricity and other utilities; $854 in library software; and $631 in maintenance supplies.
  • When asked by Budget Commission member Dina Dutremble about where the Fifth Avenue School children would be going to school, Dr. Donoyan did not give specifics.  
  • Woonsocket School Committee member Anita Forcier-McGuire raised important concerns about increased transportation costs (Dr. Donoyan’s plan showed the District’s total budgeted costs for transportation decreasing by $66,187 to $2,090,545.) and about the need to preserve space for adding full-day kindergarten in the future.

The Woonsocket Budget Commission is planning to offer a public comment period about the closing of Fifth Avenue School on Wednesday August 8 at 5:30 pm.[2] The Woonsocket School Committee posted its own agenda for this meeting, but with a different starting time, 5:00 pm.[3] Immediately following that discussion, the Woonsocket School Committee will be holding a meeting with a closed session starting at 6:45 and the open meeting starting at 7 pm. Item #3 on the Agenda is “Superintendent’s Recommendation to Close Fifth Avenue School – G. Donoyan.” The Woonsocket School Committee Agenda states at the top of the page “The School Committee may vote on all items listed on this agenda.”[4] On the following day, August 9, the Budget Commission will hold its regular meeting at 3 pm.[5]

The rest of this paper presents 10 reasons why the Fifth Avenue School should not be closed.

 

[1] “Woonsocket Superintendent Recommends Closing Fifth Avenue School,”Rob Borkowski, Woonsocket Patch, August 2, 2012.

[2] http://sos.ri.gov/openmeetings/?page=meeting&id=129062 RI Secretary of State web site, Budget Commission Agenda filed on August 3, 2012.

[3] http://sos.ri.gov/openmeetings/?page=meeting&id=128995 RI Secretary of State web site, Woonsocket School Committee Agenda filed on August 3, 2012.

[4] http://sos.ri.gov/openmeetings/?page=meeting&id=128988 RI Secretary of State web site, Woonsocket School Committee Agenda filed on August 3, 2012.

[5] http://sos.ri.gov/openmeetings/?page=meeting&id=129058 RI Secretary of State web site, Budget Commission Agenda filed on August 3, 2012.

 

Reason 1: Disrupting childrens’ school environment is not beneficial to their education.

  • Schools are a critical part of the infrastructure needed to support public education. According to Rhode Island’s Basic Education Plan r(BEP) G‐12‐2.3 Building Capacity for a Cohesive and Aligned System “The Board of Regents acknowledges that implementing an aligned, cohesive system requires a long‐term investment in building the capacity of individuals, institutions, and educational communities to develop the knowledge, skills, and resources for effecting sustainable improvement. The four essential capacities that require ongoing development at every level of the system include..Organized, accessible, transparent Infrastructure…”[1]
  • Children’s access to this infrastructure is disrupted when a District decides to close a school and transport children to other buildings. Schools are not just buildings. They are places that provide continuous communities of support within the local neighborhoods. All children, especially those living in urban cities, benefit from having a consistent and stable environment that supports them every day and facilitates their learning, regardless of whatever problems they may be experiencing in their personal lives.
  • Children are not numbers or seats to be filled. Every child who is moved to a different school experiences transition issues that can negatively impact his/her learning, such as the need to adjust to a new physical environment and a whole new set of peers. A child’s established relationships with Special Education teachers, counselors, librarians, and other support staff at the original school are suddenly severed. There can also be differences in individual schools’ teaching approaches, materials, and technology. An often-cited study by Joy Rogers, 1991, estimates that when a student transfers to another school, there can be a loss of 4 to 6 months of academic progress.[2] 
  • In her FY 13 Budget Update, Supt. Donoyan states that our children need: “A fully funded education without fear of interruption of service” and “Consistency in leadership and teaching.” She also states on pages 2-5 that “Student needs and success drives our work![3]

 

Reason 2: Bigger classes do not benefit children, especially at the lower grades.

  • Larger classes mean the teacher has less time and attention to give each individual student.
  • There are between 261 and 278 K-2 students currently enrolled at the Fifth Avenue School, according to various measures on Rhode Island Department of Education InfoWorks web site.[4]
  • In addition to Fifth Avenue students who will be disrupted, many other K-2 Woonsocket students will lose out under the proposed plan to close Fifth Avenue School. All of the students who are transferred out of Fifth Avenue School, as well as students who are in other Woonsocket elementary schools’ classes (that they are transferred into), will be in larger classes.
  • The Woonsocket Teachers Guild Contract, made in agreement with the Woonsocket School Committee, implicitly recognizes that younger children especially benefit from smaller class sizes by specifying a 25-student maximum class size for elementary school and 30-student maximum for high school.[5]
  • The Rhode Island Department of Education sets annual targets for all of the state’s school districts, with a goal of improving student learning outcomes and academic performance.[6]  If Woonsocket Education Department wants to improve Woonsocket students’ performance, it should not be taking short-sighted, cost-cutting steps that seek to maximize class sizes, especially in the youngest grades, and make it harder for the District to achieve its long-term goals. 

Reason 3-Closing Fifth Avenue School will result in increased transportation costs for the District and increased travel time and safety risks to children.

  • In a point raised by Ms. Forcier-McGuire at the August 2 Budget Commission meeting, closing the Fifth Avenue School is likely to increase the District’s transportation costs.
  • The reason busing costs will be higher in Woonsocket is because more children will need to be bused to schools, and for longer distances. Any cost savings in closing the Fifth Avenue School must also take into consideration the increased bus transportation costs.
  • Fifth Avenue School children represent the earliest grade levels in the system (K-2) so they have greater busing needs than, say, children at the high school.
  • If the District does not provide appropriate transportation to all of the Fifth Avenue School students, then these costs will be unfairly transferred to parents, who may be balancing work schedules and a need to transport the child’s siblings to other school locations at the same time.
  • If Fifth Avenue School is closed, then on average the transferred Fifth Avenue students will spend more of their time traveling by bus or walking to school than their peers (at the new school). Transferred Fifth Avenue students will be put at a relative disadvantage academically because every day they will have less time at home for studying and resting. 
  • By making Fifth Avenue children travel greater distances to get to school every day, they will face increased risks of vehicle accidents. This is true both for bus travelers and walkers. Standard car insurance rates are set to reflect this basic principle of increased risk—the more miles traveled, the higher the risk of an accident.
  • Walkers will face increased safety risks in other ways too. The schools the students will be transferred to are likely to be farther away and in areas unfamiliar to the children because they are outside their neighborhoods. It is unsafe to have 5-7 year olds walking alone through unfamiliar urban neighborhoods.

Reason 4: Closing Fifth Avenue School will have a disproportionate impact on children who are minorities and from low-income families.

  • Fifth Avenue School has a wonderfully diverse student population, with one of the highest proportions of ethnic and racial minorities among all Woonsocket elementary schools. [7]
  • Fifth Avenue School also serves an economically disadvantaged population, with a relatively high percentage of students who are receiving reduced/free lunches (83%, compared to the overall Woonsocket school average of 70%).[8]
  • Closing Fifth Avenue School unfairly places the burden of Woonsocket Education Department’s cost-cutting measures on minority and low-income children whose educations will be negatively impacted by physical environment changes, larger class sizes, program differences, loss of connection to support staff and peer/community friendships, and increased transportation times.  
  • “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination in several areas including housing, employment and education. The sections of the Act relating to education are Title IV, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin by public elementary and secondary schools and public institutions of higher learning; Title VI, prohibiting discrimination by recipients of federal funds on the basis of race and national origin…”[9]

 

Reason 5- Less than 1 month is insufficient notice for teachers, some of whom will have to transfer their teaching materials from the Fifth Avenue School on short notice and prepare for new assignments. Other teachers could be suddenly displaced.

  • The Woonsocket Teachers Guild Job Fair already took place on Monday June 11, 2012.
  • The 2010-2013 Woonsocket Teachers Guild Contract states that anticipated school closings should be identified before the Job Fair. Section 10-6.00 states “Not later than one week before the job fair, a list of all known vacancies or new positions for the following school year will be posted. The administration will make every effort to identify those classes and/or schools anticipated to close.” [10]
  • Dr. Donoyan initially expressed her interest in closing the Fifth Avenue School as part of Option B in her April 25, 2012 FY 13 Budget Update.[11]  However, her restructuring alternatives, presented as options B and C, were put aside as the City moved to developing one budget plan for the District. None of the proposed restructuring alternatives was accepted, and the focus switched to funding a “status quo” budget that satisfies the state’s BEP.[12]
  • Dr. Donoyan’s plan to close Fifth Avenue School is now being proposed two months after the Job Fair has concluded, creating a situation that, if approved, would result in just a few weeks’ notice to teachers before the school is closed.
  • Reassigned teachers would have to get their belongings out of the Fifth Avenue building and set up new classrooms before classes start at the end of August.
  • Some other teachers would be bumped from their positions at other elementary schools due to seniority and they would have to move their belongings out too.
  • Fifth Avenue’s K-2 teachers could find themselves being forced to teach other grades at other schools, such as 4 or 5, due to the Job Fair being over and a limited availability of teaching positions that match their qualifications. It will take time for transferred teachers to prepare to teach new grades and an entirely different curriculum.
  • The lack of proper advance notice to Fifth Avenue School’s transferred teachers could violate the 2010-2013 Woonsocket Teachers Guild Contract which states in section 10-1.07 “Teachers shall receive adequate notification of any change in their assignment for the following year.”     

 

Reason 6—Woonsocket Education Department should not close a successful and vibrant school.

  • According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, Fifth Avenue School has achieved 6 out of 6 of its target goals.[13] This is a praiseworthy accomplishment.
  • The March 14, 2012 Woonsocket School Committee Meeting Minutes, posted on the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s web site, state the following: “Ron Celio, Principal, Coleman/Fifth Avenue: Spoke on behalf of Fairmount team community. Mr. Celio mentioned that Fairmount has improved in Reading and Math at both Coleman and Fifth Avenue. We have a community at Coleman and Fifth and have students and teachers that give 100% daily. If there were one hope, I would hope that our parents’ and PTO would keep the winning team of Coleman and Fifth Avenue together, because why stop the train when we just left the yard. Thank you.”[14]
  • Parents have worked hard to improve recreational opportunities for children at Fifth Avenue School. It is important to listen to their voices and to value their contributions to quality education in Woonsocket. For example, the April 25, 2012 Woonsocket School Committee meeting minutes state: “Estelle Bubble, Third Avenue: I worked so hard for the school and play yard at Fifth Avenue. To close the school would be a mistake. Everyone is created equal. We elected you people to be up there and you need to do the right job and not close any schools. Once you close them, they will not reopen and you will not save any money on bussing. Please don't close any schools, there has to be another way.”
  • A Woonsocket Call article dated July 29, 2012 documents there were “loud objections from city parents, teachers, and support staff back in April. It was put off at that time due to overwhelming opposition.”[15]
  • The Fifth Avenue School has between 261 and 278 students. The whiteboard in the Superintendent’s FY13 Budget presentation shows this school has 11 classrooms, and all of these are operating very close to capacity.[16]
  • Closing Fifth Avenue School means Woonsocket Education Department will be shutting down a successful and active school with positively engaged parents, and creating yet another empty, abandoned building in Woonsocket.[17]
  • The abandoned Fifth Avenue School building, together with the loss of the valuable local educational services that were being provided to residents there, could depress property values in the Fairmont area and run counter to the City’s economic development efforts.

 

Reason 7—The Woonsocket School Committee has Sub-Committees that are responsible for making recommendations regarding building use. The Sub-Committees should consider all factors, including how closing Fifth Avenue School would result in excess capacity being lost, and this will have implications for future services.

  • Student populations do change, especially in urban districts like Woonsocket. If every classroom in a school is maximized to capacity, and then a few more students move in to the neighborhood, the District’s costs can jump unexpectedly. Another teacher may have to be hired, or expensive individual bus transportation may need to be provided so that the students can attend other schools in the District.
  • Once 100% capacity is reached, the numbers and types of classroom spaces, fire codes, and teacher contracts will place external constraints on the school’s ability to accommodate any additional inflows of students. 
  • Like farm land that is converted to residential development, closing a school building and leaving it empty is likely to be an irreversible action.
  • Full-day kindergarten is often discussed in Woonsocket, and as Ms. Forcier-McGuire pointed out on August 2, there may be a need to preserve classroom capacity within the system so that this option remains viable in the future.
  • City planners should be involved in looking to the future and considering all of the community impacts of closing a school, including issues such as preserving quality of life and the school’s surrounding recreational spaces.
  • Some amount of extra school capacity always needs to be maintained within a school District to ensure smooth and efficient operations that can accommodate unanticipated student population inflows and plans for the future such as full-day kindergarten.
  • The Woonsocket School Committee has Sub-Committees that are responsible for reviewing Facilities/Planning and Building/Capital matters. The listed members for the Sub-Committee(s) are Eleanor Nadeau and Chris Roberts. However, there are no indications or public records that the Sub-Committee(s) was informed by the Superintendent of her Fifth Avenue school closing plans, and there are no records that the Sub-Committee(s) met to consider or approve the closing of the Fifth Avenue School.[18]
  • If the WSC Facilities/Planning and Building/Capital Sub-Committees hold public meetings, as public bodies, then the community will have the opportunity to be informed in more detail about the plans, and to comment on the proposed school closing. 

 

Reason 8- By law, changes to inventories of City-owned building should be approved by the Woonsocket Planning Board and by the state planning chief.

  • The Fifth Avenue School is on the list of Woonsocket’s inventory of Public Facilities and Structures with the City of Woonsocket’s “2012 Comprehensive Plan.” This plan was approved by the RI Department of Administration on January 3, 2012.[19]

 

  • Rhode Island laws mandate that proposed changes to a city’s Comprehensive Plan be approved at both the City and State levels before those changes can be implemented. See for example CHAPTER 45-22.2 Rhode Island Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act.[20]
  • According to a review of meeting agendas for the Woonsocket Planning Board, available on the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s web site, the matter of the closing of the Fifth Avenue School has not been brought before the Board. In fact, the scheduled August 7, 2012 meeting was cancelled due to lack of business.[21]
  • Fifth Avenue School was built in 1918 and could have historic significance. The Woonsocket Planning Board should consider this before any decisions are made to abandon this building.

 

Reason 9- The community has not yet been provided with sufficient notice for public comment on the Fifth Avenue School closing, as specified under RI Law.

  • By Rhode Island law, the public is entitled to at least a 30-day comment period, following submission of the proposed amendment to the state planning chief.

“(c) The intent of this section is to provide for the dissemination and discussion of proposals and alternatives to the proposed comprehensive plan by means of either individual or joint legislative and planning commission hearings which disseminate information to the public and which seek both written and oral comments from the public. Public hearing requirements for either joint hearings or for individual hearings of the planning board or commission and for the municipal legislative body shall include the following:

(1) Prior to the adoption of, or amendment to, a comprehensive plan, notice shall be given of the public hearing by publication of notice in a newspaper of general circulation within the city or town at least once each week for three (3) successive weeks prior to the date of the hearing, which may include the week in which the hearing is to be held, at which hearing opportunity shall be given to all persons interested to be heard. Written notice, which may be a copy of the newspaper notice, shall be mailed to the statewide planning program of the department of administration. The newspaper notice shall be published as a display advertisement, using a type size at least as large as the normal type size used by the newspaper in its news articles, and shall:

                  (i) Specify the place of the hearing and the date and time of its commencement;

(ii) Indicate that adoption of, or amendment to, the comprehensive plan is under consideration;

(iii) Contain a statement of the proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan that may be printed once in its entirety, or summarize and describe the matter under consideration; the plan need not be published in its entirety;

(iv) Advise those interested where and when a copy of the matter under consideration may be obtained or examined and copied; and

(v) State that the plan or amendment may be altered or amended prior to the close of the public hearing without further advertising, as a result of further study or because of the views expressed at the public hearing. Any alteration or amendment must be presented for comment in the course of the hearing.[22]

 

Reason 10- The Fifth Avenue School is part of Woonsocket’s 2012 Comprehensive Plan, and the Woonsocket Planning Board and the state planning chief have not yet considered or approved the closing of the Fifth Avenue School.

  • The City and State Boards should review how the proposed change in use of the Fifth Avenue School building, including possible abandonment, will impact the City in various ways, even beyond education, such as local economic development plans, housing values, recreational uses, historical preservation programs, and so on.
  • Dr. Donoyan stated recently that Fifth Avenue School is a “fire trap.” While fire code violations were found, the Fire Marshal Captain Michael A. Morin stated “There’s no inherent danger to life there. What there are, are code violations and there’s a process to get those corrected.”[23]
  • The Woonsocket School Committee and the Woonsocket Planning Board need to review the fire and safety conditions at all Woonsocket schools, and then assess costs and take actions that bring the Fifth Avenue School and all other Woonsocket school buildings into compliance with the code.  As a matter of public policy, city-owned buildings should not be abandoned simply because code violations have been found. Code problems can sometimes be minor and easily fixed. Also, fire safety and code compliance needs to be reviewed at all Woonsocket school buildings, not just one. For example, if the Fifth Avenue School is closed and students are transferred into other schools, there could be fire code violations there as well. All schools should be inspected and subject to the same standards.
  • The comprehensive review process at the state level for any proposed amendments by the city of Woonsocket also requires a public comment period, which has not taken place yet.

 “§ 45-22.2-9 State review of local comprehensive plans. – (a) There is established a program of comprehensive planning review to promote the preparation and implementation of local comprehensive plans, and to provide technical and financial assistance to accomplish this purpose. The program also ensures that all local comprehensive plans are consistent with the goals, findings, and intent as established by this chapter and the state guide plan….    (c) The chief shall review any comprehensive plan or amendments adopted under the provisions of this chapter for consistency with the goals and intent established in the chapter and in the state guide plan, and in accordance with the following schedule:

(1) Comprehensive plans or amendments shall be submitted to the chief within thirty (30) days of adoption by the municipal legislative body, pursuant to subdivision 45-22.2-8(b)(2).

(2) Within fifteen (15) days of the receipt of a comprehensive plan the chief shall solicit comments from the public, regional and state agencies, and all municipalities contiguous to the municipality submitting the plan or amendment. The comment period shall extend for thirty (30) days and shall be posted on the division of planning website.”[24]

Conclusion

Schools are valuable because they can provide safe and stable environments of support for students within their local neighborhoods. The Fifth Avenue School is a shining example of how public education can help students build positive relationships within the community and go on to become well-rounded, productive citizens. 

It’s important for Woonsocket leaders to really listen to our community’s voices. We should be praising, rewarding, and building upon the significant successes that we have already achieved in our educational system  –  not making decisions that tear down our amazing accomplishments and proud history.   

I believe we can all make a difference.

 

Respectfully submitted,

 

Cynthia Boss

 

[1]http://www.ride.ri.gov/dataworks/BEP.aspx “Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, Basic Education Program Regulations,” June 4, 2009, p. 5

[2] Dr. Joy Rogers of the Loyola University Department of Education, Education Report of Rule 706 Expert Panel presented in B.H. v. Johnson, 715F. Supp. 1387 (N.D. Ill. 1989), 1991ents

[3] http://www.woonsocketschools.com/docs/MISC/WED%20-%20FY%2013%20Budget%20Update.pdf “FY13 Budget Update” Submitted by Dr. Donoyan, Superintendent, April 25, 2012, posted on the Woonsocket Education Department’s web site, page 11.

 

[4]http://infoworks.ride.ri.gov/school/fifth-avenue-school InfoWorks, Rhode Island Education Data Reporting, Woonsocket, Fifth Avenue School

[5] http://www.woonsocketschools.com/documents.asp “CONTRACT BETWEEN THE SCHOOL COMMITTEE OF THE CITY OF WOONSOCKET, RI AND THE WOONSOCKET TEACHERS' GUILD LOCAL #951 2010-2013” p. 20

[6] http://www.eride.ri.gov/reportcard/11/default.asp RIDE Information Services

 

[7] http://www.ride.ri.gov/applications/statistics.aspx Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education web site, Statistics

[8] http://infoworks.ride.ri.gov/school/fifth-avenue-school InfoWorks, RI Education Data Reporting, Woonsocket, Fifth Avenue School

[9] http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/edu/types.php US Department of Justice web site, Civil Rights Act of 1964

[10] http://www.woonsocketschools.com/StaticDocuments/Contracts/Teacher%20Contract%202010-2013-N.pdf 2010-2013 Woonsocket Teachers Guild Contract

[11] http://www.woonsocketschools.com/docs/MISC/WED%20-%20FY%2013%20Budget%20Update.pdf “FY13 Budget Update” Submitted by Dr. Donoyan, Superintendent, April 25, 2012, posted on the Woonsocket Education Department’s web site. Option B.

[12] Council, School Committee: Superintendent Must Present Budget” Woonsocket Patch, May 1, 2012

 

[13] http://www.eride.ri.gov/eride40/reportcards/12/SchoolReportCard.aspx?schCode=39112&schType=1 2012 School Report Card, Fifth Avenue School

[14] http://sos.ri.gov/openmeetings//index.php?page=view_entity&id=4230 RI Secretary of State, Woonsocket School Committee Meeting Agendas and Minutes.

[15]http://www.woonsocketcall.com/node/5856 Closing of Fifth Avenue School Possible Again,” Woonsocket Call, Joseph Nadeau, July 29, 2012  

[16] http://www.woonsocketschools.com/docs/MISC/WED%20-%20FY%2013%20Budget%20Update.pdf “FY13 Budget Update” Submitted by Dr. Donoyan, Superintendent, April 25, 2012, posted on the Woonsocket Education Department’s web site, page 6

[17] The fact that the Superintendent is counting on utility savings indicates this building will in fact be left vacant and there is not another use planned for it at this time.

[18] http://www.mywoonsocket.com/School_Dept.html My Woonsocket web site, lower left corner, School Committee, 2012-14, Sub-Committees, Assignments

 

[19]http://www.planning.ri.gov/comp/woon.pdf City of Woonsocket, RI 2012 Comprehensive Plan, page 133

[20] http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/Statutes/TITLE45/45-22/45-22-7.HTM

[21] http://sos.ri.gov/openmeetings//index.php?page=view_entity&id=4302 RI Secretary of State web site, Open Meetings.

 

[22] http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/statutes/TITLE45/45-22.2/45-22.2-8.HTM

[23]http://www.woonsocketcall.com/node/5961 “Fire Trap” School has Numerous Violations, Russ Olivo, Woonsocket Call, August 7, 2012

[24] http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/statutes/TITLE45/45-22.2/45-22.2-9.HTM

 

Dawn Mackenzie August 10, 2012 at 12:31 AM
Agreed, close the thread.
Identity August 10, 2012 at 10:12 AM
I didn't say she wasn't a teacher in the system......I said that she is not listed under the staff at the middle school. I checked again....she is NOT listed there.
Buzzard Bee August 10, 2012 at 01:11 PM
I agree the thread should be closed since we can't talk sense to those who are not understanding. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and whether we like them or not people are entitled to share them
Tracey Belliveau August 20, 2012 at 03:04 PM
Wow...now you people have resorted to bashing the ex-husband of the person who took the time and effort to research and write a letter of concern. Shame on all of you.
Rob Borkowski August 28, 2012 at 11:52 AM
Hello, all - Several comments that were personal attacks and have nothing to do with the topic raised in this letter have been removed from this thread. This letter is now closed for comments.

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