2014-03-27 / Opinion

We are Family

I t’s a dirty little secret, but one that everyone seems to know exists. Portsmouth and Middletown residents have long been leery of Newport’s public school system. By statistical measures at least, Newport’s schools have lagged behind their island counterparts; bogged down by negative political narratives and distractions over things like facilities and contract negotiations.

Last week, a Middletown mother’s comments during a public forum on a proposal to create a unified school district between Middletown and Newport reignited a familiar debate and threw into question the appetite for regionalization among current parents.

The comments themselves were not unique or new to the discussion; we’ve heard scores of parents and politicians from across the island raise similar concerns. They say that combining school districts could disrupt the education of their children; that it would create schools that are simply too big; and would diminish the intangible qualities that come from independent school districts. There’s merit in their concerns, but more often they’re tinged by fear.

Specifically, the fear of the unknown.

We know right now what to expect from each community’s schools. And as a whole they’re good. Portsmouth, of course, tests among the best public schools in the state and has consistently fielded competitive athletes who have gone on to impressive high school and college careers. Likewise, Middletown has in recent years out-performed state averages and also boasts an impressive slate of extracurricular sports and activities. And Newport – which has the smallest public school system of the three – has been making great strides in everything from early childhood education straight through to Rogers High School, where students are being pushed to exceed expectations.

What we don’t know is how these communities would perform together.

It would be a shame if the quality of education for any student suffers under regionalization, and we should not sacrifice the academic well-being of our children for the sake of a bean counting exercise. However, we would also be cheating ourselves and our students if we didn’t at least explore ways to intertwine the island’s school system. The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council reported in a 2009 study that the island's three municipalities could save close to $13 million by fiscal 2013 by combining high schools. That's not small change.

Ask almost any politician and they’ll tell you as a state, one of our biggest weaknesses is our parochialism. Rhode Island is a city state; its population is smaller than most major metropolitan areas, and yet we treat each other like foreigners.

Over the years, we’ve emphasized in this space the centrality of community and the importance of developing a strong sense of place.

Aquidneck Island is too small – and our communities too interconnected – to ignore the potential synergies that might arise from sharing with each other.

Newporters live in a diverse city; and for that, we have a thriving community.

From athletics to academics, competition among peers can be a powerful driver of success. Diversity, as well, has been shown to be a major contributor to engendering a healthy worldview and developing the tools needed to succeed in life beyond the classroom. Rather than simply fearing the unknown, let’s try to imagine the things our children could accomplish with a deeper pool of talent and perspectives.

The saying goes that a rising tide lifts all boats. Rather than focusing in on our differences and those weights that might drag us down, we might better consider how we can work together to improve our entire island home.

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