2017-10-19 / Around Town

Rogers High Needs $50 Million Upgrade

State Leaders Hear Concerns at Local Forum
By Brooke Constance White

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, Treasurer Seth Magaziner and Education Commissioner Ken Wagner were attentive listeners at the first “State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses” open forum on Oct. 12, as Newport parents and residents shared their concerns and input about the district’s facilities.

While many of the 80 attendees at the event expressed a desire to see the aging Rogers High School campus modernized and potentially replaced, others brought up overcrowding issues at Pell Elementary School and the need to have facilities and programming that equip students for a 21st-century workplace.

The three state leaders offered opening remarks on a recent independent study that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) commissioned to thoroughly examine the state’s 300-plus K-12 school buildings, but mainly focused on listening to the community during the two-hour forum. Once their statewide listening tour is complete, the Rhode Island School Building Task Force must make recommendations to the governor by December.

As one of Rhode Island’s communities with the most needy facilities, Newport was the first stop on the task force’s tour. Rogers High, where the forum took place, is currently ranked as one of the 10 worst school facilities in the state.

Based on the State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses report, completed by Jacobs Engineering in September after a yearlong assessment, the state needs $2.2 billion to bring all of its K-12 school buildings into ideal condition. The immediate need at Rogers, which was built in 1957, is $37.9 million and its combined need over five years is $51.4 million.

Some of the issues detailed in the report include water leaking through the roof into the gym, uneven concrete walkways throughout the campus exterior, a gym and auditorium that are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and pre-1978 base-layer paint that’s peeling in parts of the building. Additionally, the report stated, most of the interior and exterior doors in the school require replacing along with numerous mechanical systems. The list of needs at Rogers goes on for seven pages in the report.

Karlie Cesarini, a mother of a Rogers student, said she attended the school’s open house Oct. 11, and saw what she identified as some kind of mold in a classroom, as well as ceiling panels hanging down in other places.

“There were puddles in the hallway,” Cesarini said. “In the gym, there was a ceiling panel that was all brown. The teachers were amazing [during the open house] but I was pretty shocked to see the state of the high school’s facilities.”

Magaziner said he and his colleagues believe that every child in the state deserves to go to a school that is safe, warm and dry, and equipped to train students for 21stcentury learning so they can enter the workforce with the skills to compete in the modern job market.

He offered the scarcity of science labs at public high schools as an example of how dire the needs are. Only 75 percent of all high schools in Rhode Island have science labs, which offer students a deeper knowledge of science theory and provide a hands-on understanding of the relationship between action and reaction.

“This is the beginning of the process, which is why we’re coming to you, the community, to find out what you need and want,” Magaziner said. “We want to make sure that the money we spend will be going to the places that need it most. We all have an interest in seeing Rhode Island’s children succeed, but we have to act with a sense of urgency.”

Jennifer Jackson, a parent of several students in the district, expressed concern that even though Pell Elementary School is only four years old, it’s already overcrowded.

“We’ve got a brand new multi-million dollar school with great technology and here we are five years later trying to figure out where to put our children,” she said. “After we fix problems here at Rogers, how are we going to maintain it?”

Diane Sheehan, supervisor of the art department at Pell, agreed with Jackson and said Rogers is dealing with similar overcrowding issues.

“Right behind you now is part of the music program space,” she said, gesturing to the stage of the Rogers auditorium. “One of our music teachers here has a room that is literally a garage. He calls it a garage band, but all that is to say that they are experiencing cramping here at Rogers as well as Pell.”

Another Rogers parent, Elaine Trainor, who graduated from Rogers along with her husband in 1984, said she would be sad to see the school go, but didn’t want it rebuilt on the same footprint. She suggested moving Rogers to the north side of the city.

“It sits on a large chunk of valuable real estate,” Trainor said. “Sell the property and move the high school to the north end where most of the students live.”

Stuart Strewli, a parent of two Pell students, suggested the district and RIDE find ways to link students to various programs in other schools across the state. He suggested teleconferencing and other means of sharing resources to ensure each district is sharing its strengths with other state schools.

“We need to lift each other up and use the funding to make sure school districts are working together to improve things throughout the whole state,” Strewli said. “The state can lead the charge in having school districts work together and not be insular.”

Newport resident Mike Cullen offered a similar suggestion, saying programs like Newport’s Pathways in Technology-Early College High School and Middletown’s Project Lead the Way, both of which prepare students for careers after they graduate, should be expanded to include students from outside districts.

Raimondo said doing nothing is not an option.

“Our kids deserve better, our teachers deserve better and Rhode Islanders deserve better,” she said. “We’re going to fix these problems and this is just the beginning because we’ve got to get this right. It won’t be a quick fix in two years, it’s going to take 10 or more years but it’s going to happen.”

If you were unable to attend the forum or didn’t speak but have something share, the task force is asking the community to send thoughts, comments and concerns to FixMySchool@ride.ri.gov.

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