Transforming schools into community assets

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By ARDEN BASTIA

Robert Baxter, the executive director of finance and operations for Warwick Public Schools, has no shortage of ideas for improving the schools in Warwick.

As the district currently faces a drop in enrollment of around 1,200 students since 2016, Baxter, Superintendent Lynn Dambruch and Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey are working together to breathe new life into Warwick schools through updates. facilities, new student programs and improved transportation.

A painting that occupies a wall in Baxter’s office is covered with notes and ideas, a brainstorming session that never ends. In a recent interview, he pointed out bullets and paced project listings, as he spoke of revitalizing Warwick schools.

Optimizing transport

One of the projects he’s working on is redesigning school bus routes.

According to Baxter, the problem with current bus lines is their inefficiency.

“The district has embarked on what we call top-notch transportation services, or door-to-door bus services,” Baxter said. “We cannot support this. In view of our distribution and with the changes of the city, we return to a more appropriate routing model.

He explained how some students are transported by bus through the district; for example, there are students passing by Warwick Veterans Middle School on a bus to Winman Middle School.

For the new school year, the walking distances for students will change. High school students will have a maximum walking distance of 2.4 miles, middle school students will have a walking distance of 2 miles, and elementary students will have a distance of 1 mile.

This is “a more efficient use of the bus,” said Baxter, who added that it costs $ 72,000 per bus for the school year.

“We are very lucky,” he said. “We have a primary school within walking distance of all the children in town. “

While Baxter is really pushing for Warwick’s schools to become centers of community engagement, he says the hard part is dividing the city.

What divides the city

“Everyone says the airport divides the city,” Baxter said. “I know it sounds counterintuitive, but we’ve found that the airport doesn’t divide the city.”

Instead, Baxter discovered that the railroads really divide the city.

“I really only have two crossings, here and here, of any substance,” he said, pointing to the West Shore Road underpass at Apponaug and the Greenwood Bridge. He pointed to the Lincoln Avenue pass, but said due to the one-way lane it was “difficult” to use. The Coronado Street Viaduct is removed from residential areas with students.

On the west side of the tracks, there are 539 students in grades 1 through 4 at Scott Elementary, Cedar Hill and Greenwood Elementary Schools. On the east side of the tracks, there are 1,812 students in grades 1 through 4 in the remaining ten elementary schools. Baxter used those scores to get an estimate of what the high school population might look like in five to six years.

“There’s about a 3-to-1 student ratio on the east side of the tracks to the west side. Without assuming that there is no decline in registrations, this is a real challenge for us, ”said Baxter. “If we are talking about having the building as a neighborhood resource, we must seek to take advantage of the assets we have.

Baxter used Toll Gate High School as an example. Flanked by Centerville Road and Toll Gate Road, and next to Route 2, Toll Gate is not “a neighborhood school,” as Baxter puts it.

Baxter continues to plot routes, but says the bus project will be left out as construction and infrastructure updates will take priority during the summer.

Schools as community resources

To really emphasize the use of school buildings as venues for community events and gatherings, one solution Baxter is working on is to partner with after-school programs to provide activities for students.

“We are partnering with an extracurricular provider because one of the reasons we think we are losing elementary and middle school enrollment is that parents are working and they don’t want their children are turnkey kids, then they go to schools that offer after-school programs, ”Baxter said.

While the schools in Warwick offer extracurricular activities, Baxter says they are “sporadic”.

WPS will hire the Warwick Veterans Middle School to organizations, like Ocean State Kids, to come and run programs for the students.

The after-school partnerships would function as pilot programs this coming school year, but Baxter hopes to expand to other schools.

The Rhode Island Youth Theater will use Vets Middle School in August to stage their summer productions, using both the auditorium and the outdoor courtyard space.

The school committee has yet to approve the pilot program, and Baxter said it should be on the next school committee’s agenda for the July meeting.

Across the district, Baxter is looking to upgrade facilities for renting out to community organizations. He plans to upgrade the Gorton Gymnasium for organizations like St. Kevin to organize basketball camps for students.

Gorton’s auditorium, however, falls short of the fire code and needs a new sprinkler system, a project Baxter simply called “expensive.”

“The gym has already been watered, and now we’re just working on ADA compliance,” he said. “It’s more desirable. We have seen a greater need for a gym and more and more people wanting to use the gym. And it’s an easier lift for us to open the gym to the public.

Baxter also mentioned the addition to the school’s budget of a few part-time guard positions.

“We can open again on weekends and try to get the community to use our buildings,” he said. “Our buildings are dormant. We spent the money on them; they should be an asset to the community.

Baxter says he is “also working to develop the culture of the goalkeeper.”

“We treated the guards like cleaners and janitors,” he said. “If you were the keepers of my children, you would take care of my children. If you were the keeper of my money, you would take care of it. While these buildings were given to me by the taxpayers, and you are my keeper, you don’t just clean it, I want you to take care of the building.

Baxter wants to “hold on [custodians] at a higher level.

Student programming

Next on her list of things to do is a meal assistance program. According to Baxter, “Last year there was a free lunch for all students because of federal grants and it will be a free lunch again next year. We believe this is not going to end, it will now be free for everyone. “

In 2019, when Warwick Public Schools planned to serve only sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches to students who couldn’t pay their lunch debt, Baxter said WPS had partnered with Westbay Community Action to create a fund to alleviate the lunch debt. He estimates that there is about $ 170,000 in the fund, which Baxter plans to use to reduce student hunger even after school hours.

“How do we use this? How are we redefining our lunch schedule? ” he said. “We’re always hungry for students in our district, but now it’s outside of school hours. “

Identified that we need to sit down with community stakeholders and redefine what the lunch program will be


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