By Tim Munoz
This is an exciting time for the East Greenwich Public Schools and for the entire community.
On Tuesday, with a $150 million referendum for a master plan for school building 3+ years in the making on the ballot, we have the opportunity to bring generational and much needed change to our schools.
While the economic logic to renovate and replace old and failing infrastructure – with the state paying up to 55 percent of the total cost – is clear, this opportunity is really about education, not bricks and mortar.
Let’s start with elementary education. One of the most important changes the School Committee wants to effect through the master plan is to end what’s known as “split elementary,” where students go to one school from grades K-2 and then a different school for grades 3-5. The master plan would replace split elementary with a grade realignment that creates two new/renovated grade 1-5 schools.
The educational case for grade realignment is powerful. By ending unnecessary mid-elementary transitions for young learners, we can foster a greater sense of belonging and continuity during the most critical years for education. Teachers and staff who truly know each and every student stay together to support them as a team for five years. The elementary curriculum, with its vital pivot point of “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” can be seamlessly integrated to ensure that every student makes this leap with teachers and staff who are with them every step of the way. Older elementary students model learning behaviors for the younger students and provide peer supports that we do not have today.
Perhaps most important of all, for our most vulnerable learners –including those who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs), those who have physical accommodations through 504 Plans, those Multilingual Learners (MLLs) for whom English is not their primary language, and those supported by the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), kids who do not have a stable home environment – integrated grade 1-5 elementary schools allow us to provide all the services and supports that these children need, and for which we are legally and ethically bound to provide. All Means All.
Frenchtown and Hanaford
A new Frenchtown school and a new or significantly renovated Hanaford school housing grades 1-5 allow us to level set elementary education. Everything from libraries to classrooms to technology labs to gyms to collaboration areas to special education suites will be designed on a like-for-like basis; it is an essential part of the EGPS Strategic Plan that the same educational spaces and facilities, functionality, capacity and design are equitable and accessible to every student.
Importantly, in order to maintain the intimacy and sense of community that we have today in our four-school, split elementary model, the new Frenchtown and Hanaford buildings will each have two “houses” of approximately 300 students each. The master plan envisions each building sharing common spaces, including gym, cafeteria, library, etc., while the classrooms and most of the educational delivery take place in a smaller-scale house with its own identity and its own team of educators that will stay together from grades 1-5. Imagine a central common building core with distinctive wings and separate entryways to two 300-student elementary houses.
And the equitable geographic distribution of one west side and one east side 1-5 elementary school, with corresponding efficiencies in everything from bus routes to facilities management, are important and universal benefits.
As we take these strategies forward and develop detailed schematic designs of the elementary schools, we also have a great opportunity to create more community spaces at the Frenchtown and Hanaford sites, including new fields, playgrounds, and gyms, new performing spaces, perhaps landscaped trails and areas for reflection. Anyone in town who’s involved in recreational sports, arts and enrichment programs, community groups, or senior activities stands to benefit from a significant upgrade to the public spaces available.
We are also planning an Early Education Center for pre-K and kindergarten, to provide a dedicated space to deliver the age-specific educational needs of beginning learners. Being able to build an early base of skills that promotes socialization and helps students get a jump on reading, in an environment fully equipped with everything from bathrooms off of each classroom to creative play areas to teaching areas for small groups, is another major opportunity included in the master plan. And, if universal pre-K becomes the law in our state in the coming years, we will be well prepared.
East Greenwich High School
At the high school, our plan calls for major improvements in many areas that represent real deficiencies and liabilities.
The classrooms and library at EGHS have been periodically renovated and improved since the building opened in 1970, and for the most part, they are in very good shape. While we all might have our views on the general aesthetics of EGHS, the building is structurally sound, has seen significant work over the years, and can continue to serve us well if we address the specific areas that need renovation and reimagining today.
The master plan calls for new locker rooms, coaching and team rooms, and training areas for our great student athletes and the coaches and volunteers who support them. We also envision new wellness spaces, available to all for yoga, pilates, meditation and general recharging. All students will benefit from an athletic area that is grounded in health and wellness, and not just performance sports.
Our special education areas are simply unacceptable in their current state. This is not a question of neglect, but rather one where the advancements in how we care for and provide services to our vulnerable learners has not caught up with the spaces where we deliver these things. We need new classroom spaces and common areas, rooms where 1-on-1 services can be delivered privately, therapy spaces, break rooms and a fully equipped life skills suite. This work is necessary and urgent.
The master plan also calls for a major upgrade of the auditorium, which is used not just by EGHS, but also by the elementary schools (whose performance and gathering areas have sadly yielded over time to cafeterias, storage spaces and A/V areas) and the community at large. The auditorium is truly a community asset, and we want to make it fully functional and fit-for-purpose to the many people who use it year-round.
We also plan new classrooms for art and music education, so that we can fully integrate technology such as CAD stations or sound studios with great acoustics into these vital areas of education, to support our tremendous educators and talented students whose creativity and explorations suffer from unnecessary resource constraints.
Similarly, our CTE area needs a major technological and design upgrade so that we can support the increasing number of students who are enrolled in our pathway programs or who want to benefit from a well-equipped technology suite and maker spaces.
When we did focus groups with EGHS students, they told us overwhelmingly to eliminate the lockers in the hallways (no one uses them) and to replace them with technology charging stations and seats where they can quickly check messages, organize their work, and recharge for a minute. Addition by subtraction.
Finally, in the places you don’t always see, we need to invest in new infrastructure that will make the entire building more technology-empowered, more energy-efficient, more safe and secure.
Design Themes for EGPS
Across all our continuing buildings and all planned construction and renovation, the master plan identifies major themes that will inform the schematic designs and detailed planning by our architects and educational designers.
These themes link the educational mission with the design and execution of the buildings and spaces. They speak eloquently to the objectives and strategies of all the work contemplated in the $150 million bond, and they reflect the unmet needs of a leading school district as it supports the requirements of 21st century teaching and learning.
And they were developed over the course of 3 years of public planning sessions and 19 visioning sessions involving educators, students, parents and community members.
The design themes include:
- Accessibility and Inclusiveness: Accommodate and promote the inclusion of all students, especially our most vulnerable learners.
- Flexibility: Support a range of learning styles and teaching needs with flexible room layouts.
- Collaboration: Allow for project-based learning and collaborative problem-solving, student-to-student, educators working with smaller groups.
- Technology Empowerment: Allow multi-sensory teaching and learning: visual, auditory, experiential.
- Holistic Learning Environments: Use natural light and color, open and welcoming spaces conducive to high function cognition, social and emotional well-being.
- Health and Wellness: Provide safe, comfortable, healthy spaces where kids can interact, learn, have fun and thrive.
If you think about the modern workplace, in most businesses large and small, think about how much has changed dramatically in the past 10 to 20 years. There are fewer walls, fewer offices, more open space for collaboration, more spaces and design elements that promote mental health and well-being, more specialty areas to facilitate creativity, more light, more integration with the natural environment …
It’s the same for our schools. We need to catch up not only to how students learn and teachers teach today, but how all of us interact, collaborate, share and grow. Buildings are bespoke environments that make all kinds of possibilities available to their users.
And now, in EG, there’s one word that unlocks all these possibilities for our students and families, for generations to come. Please take it to heart.
Tim Munoz is a member of the East Greenwich School Committee and the School Building Committee.