NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — North Kingstown School Department Superintendent Phil Auger presented the members of the North Kingstown School Committee with four options to remedy enrollment and building capacity issues at Hamilton Elementary School during their meeting Tuesday night, including a plan that could see the school’s fifth graders moved up to Wickford Middle School.
The potential moves, which Auger first addressed in an email to Hamilton parents over the weekend, come as the elementary school — which has the highest enrollment of all elementary schools in town — is facing a room shortage. All available rooms are currently in use, and district projections based on class size for the 2021-22 school year call for two additional classrooms as well as for bringing back the school’s art room.
“We need three classrooms if we want the Hamilton Elementary School we’re used to,” Auger said, adding the district received more applications for kindergarten than it originally anticipated.
Hamilton currently enrolls 410 students and has a capacity of 450, meaning they’re at 91% occupancy, making it the second-most occupied school in the district behind North Kingstown High School, which has a 92% occupancy, with 1479 students enrolled out of a capacity of 1600.
Two of the plans involve moving the district’s Next Step special education program, which currently utilizes two of Hamilton classrooms, to another elementary school — either Stony Lane or Quidnessett. With Stony Lane, Auger said space is available, as the school is at 74% occupancy — a number Auger said he considers in the “sweet spot” for school enrollment — but said the project would involve special education refits of two classrooms, the playground and the bathroom, and would only serve as a temporary fix to the Hamilton enrollment issue.
Likewise, Quidnessett also has additional space, being at 61% capacity, the lowest of any school in the district. But that school would need the same refits as Stony Lane and would only serve as a temporary fix while adding to the school’s mission, which, according to the district, has the highest percentage of low-income students and title demands.
The third option is to make no student moves, with Hamilton utilizing the art, music and maker space rooms as classrooms while bringing those programs from class to class, and potentially purchasing portable trailer classrooms — something Auger called a great expense and logical issue, saying he wasn’t sure the district would have enough planning time to implement it by the start of the next school year.
The fourth plan called for moving all fifth grade students, teachers and support staff at Hamilton over to Wickford Middle School, the school where those students currently would matriculate to for sixth grade, making the middle school support fifth through eighth grade, while counterpart Davisville Middle School would remain sixth through eighth grade.
Auger said Wickford had the second-lowest enrollment numbers of any of the district schools, being at 65% capacity with 317 out of a possible 485 enrolled, and that the school had four open classrooms. While some retrofitting would be needed for fifth graders, none would be needed for special education classes, as Next Step would remain at Hamilton, which would then have a 74% occupancy, while Wickford would be at 82%, keeping both near Auger’s previously described “sweet spot” while providing a long-term solution for Hamilton and easing congestion around the elementary school during pick-up and drop-off.
While the district’s elementary schools have traditionally served Kindergarten through fifth grade and the middle schools sixth grade through eighth grade, Auger pointed to multiple area districts that utilize a K-4 and 5-8 system, including South Kingstown, Narragansett, Jamestown, Chariho, Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.
Auger said that the fifth graders at Wickford would have similar conditions to their fifth grade counterparts at the district’s elementary schools and the same curriculum with a one-teacher format, while having their own wing at the middle school, complete with their own bell schedule, lockers, entrance and exit and lunch time. Rituals such as the fifth grade promotion would remain in place, Auger said. The only time fifth graders would interact with older students, according to Auger, would be on buses, with the students following the middle school’s start and end times and taking the same buses as sixth through eighth graders, and potentially in music, where fifth graders could be integrated with sixth graders for band, chorus and strings.
While Auger said none of the plans were particularly ideal and all would incur some cost, his recommendation would be to go with the fourth option to utilize the space at Wickford. The School Committee will take a vote on the proposal during their May 11 meeting, something which Auger said gives the committee and the public one month and two full School Committee meetings to let their voices be heard and come to a decision.
School Committee member Jennifer Hoskins expressed concerns with the potential movement of the Next Step program and interfering with the buddies program, noting that Next Step students and their buddies have been paired up for most of their time at Hamilton. Fellow member Jake Mather expressed similar concerns.
The proposals were the most popular topic of public comment during the evening, which lasted well over an hour. While one parent fully endorsed making Wickford a fifth through eighth grade school, others said they felt fifth graders were too young to be mixed in with sixth through eighth graders, who they said could expose them to more “mature” language and topics and argued that keeping them at Hamilton would allow “kids to be kids” longer.
In other action, the School Committee unanimously approved the adoption of Wit & Wisdom Curriculum for K-5 ELA classes on a six-year contract, with Assistant Superintendent Denise Mancieri praising the curriculum for its strong reviews and ability to work with the district’s already implemented Fundations program.
“We want to ensure the equity of education for all students,” Mancieri said.
Training for teachers in the program will begin next month during the professional development day on May 17, with further training taking place over the summer and in the days leading up to the 2021/22 school year.
The School Committee also unanimously approved making Wickford Middle School Interim Principal Alison Palladino’s position permanent.
“She was the top choice of our selection committee,” Auger said, praising the hire.
Palladino served as the school’s assistant principal for four years before taking over the top position last month when former principal Brian Lally stepped down to become the district’s Director of Human Resources.
“I feel lucky and I feel blessed to lead and learn in an amazing place like Wickford,” Palladino said.
The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for April 27 at 7 p.m. via Zoom.