By ARDEN BASTIA Robert Baxter, the executive director of finance and operations for Warwick Public Schools, is not lacking ideas to improve Warwick schools. While the district is currently facing enrollment declines of an estimated 1,200 students since
Robert Baxter, the executive director of finance and operations for Warwick Public Schools, is not lacking ideas to improve Warwick schools.
While the district is currently facing enrollment declines of an estimated 1,200 students since 2016, Baxter, Superintendent Lynn Dambruch, and Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey are working together to bring new life to Warwick’s schools through facility updates, new student programs, and improved transportation.
A chalkboard that takes up one wall in Baxter’s office is covered in notes and ideas, a brainstorming session that never ends. During a recent interview he gestured to bullet points and paced between lists of projects, as he talked about reenergizing Warwick schools.
One of the projects he’s working on is revamping school bus routes.
According to Baxter, the problem with current bus routes is their inefficiency.
“The district has got into what we’re calling premier transportation services, or door-to-door busing,” said Baxter. “We can’t sustain that. The way our distribution is and with the changes in the city, we’re going back to a more appropriate routing model.”
He explained how some students are bused across the district; for example, there are students who are bused past Warwick Veterans Middle School on their way 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 busing” said Baxter, who added that it costs $72,000 per bus for the school year.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said. “We have an elementary school within walking distance of every kid in the city.”
While Baxter is really pushing for Warwick schools to become hubs of community engagement, he says the difficult part is dividing up the city.
“Everyone says the airport divides the city,” said Baxter. “I know that sounds counterintuitive, but we’ve found that the airport does not divide the city.”
Baxter has found, instead, that the railroad tracks truly divide the city.
“I really only have two crossings, here and here, of any substance,” he said gesturing to the West Shore Road underpass in Apponaug, and the Greenwood Bridge. He pointed out the pass on Lincoln Avenue, but said because of the one-way lane, it is “difficult” to use. The Coronado Street overpass is removed from residential areas with students.
On the west side of the tracks, there are 539 students in first through fourth grade at Scott, Cedar Hill, and Greenwood Elementary Schools. On the east side of the tracks, there are 1,812 students in first through fourth grade across the remaining ten elementary schools. Baxter used these grades to get an estimate of what the high school population might look like in five to six years.
“There’s roughly a 3 to one ratio of students on the east side of the tracks to the west side. Not assuming there’s no enrollment decline, this is a real challenge for us,” said Baxter. “If we’re talking about having the building as a neighborhood resource, we have to look at how to take advantage of the assets we have.”
Baxter used Toll Gate High School as an example. Flanked by Centreville Road and Toll Gate Road, and next to Route 2, Toll Gate isn’t “a neighborhood school,” as Baxter put it.
Baxter is continuing to map out routes, but says the bus project will take a back seat, as construction and infrastructure updates takes precedence during the summer.
To really emphasize using school buildings as locations of community events and gatherings, one solution Baxter is working on is partnering with after school programs to offer activities for students.
“We’re partnering with an after school provider, because one of the reasons why we think we lose enrollment in elementary and middle school is because parents work and they don’t want their kids to be latchkey kids, so they go to schools that offer after school programs,” said Baxter.
While Warwick Schools do offer some after school activities, Baxter says they’re “sporadic”.
WPS will rent Warwick Veterans Middle School to organizations, like Ocean State Kids, to come in and run programming for students.
The after school partnerships would run as a pilot programs this upcoming academic year, but Baxter hopes to expand to other schools.
Rhode Island Youth Theater will use Vets Middle School in August to stage their summer productions, utilizing 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 agenda for the meeting in July.
Throughout the district, Baxter is looking to update facilities to rent to community organizations. He’s exploring updating the Gorton gym for organizations like St. Kevin to hold basketball camps in for students.
The Gorton auditorium, however, is not up to fire code and in need of a new sprinkler system, a project Baxter simply called “expensive.”
“The gym has already been sprinkled, and now we’re just working on ADA compliance,” he said. “It’s more desirable. We’ve seen a bigger need for the gym and more people that want to use the gym. And it’s an easier lift for us to get the gym open to the public.”
Baxter also mentioned the addition in the school’s budget for a few halftime custodial positions.
“We can open up on the weekends again, and try to get the community to use our buildings,” he said. “Our buildings are dormant. We’ve spent the money on them; they should be an asset to the community.”
Baxter says he’s also “working on growing the custodian culture.”
“We’ve treated the custodians as cleaners and janitors,” he said. “If you were the custodians of my children, you would take care of my kids. If you were the custodian of my money, you would take care of my money. While these buildings have been given to me by the taxpayers, and you’re my custodian, you’re not just cleaning it, I want you to take care of the building.”
Baxter wants to “hold [custodians] to a higher standard.”
Next on his list of projects to tackle is a meal assistance program. According to Baxter, “for the last year there has been free lunch for all students because of the federal subsidies and it’s going to be free lunch again next year. We suspect it’s not going to end, it’s going to now be free for everybody.”
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 says WPS partner with Westbay Community Action to start a fund to alleviate lunch debt. He estimates there’s about $170,000 in the fund, which Baxter plans to use to curb student hunger even after school hours.
“How do we use that? How do we redefine our lunch program?” he said. “We still have student hunger in our district, but now it’s outside of school hours.”
Identified that we need to sit down with community stakeholders and redefined what the lunch program will be