What new high schools could be

Posted 2/23/22

Three or four of us squeezed into the room. The heavy door closed with the sliding of a lock clearly audible. We looked at one another imagining what it would be like to know that it would be a long time before you went through these doors again. Ahead

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What new high schools could be


Three or four of us squeezed into the room. The heavy door closed with the sliding of a lock clearly audible. We looked at one another imagining what it would be like to know that it would be a long time before you went through these doors again. Ahead of us was another door with a huge glass panel. A uniformed officer stood watching us, making sure the first door was closed and locked before opening the next door.

The series of doors came after clearing the gates and the fencing topped by razor wire. This was the start to a Warwick Rotary Club visit to minimum security at the Adult Correctional Institution Facility about 15 years ago.

The experience flashed through my mind last Thursday as Beacon reporter Alex Malm and I stood outside the bullet resistant glass doors of the new East Providence High School. We would enter an alcove with another set of locked doors. Just beyond I spotted Mark McKenney and his wife Tricia, Superintendent Kathryn M. Crowley and Tony Feola, director of facilities and security. Mark learned of the new school from Kathryn’s husband, Joe during their Saturday morning tennis league and asked if he might see the school. Joe asked me if I would like to go along and I jumped at the opportunity.

The triple security entrance is only a part of the system Tony designed to keep the good guys in and the bad guys out. There’s so much more to it including more than 200 cameras, classroom doors that can be automatically locked and accordion steel panels close when triggered to divide the school into three sections if a bad character makes it that far.

After a 90-minute tour of the $189.2 million school that opened this academic year, I can understand why students would want to break into this school. It’s like nothing I’ve seen in public education and is on a par with what elite colleges and universities offer. From what I’ve seen, it is the gold standard for public high schools in Rhode Island.

Our first stop was a wall of black boxes, each with a shining green light that stretched down a corridor. They’re the new locker. Kids carry backpacks (yes, they even have books) but they don’t use lockers these days, I learned. The cubicles are code accessed charging stations for Chromebooks and other devices. The wow factors kept multiplying. The gym can be divided into two full basketball courts or sub-divided into four half courts. Wrestling mats are lowered from above (no more dragging those things from storage) and there is an indoor 1/8th mile track circling the gym on the second floor. A coach, stopwatch in hand, was about to send a group of students on a run when I interrupted.

“It sure beats the wind outside,” he said.

Career and tech programs are integrated into the school rather than housed in a separate center as are most Warwick programs. Again the programs are not what you would expect to find in a high school. There’s the customary building trades and auto mechanics shop – they’re in the front of the school, not hidden in some back warehouse – and among the first educational space seen by visitors. What a message to students and the public. The kitchen and culinary arts program provides facilities rivaling Johnson and Wales University. On Fridays faculty can order from the menu to take meals home at a reasonable price. But the customized box of an East Providence rescue was the showstopper. Kathryn brought in her husband, Joe, former director of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center to work at no pay on many features of the school. He negotiated the sale of the rescue with East Providence Fire. The right side of the rescue opens to reveal a panel of screens and dials used by EMTs to monitor and diagnose - if not safe the life – of a victim as they are rushed to the hospital. Tony climbed in and took the seat in front of the panel to point out the purpose of different switches. A camera mounted inside is linked to a Promethean board outside the vehicle. The boards – the 21st version of a blackboard that resemble a giant touch screen computer – are throughout the school. Students taking the course can expect to become certified EMTs if they pass the test. In other rooms we find dental chairs for the dental hygienist program and beds with dummies for the certified nurse assistant (CNA) program. Kathryn notes the programs reflect the market demands and already she is getting calls whether students are ready to work. She laughs, her answer, “it’s going to be another 18 months before they’re ready.”

The detail of planning and teacher involvement in the design of spaces and selection of furnishings reveal themselves as we move through the building. Classroom windows looking out on corridors have powered shades that will close in the event of lockdown or can be selectively activated. Chairs have skids rather than legs making them easy to move without lifting. Tops to the desks in the arts room lift to provide easels and the height of the complete desk is adjustable.

Teachers work from stands with wheels that likewise are adjustable and can be moved about the classroom. Student desks are designed to be easily moved to create collaborative work areas or separated to give students space. The buzz word is “blended learning.”

“You got a fidgety kid,” says Tony sitting in a student chair and rocking back and forth. Tricia, a retired East Providence special education teacher, immediately relates to what Tony is describing. “Well,” adds Tony, you don’t have to worry.”

Kathryn takes us into one of several teacher areas. It has a club feel with small tables and couches. Kathryn explains the area is designed to bring teachers together and have them interact, yet the space to be on their own to grade tests and to plan classroom work. Teachers do not have assigned rooms.

The “nurse’s room” rivals an emergency care center with rooms offering privacy and facilities to treat minor cases. The area is isolated from the rest of the school and has an easy exit to the front of the school in the event rescue transportation to a hospital is required.

The list goes on. The auditorium and theater is straight out of a Showcase Cinema only much larger. The cafeteria, which is just inside the main entrance, looks out on the football field and offers a patio where students can have lunch alfresco. High top tables and chairs replace the traditional cafeteria folding tables with built in bench seating.

I wondered if the proposed new Pilgrim and Toll Gate High Schools would incorporate such features and whether the suggested price tag of $350 million for the two schools could pay for it. The bigger question is whether Warwick taxpayers will approve bonding for such projects.

In the weeks ahead the Beacon will run a story on the school along with photos and post videos of our tour on the Beacon website and Beacon Facebook page.

Warwick educators and the School Committee need to show what a 21 Century high school can mean to the community. Teachers and school environments and good tools can open windows for students leading them to rewarding paths far from what I saw at the ACI.


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