PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The state-run Providence Public School District announced Tuesday night plans to shut down two elementary schools, Alan Shawn Feinstein at Broad Street and Carl G. Lauro, at the end of the school year.
The announcement came more than 48 hours after the district acknowledged plans to close two schools, but declined to say which ones. The Providence Teachers Union posted about the plans on social media over the weekend, prompting the district to confirm the closures earlier in the month than originally planned.
As rumors swirled at both elementary schools, staff members were called into last-minute meetings after school on Tuesday to notify them of the plans. Teachers inside the meetings said there were tears as the staffers officially learned their buildings would close.
“We’re just very sad,” said Caroline LeStrange, a teacher at Broad Street. “I don’t feel there’s a plan in place.”
LeStrange said she’s worked at the school in the Washington Park neighborhood for 22 years. She said teachers were hoping the school community would stay together and move to another building, but are not hopeful for that outcome after the meeting with district officials.
“It’s a great school,” LeStrange said. She said her students were asking about the school closures on Tuesday. “I didn’t know what to say.”
Feinstein at Broad Street serves 277 students while Carl G. Lauro Elementary on Federal Hill serves 475 students, according to enrollment numbers from October.
Parents were notified of the school closures later Tuesday evening.
Carlos Cedeno, a parent at the Broad Street school, said his son started crying when he heard his school was closing.
“This is everything for my kids,” Cedeno said after leaving a meeting for parents Tuesday night. “This is my neighborhood. I grew up in this neighborhood. We don’t want that to happen.”
Cedeno questioned why the district’s $500 million investment in new school buildings could not be put into the Broad Street school.
“They don’t care about our children, they only care about the money,” Cedeno said.
District officials estimated it would cost $95 million just to renovate the Broad Street and Lauro schools, contributing to the decision to vacate the aging buildings.
Union President Maribeth Calabro, who was inside the meeting at Broad Street Elementary, said district officials did not say where the students and teachers would be going.
Teachers were provided with a “frequently asked questions” sheet, which said they would need to apply for new positions within the district in the spring. No teachers in the union will be laid off, the district said, and they are guaranteed another position through a process known as “displacement.” (The district has a significant teacher shortage.)
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Support sessions for teachers are scheduled in late January and early February.
A news release from the school district said parents at the two elementary schools would be offered a “preference form” in the new year to select a new school for their child.
“There will be no service interruption to any family whose students are currently enrolled in specialized services such as Dual Language or Special Education programs at these schools,” the news release said.
The district also announced plans to “phase out” Gilbert Stuart Middle School over the next several school years “to allow for the construction of a new PreK-8 campus in the vicinity.”
The middle school will not close until the end of the 2024-25 school year, officials said.
“There will be a conversation about a middle school, not that we’ll be closing,” R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said Tuesday morning. “That one will be phasing out.”
The decision to close multiple school buildings in Providence comes as the district experiences both a drop in enrollment and gears up for significant construction of new schools and renovations of existing schools.
The state is aiming to use a “newer and fewer” approach to school buildings, opening several pre-K through 8th grade schools throughout the city over the next several years.
“This approach helps put an end to expensive and inefficient ‘Band Aid’ fixes by replacing old, crumbling buildings with fewer new ones,” PPSD and RIDE wrote in the news release.
The next phase of the construction plan costs $500 million, according to the announcement. Voters approved taxpayer-backed school bonds in both the state and city last month.
The first “like-new” school is set to open at the former Windmill Street School, which was shuttered years ago and is currently being renovated as swing space for students to learn while their schools are under construction. The school was recently named the Narducci Learning Center.
William D’Abate Elementary School is slated to reopen after renovations next fall, and renovations to Pleasant View elementary School are slated to be completed in 2024.
The news release says three brand new pre-K through 8th grade schools are also in the pipeline to be built: Mary Fogarty School and Harry Kizirian School opening in fall 2025, and a new Gilbert Stuart School opening at an undetermined date.
Tuesday’s announcement did not mention the new Peace Street School, previously announced to be built at the former St. Joseph’s Hospital building. Part of the old hospital was donated to the city of Providence to become a public school. District officials did not answer questions about the status of the Peace Street school Monday or Tuesday.
Infante-Green acknowledged Tuesday morning the announcement of the school closure plan did not go as planned.
“I have to be totally honest with you, this is not how we wanted to roll this out,” Infante-Green said. She noted that Superintendent Javier Montañez has been out on leave following a surgery.
But she said the plan should not be a surprise to those who have seen the conditions of the Providence school buildings.
“One of the principals in the schools came to me, I think it was like eight months ago, and said, ‘My building is in shambles,'” Infante-Green said. “And that’s one of the schools,” she said. She initially declined to name the schools set for closure Tuesday until parents and staff were informed.
“When I go visit other districts that have new construction, it breaks my heart,” Infante-Green added.
RIDE did not bring the school closure proposal before any public body, including the Providence School Board, for public consideration prior to making the decision.
“That is not part of the purview of the current School Board,” Infante-Green said. (The School Board lacks power over the schools due to the state takeover.)
School Board members expressed dismay that the proposal was never brought before the board, which serves in an advisory capacity under the state takeover. School Board president Kinzel Thomas said he expected officials to explain the plan at the regularly scheduled board meeting on Wednesday.
Infante-Green added that the teachers union could have called the district and asked about the rumored closures, rather than posting on social media before parents could be notified.
But Calabro said Monday the union decided to post about the plans because of a history of secrecy when it comes to the state’s plans for the district.
A plan to close Charles M. Fortes Elementary School last year, for example, was kept secret until after a lease was signed to give the school building to a charter school. Teachers said they were blindsided by the news.
No immediate plans were announced for how the school buildings would be used. The buildings are still controlled by the city, even though the school programming is controlled by the state under the takeover.
Mayor Jorge Elorza suggested Tuesday the buildings could be used for public charter schools. The outgoing mayor has floated the idea of an all-charter district as he continues to criticize the state takeover of the school system.
“While PPSD continues to monitor and adjust for enrollment trends and related space needs, it presents an opportunity for city leaders to make our buildings available for any public school serving Providence students, including public charter schools that are overwhelmingly supported by Providence families looking for choice,” Elorza said.
A spokesperson for the mayor added that such a use would be “contingent on an assessment of the space and an expressed interest by public charter school leaders.”
Cedeno, the Broad Street parent, expressed dismay that the building could potentially be fixed up in the future for a charter school, while his two children have to change schools.
“They love the school,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Dan McKee said parents should be excited about the changes.
“I look at it as very positive,” he told 12 News. “Very positive for the families knowing that their kids are going to be in better buildings and better conditions for them to be able to learn.”