Community reacts to closing of four elementary schools

By and
Staff Writer and City & State Editor
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Delsa Marfeo answered the phone Monday night to unwelcome news. Her son’s school would likely close at the end of the year, a representative of the Providence School Department told her — and it remains to be seen where he will end up.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Public School District Superintendent Tom Brady announced their recommendations for the closings of four city elementary schools Monday. Though their choices have not yet been approved by the Providence School Board, communities are already reacting to the news.

Flynn Elementary School, Asa Messer Elementary School, Asa Messer Annex Elementary School and Windmill Elementary School were chosen for closure on the basis of physical quality of facilities, student performance, potential costs of school renovations and ease of transferring students.

Parents were alerted in different ways to closings, some receiving direct notice from administrators and others hearing second-hand through media outlets or by word-of-mouth.

Marfeo’s son Anthony attends Asa Messer Elementary. “I really didn’t think that this one was going to be one of them,” she said yesterday afternoon, as she waited to pick up her son outside the red brick school building. The school department will hold meetings for parents to decide where the students will be transferred, she said. Bridgham Middle School — which, according to the city’s recommendations, would be converted to an elementary school — would be a convenient option, she added, because of its proximity to Asa Messer.

Marfeo said she worries about how the changes would affect Anthony’s relationships with his teachers and administrators. “When I told him last night, he was really upset,” she said. The first thing he asked was, “Am I going to get to see Ms. Calabro again?”

Some parents, like Karen Diaz, did not find out about the announcement until yesterday. “They just told me now,” she said, after picking up her son from Asa Messer.

“I was just surprised,” said Terri Wright, who has two children enrolled at Flynn Elementary and also received no notification.

Wright said one of her sons, a fourth grader, would have graduated from the school next year. “It’s just hard,” she said. “All this hard work he’s put in at this school is going to waste. Now he’s going somewhere totally different.”

Wright added she hoped her children would be sent to the same school. If they were separated, she said, “I don’t know what we would do.”

“It will be hard to leave,” said Yahaira Veoez, the parent of a student at Asa Messer Annex. “I love this school. My daughter has been here since kindergarten.”

As school let out around 3 p.m. yesterday, Dan — the husband of a teacher at Flynn Elementary — sat quietly in his car, waiting for his wife to emerge from school. Teachers “aren’t happy” about the school closings, he said, because most are not eligible for retirement. Though he learned of the school closings on Channel 10 News, he said he believed the school sent a letter to parents following the announcement.

He did not want his last name published because he did not want his comments to be identified with his wife.

A school department official visited Flynn Elementary Monday and told a “teacher in charge” — the principal was not present — that the school would be closed, Dan said.

Both he and his wife remain hopeful, he said. “If they get enough people retiring over the summer, maybe they’ll rehire. … The teachers here do a good job.”

He said he was confused as to why the school — which, with 600 students, is the biggest on the city’s list — had been chosen. He said that while the building is old and needs a new heating system, he saw no reason to target it over others, he said.

“We’re totally devastated,” said Mary-Ann Cullen, a teacher at Flynn Elementary. “We’re more than just a school. We’re a community.” She added that the school’s students are “extremely upset” by the announcement.

Cullen said she is unsure how the closure will affect her job, since the city has already fired all teachers in the district.

Administrators at Flynn Elementary said teachers had been instructed not to comment on the situation.

Norma Thomas, a crossing guard at Flynn Elementary for over 20 years, learned about the announcement on the news. “I don’t like it at all because it means I’ll have to be transferred,” she said. “But I don’t know where.”

Nicole Soares, who works at the Allen Berry Health Center, a community health center next to Flynn Elementary, said many of the school’s students come to the center as patients. The closure would “affect the whole neighborhood,” she said.

Yesterday afternoon, Jo-Ann Martin — fondly known as “Jo-Jo” by community members — was guiding students as usual across the parking lot behind Flynn Elementary. As a security official for the Rhode Island Bureau of Investigation, she talks to parents as they pick up their children every day. “They’re very nervous, they’re full of worries and concerns,” she said. “They don’t know what the next step is going to be.”

Martin called the situation “unfortunate.” Flynn Elementary is “so convenient,” she said. “The capacity is always full. All the schools are full. Where are they going to put the kids? How is that going to affect (their) education?”

“Right now the quality of learning is below average,” she said, citing the low test scores in several Providence public schools. “What’s going to happen when you have more kids?” She added that the adjustment period — as students adapt to their new schools after they are transferred — will be a difficult process.

Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service runs several programs in the four schools recommended for closing. Because the recommendations have not yet been finalized, the “specific implications will take a little time to discern,” said Roger Nozaki MAT’89, the center’s director. He said the center will continue to focus on “supporting the students and families” involved in its programs.

Hannah Miles ’13, coordinator of the Swearer Classroom Program — which works in both Asa Messer and William D’Abate elementary schools — said the volunteer tutors “form really close relationships with the teachers.”

She said the changes would definitely have an impact on the program’s work. “We’ve put so much energy into these schools,” she said. “It’s like we’re going to have to start from scratch at a new school.”


— With additional reporting by Amy Rasmussen and Morgan Johnson

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