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City's students settle into new classrooms

When the school bells rang for the Providence public schools in late August, about 1,800 students started the year in unfamiliar buildings. They are former pupils of the five city schools — Asa Messer Elementary School, Asa Messer Annex, West Broadway Elementary School, Edmund W. Flynn Elementary School and Windmill Street Elementary School — closed last spring in response to a massive budget shortfall.

Students were relocated to different schools based on seat availability and access to specific programs, such as English-language classes, said Christina O'Reilly, facilitator of communications and media relations for the Providence Public School District. Nearly all Asa Messer students moved to the Samuel W. Bridgham Middle School, while students from the other closed schools were distributed across other city schools. O'Reilly said keeping siblings together was also a priority during the reassignment process, but the department could not always place students in the school closest to their home. Social events and open houses were held to make the children and families feel welcome in their new communities, she added.

The school closings also affected Swearer Center for Public Service community service programs at Asa Messer Elementary School. The approximately 30 volunteers who work with the Swearer Classroom Program to provide students one-on-one literacy mentoring will now work at Bridgham, said Christine Joyce '12.5, one of the program's coordinators. Joyce added that because the school district has implemented a new reading curriculum this year, "there may be a need for more assistance."  But structurally, the program will not change much. Each volunteer will continue to be assigned to specific classrooms and work with students whose reading proficiency fails to meet curriculum standards.

Brown Arts Mentoring, the Brown Language Arts Program and Providence Science Outreach also operated at Asa Messer. Last February, the city issued lay-off notices to all 1,934 of its public school teachers in compliance with a rule stipulating that teachers must be informed of potential changes in their employment status by March 1, O'Reilly said.

By May, about 1,500 notices had been rescinded, and those teachers retained their positions. In the next few weeks, the remaining teachers were rehired in a process that attempted to match teachers with their preferred schools and principals with their preferred candidates, she added. The 100 teachers who were left unassigned applied for additional positions through an application process known as "criterion-based hiring,"  leaving only about 50 to 60 teachers jobless.

The fact that these individuals were still unemployed at this late point in the summer was "no judgment on their quality," O'Reilly said. "It may be that nothing matched their certifications or they were a runner-up in a dozen jobs. They are not an inferior group."

Despite the rearrangement of students, O'Reilly said class sizes have not increased. The maximum class size is 26, she said, though teachers can receive extra pay for each of up to three additional students in the classroom. As a result, O'Reilly said the department seeks to limit the number of classes filled to maximum capacity. To ensure appropriate class sizes, new classrooms for students from closed schools were designed to fill excess capacity in existing school buildings, including those that had been only partially used.

Though enrollment projections are "essentially flat" at the moment, O'Reilly explained that the city will continue to monitor student enrollment numbers. "We're not trying to fit square pegs into round holes," she said.


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