MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (MAY 31, 2022) – Until Tuesday night, the idea of three new schools in Middletown was largely just theory, an idea, a dream.
At a meeting from the basement of the Oliphant administration building that shifted, where the School Building Committee heard some of the exciting possibilities for the shared middle-high school as well as a combined elementary school.
Everything from the importance of natural lighting, incorporating nature and flexible learning spaces to the look, feel, potential classroom sizes and security of the buildings was discussed at a wide-ranging meeting focused on the quality of education in Middletown.
Although no decisions were made, members of the volunteer committee and others said the community clearly had an awesome opportunity to set itself up educationally for decades to come if the proposal is approved on Nov. 8 by voters.
“This is a golden opportunity for Middletown to build its educational process literally from the ground up, ” Building Committee Co-Chairman Ed Brady said. “Not many towns get and opportunity like we have. We have 37 weeks to to do it.”
Building Committee member William Nash said he looked forward to touring some of the new schools showcased during the presentation, saying there were interesting elements throughout.
“I think we need to talk about dates for tours,” Nash said. “Some of those places excite me, frankly and I’d like to see them.”
Opening the meeting, School Building Committee architects DBVW of Providence introduced officials with HMFH Architects and Design Civic, who were added to the team recently to help come up with the best and most economical school design for Middletown.
HMFH Senior Principal Laura Wernick and Senior Associate Matt LaRue said their firm focuses on school projects across the country, including a number in Massachusetts. They said one of the keys to any new space was it not only considered the education of today, but where things are heading 10 and 20 years and more down the road.
LaRue pointed to examples that HMFH has done in Saugus, Massachusetts, Weymouth, Massachusetts and Dover, New Hampshire. He said on the surface, each school looked different, but met the needs of the students, staff and host communities.
“You want each student to feel like they’re part of a community that they have a sense of and they know everybody within,” LaRue said. “(Our school) spaces really help call for that. Natural lighting is very important, even when we’re talking about fairly interiorized, we try to bring light in from above.”
Design Civic Founder and Principal Manuel Cordero said no matter what the Building Committee came up with for a preferred layout, it would be much different than the schools that were here today.
To get a sense of what the students, teachers, parents and the community wanted from its new schools, Cordero said public input was an important part of that process. In coming weeks, he said there would be significant outreach to get feedback from everyone to help the community design the schools that work best for Middletown.
“We’re designing for a completely different economy,” Cordero said. “Back then when many of these buildings were built, we were preparing students for a different workforce, a workforce that was predominantly manufacturing. Even though we still have some manufacturing, our economy looks dramatically different and looks like it will continue to change.”
Facing at least $190 million in repairs to the existing school buildings and seemingly no outs, the idea of the new schools first came about in March.
That’s when the Rhode Island Department of Education said if the town regionalized school systems with Newport, Middletown could get 80.5 percent reimbursement on any new school construction. So instead of putting “Band-Aids” on its 60- and 70-year-old buildings, the town could have all new state-of-the-art facilities for less than $50 million.
Under the regionalization model before the General Assembly now, Middletown and Newport schools would operate under one school committee, finance committee and school administration, but each community would keep its own school buildings and students.
In order for the plan to move forward, Middletown and Newport voters must approve the regionalization concept on Election Day. Middletown voters would also need to okay the $235 million bond, which the town would be reimbursed by RIDE at 80 cents on the dollar.
The potential for the new schools has sparked a wave of activity from the Middletown School Building Committee over the last few weeks.
According to designs from DBVW of Providence and consultants Colliers International, a new combined high school-middle school would be built at the former Starlight Drive-In property now multi-use fields at 1225 Aquidneck Ave. next to Gaudet Middle School.
Students in grades six through eight would go to classes in one part of the building completely separate from the high school grades nine through 12. Initial planning showed the building would share a 500-600 seat auditorium, a cafeteria and library media center. Importantly, middle and high school students would not use those spaces together.
The combined elementary school would be constructed on part of the existing footprint of Middletown High at 120 Valley Road. Eventually, both Aquidneck and Forest Avenue elementary schools would close after the new combined elementary school was complete. A pre-kindergarten center for Middletown youngsters will be built on the new elementary school campus too, creating a synergy around early childhood education.
The way the school construction project is phased, temporary trailers would not be needed. Construction on the combined high school-middle school would come first, with students staying in the existing buildings until work wrapped up there. Then, building would begin at the Valley Road campus for the new elementary school, with the Aquidneck and Forest Avenue schools staying in service until they were no longer needed.
A formal decision from the Middletown council about whether to place the items on the Election Day ballot won’t be made until the summer. In order to make the Nov. 8 deadline, Middletown officials have said the Town Council needs to make that decision no later than its Aug. 1 meeting to get the items before voters.
The School Building Committee needs to have a Stage II design for the new schools to RIDE no later than February 23, 2023. Should voters approve the bond and regionalization, the construction of the new schools must be finished no later than November 2027.
“Let’s get going,” Brady said, closing the meeting. “We have 37 weeks (to submit the Stage II design to RIDE).”