By Matt Sheley, Town of Middletown
On Election Day 2022, local voters overwhelmingly approved regionalization and new school buildings.
Although Newport residents ultimately scuttled that plan by less than 400 votes, amid the success in Middletown, there was one persistent question from critics: How does this benefit children educationally?
Enter Manuel Cordero. The founder and principal of CIVIC design is known as the “premier expert” and “go to person” in Rhode Island for reimagining what 21st century schools should be and have to be for students and educators to succeed in the world of tomorrow.
For the past few months, Cordero has been working quietly with Middletown to make sure plans for a new middle-high school before voters during a May 2 special election are exactly what the community wants and needs for the next 50 plus years.
“What you see here in Middletown is similar to other schools across the state,” Cordero said during a brief break from a tour Thursday of Middletown High School.
“Through my work with RIDE (the Rhode Island Department of Education), you go into schools all over Rhode Island and a lot of them have a similar look and feel. They’re 50, 60, 70 years old and they’re in tough shape below the surface. What we’re here to do is give Middletown students and teachers the schools and systems they need.”
Before the tour, a dozen educators, architects and local school leaders met up in the office of Jeff Heath for introductions.
Leading the way out his door and into the front lobby, the high school principal served as tour director. For the two-hour plus tour and beyond, Heath was clearly knowledgeable about everything in his school — from the building itself to the classrooms, student needs and more.
As Heath provided details about the safety limitations of the front foyer, Cordero stood nearby, taking notes with a black Pilot gel pen on plain white paper held in place on a clipboard.
After listening to Heath, Cordero asked a question about the available after hours spaces for the community in the Valley Road building. Heath admitted there wasn’t much, maybe other than the gymnasium, something he’d like to change.
That sparked a discussion about how the schools needed to become more of a hub to the entire community, not just places where students learn from 7 am-3 pm and play sports and engage in other extracurriculars.
There was also quite a bit of talk about how to incorporate more vocational technical spaces into the new grade 6-12 facility on land just north of Gaudet Middle School on Aquidneck Avenue. Numbers from the town indicate the $190 million bond to pay for the new school and other improvements would cost the average Middletown homeowner about $2 a day, if it’s approved by voters.
The way the new structure is envisioned, sixth, seventh and eighth graders would go to classes in one section of the building, with high schoolers in another. Consultants and educators have said the two student populations would not interact with each other, but likely share resources like gyms, an auditorium and other specialized learning environments.
Input from Cordero and his team would be critical in helping shape the future offerings in the school as well as the layout of the building.
“We do the best we can with what we have, I’ll say that,” Heath said. “But there’s so much more, so much that we’d do if we had the right spaces and there’s only so much we can do here now. I know the same is true at the middle school now too.”
According to a November 2021 report, Middletown’s four schools need extensive upgrades and improvements. DBVW Architects of Providence found at least $190 million in repairs were required to the 60-year-old plus buildings. That includes asbestos and mold remediation, upgrades air handling systems, new elevators, windows and other costly projects.
Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger said the schools are trying their best, but the buildings are holding everyone back.
“When I talk with kids who dropout, go for a GED or just give up and ask them ‘Why?’ they’ll tell me what we teach in school doesn’t connect with them,” Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger said. “A lot of what they’re asking for and looking for, independent studies, hands-on learning in flex spaces, things like that that lead directly to jobs, we can’t offer that here with what we have now.”
Stopping in one hallway intersection west of the gymnasium, Heath said he’d love to have a built in standing desk there and other strategic spots that allowed administrators to be out among students and get work done at the same time.
In response, Cordero smiled and promised far more.
“What we can do with a space like that, it will blow you away,” Cordero said. “You’ll be amazed.”
Moments later, Heath mentioned how only a small minority of the close to 600 students at the high school use lockers anymore. Instead, he suggested those spaces would be better used for seating and other small-scale educational spots.
“I know it seems strange to us adults, but they don’t use lockers anymore and they just take up space,” Heath said. “With the new school, we should have lockers for students who might want them, but take into account that they’re carrying everything with them now. Jackets? Most of them don’t wear them anymore or carry them around all day. The massive textbook we used to use? That’s a thing of the past.”
A couple steps up the hallway, Cordero was taking notes quickly as Heath explained the shortcomings of the school’s counseling area, which was far from private as it should be.
“What we’re hearing here isn’t unusual at all,” Cordero said. “Think of when this school was built and what the world looked like then. There was no internet. Education was a lot different. We have phones now where we can do everything and you come into an environment like this and it’s like ‘Wait. What?’ We’re teaching about technology on devices that most students far surpass at home. We need to change that.”
Edward Brady, co-chairman of the School Building Committee, noted the overall health of the new school was critical.
“If you walk around, the classrooms have HEPA filters and open windows,” Brady said. “Every window that can be open is open. Think about that. It’s not even 50 degrees out and that’s what we have to do, run fans and HEPA filters because the buildings mechanical systems don’t provide a healthy environment. One of the big selling points of this project has to be the environment of this building.”
After the tour wrapped up, Cordero said he and his staff would take all the information and data collected and start laying out a proposed middle-high school that will become part of a formal Stage II submission to the state. That would spark a dialogue about what worked with the preliminary design and where amendments would be necessary.
He said an important part in that process was surveys to teachers and staff, gathering that feedback and assimilating it into the design. Work was also underway to get input from residents and businesspeople too in coming weeks.
“I’m really excited to be here and design a school that works for Middletown,” Cordero said. “When you talk to students and teachers about what they want and need, it’s flexibility and welcoming spaces. There’s a lot of pride here and there are sensible solutions that will work for everyone.”
Document Link: https://www.middletownri.com/DocumentCenter/View/7148/NYCU-Manuel