This coming September the Fall River School Department will open the new Slade School in the city's South End. It's one of 3 new, '650-student capacity' schools that the city will be opening in the Fall.
With the opening of the new Slade the School Department is proposing that 4 schools in this section of the city be closed: Fowler, Healy, Osborne, and the Hector L. Belisle. Certainly as we open these newer, larger schools we have to close the older schools that populate our city. However by closing these 4 schools the school department is projecting opening up the new Slade with an enrollment of 648 students, just 2 less than capacity. School Department officials say that they are unable to shift any of these students to the Doran, the only other school proposed to remain open in the South End, because it is close to capacity with an enrollment of over 400 students.
New homes and condos have been constructed in the area and the recent housing boom has replaced retirees with young couples starting or raising families. Is it only matter of a few years before we see a sizable increase in school aged children in this part of the city? Having 2 schools serve the Central and South Zone, and have both operating at near capacity seems shortsighted. You would think that there would be some sort of long term plan that would take into consideration the future need for classrooms and there was. A committee was formed to create a Master Building Oversight Plan. This committee, which issued its final report in April of 2002 recommended that with the construction of new schools that 5 existing building be renovated and expanded. Hector L. Belisle School is one of those 5 schools.
The Belisle School was built circa 1950, it is a single unit school, with a current enrollment of 111 students. It could easily house 150-170 students. Unlike many of the pre-WWI schools in the city, the Belisle has a dedicated nurses office and cafatorium (a multipurpose room that is used as a gymnasium, cafeteria, and an auditorium.) The school sits back from the street on a lot of land that is roomy enough to allow for both staff parking and outdoor activities. A future expansion to a double unit school, (2 classrooms per grade) would increase capacity to probably just under 350 students.
If Belisle were to remain open the enrollment of the new Slade would fall to just under 540 students but could fall to as low as 500 students. Let's take a closer look at this. The new Slade is listed as a 3-4 unit school. Again, a single unit has one class for each grade level, so a 4 unit has 4 classes for each grade level. The new Slade is a K-5 school, at 4 units per grade that means there would be 24 total units in the school. An enrollment of 648 students divided by 24 would result in 27 children per classroom. That is a lot of children! By keeping Belisle open classroom size drops to under 24 children per class at Slade. IF we could increase enrollment at Belisle to 132 students both Belisle and Slade would have roughly 22 children per class. If, as the experts state, classroom size is so important wouldn't this make sense?
There is of course, the argument that as a small single unit school Belisle is unable to offer to its students and staff the amenities and services of the new larger schools. Also some believe that teachers at a single unit school are at a disadvantage because they have no peer to relate to. These are certainly points worth considering. However, historically our schools that have performed best on the MCAS tests have often been these small one unit schools showing that these obstacles can be overcome.
Why close Belisle when doing so goes against the city's own long term plan and doing so leaves only 2 'near capacity' schools to serve this area of the city? The School Department cheerfully speaks of making the new schools accessible to as many children as possible but is that the only motive?
It seems money is playing a key role in deciding Belisle's fate. Plans to expand or renovate are in jeopardy because the state is no longer reimbursing those costs under the School Building Assistance Program. Also it's clear the that School Department has decided to close Belisle as a cost savings maneuver.
Keeping Belisle open means smaller classroom sizes at the new Slade school. It means having the ability to accommodate an increase in enrollment in the Central/South zone. It means meeting future needs by having a facility that can be expanded. And if the state funding to renovate or expand Belisle no longer exists we should push for our local delegation to restore such funding and not abandon our long term plans. We really need to ask ourselves, should we really close Belisle?