One Square Mile: Bristol's Regionalized School District

Oct 11, 2013

Bristol, Rhode Island is home to one of the largest consolidated school districts in the state, the Bristol-Warren Regional School District. For today’s installment of our series One Square Mile Bristol, Rhode Island Public Radio’s education reporter, Elisabeth Harrison, wanted to find out whether regionalizing has been a success.

As the sun sets over the football field at Mt. Hope High School in Bristol, a couple dozen cheerleaders wave white and purple pompoms and urge the hometown Huskies to a victory over the Johnston Panthers. Students and parents from Bristol and Warren fill the bleachers.

“You can’t compare it to Texas and down south and all that but it’s important for us,” said Diane Davis.

Davis has been coming to these games for 33 years. She started volunteering with the marching band when her kids and grandkids were in high school.

“It gives the kids a chance to show their capabilities and all the kids, the band, the football team, the cheerleaders, they all get a chance to showcase,” said Davis.

When Davis first starting coming to these football games, Bristol and Warren families did not cheer for the same team.  In fact, the two towns were arch rivals on the football field and pretty much everywhere else, at least that’s how many people describe it.

But in the early 90’s, these two rivals decided to put aside their school colors and merge. It wasn’t an easy decision said Pauline Silva, a parent in Warren at the time and the current Director of Administration and Finance for the school district.

“Honestly, my children were in third grade and fifth grade when we regionalized, and the only thing my oldest son knew about Bristol, even though his dad was born and raised here, is that’s where his friend’s cousin was shot in school," said Davis. "He was a little brown-eyed, doe-eyed  fifth grader, and he said mommy please don’t make me go there.”

But Warren had to go there. The district didn’t have enough students to fill a high school, so the state education commissioner offered them a choice: send your children to another town’s high school or start talking consolidation with Bristol. The result was the Bristol-Warren Regionalized School District, which serves more than 3,500 students today.

Back on the football field at the end of the first quarter, the game remains scoreless, but the band plays enthusiastically.  Saxaphonists A.J. Murgo and Benjamin Piccolo-Evans said they are aware of the historic Bristol-Warren rivalry, but now they see little sign of it.

‘If there was any rivalry between the two towns, it would be from people who don’t go to school together here. They’d probably be out of high school by now,” said Murgo.

“They basically would still have their minds back in the feudal society of ancient Britain, I think that’s what we’re saying,” quipped Piccolo-Evans.

Piccolo-Evans and Murgo say they have found a home in the marching band, and it’s one of the legacies of the Bristol-Warren consolidation. School officials like to say they have one of the best, if not the best, marching band in the state.  As for the old stereotype about band geeks, Piccolo-Evans said it’s not a factor.

“I really don’t think it’s true. Everyone thinks a band kid is a complete recluse, nerd, but obviously you can tell from me and A.J. that the word quiet isn’t even in our lexicon,” said Piccolo-Evans.

At Mt. Hope High School, roughly 130 students participate in the marching band, and the school offers more than two dozen other art and music classes, including a guitar ensemble, jazz ensemble, world drumming and even digital audio recording, just to name a few. Students learn to play instruments, critique music, and compose and improvise says Robert Arsenault, chair of the high school arts department.

“When it all comes together you can see it on their faces," said Arsenault.  "At a jazz band rehearsal yesterday teaching basic improvisation skills, these kids are pumped up because they learned something new that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.”

According to Arsenault, the variety of music and art available at Mt. Hope High School is possible, in part, because it’s a consolidated high school, which can offer a wider array of classes and activities than a smaller school.

But the district has not been immune to budget cuts. Arsenault said Bristol-Warren lost its elementary school band several years ago, and now, because of changes in the way the state has hands out money to school districts, Bristol-Warren has to find roughly a million dollars to cut out of its budget every year for a decade.

“It’s very clear that our aid over 10 years is going to be significantly diminished,” said Bristol-Warren Superintendent of Schools Melinda Thies.

Thies has been combing the books for savings. She and her staff are reviewing everything from copier contracts to bussing. They’ve cut administrators, negotiated no-raise contracts and switched to a cheaper high deductible health insurance plan. But the bottom line, Thies said, is that at some point, taxpayers are going to have to pay more, or start losing school programs.  

“Across the state and across the nation, there’s considerable expense attached to that, and it’s the ability of both towns in our little microcosm here of acknowledging this is an investment I want to make,” said Thies.

Disputes about school funding have already led to a lawsuit with the town of Warren, and some critics complain that Bristol-Warren doesn’t have the same high test scores as its main rival, nearby Barrington.

Thies points out that the district has been steadily improving and test scores place its high school among the top 10 or 15 in the state.

Yet it is programs like the marching band that stand out for many students.

As the 130 members of the Mt. Hope Marching band prepare to take the field at half time, senior James Costa said he sees his own future in music.

“It means a lot," explained Costa, who leads the band as a drum major. "I’ve never really been in anything where I could get a captain role, so when I was able to do this, it’s very exciting because this is what I want to do in the future. I want to have a marching band of my own. I want to be a music teacher, and this is a great jumpstart.”

Jumpstarting students is one advantage to a strong arts program, according to Bristol-Warren school officials, and they argue that public schools are worth the investment because good schools bring new families and new businesses, and that can help small towns like Bristol continue to thrive.