There has been a back-and-forth discussion in recent months about whether the JFK School would be available, whether there is room for the pre-K kids in an already crowded Pell Elementary School, and what the long-term solution for pre-kindergarten children would be.

NEWPORT – The School Committee is bringing all 75 pre-kindergarten children back to the Pell Elementary School for the 2020-2021 school year, regardless of Middletown’s offer to let them stay at the John F. Kennedy School on West Main Road for another year.

There has been a back-and-forth discussion in recent months about whether the JFK School would be available, whether there is room for the pre-K kids in an already crowded Pell Elementary School, and what the long-term solution for pre-kindergarten children would be.

The School Committee voted 5-1 Tuesday night, with only Robert Leary opposed, not to reconsider its vote on Dec. 10, when they voted to place the pre-K kids in Pell because they thought the lease with Middletown was expiring on June 30 this year, with no extension of the lease likely.

However, Middletown Town Council members met in executive session on June 6 and agreed to forward a proposed lease offer to Newport. That lease offer now has been rejected by Newport as a result of Tuesday’s vote.

Before the vote, the School Committee heard some impassioned pleas from the pre-kindergarten teaching and counseling staff, parents and children, and a Pell music teacher to please let the pre-k program stay in Middletown for one more school year, until June 30, 2021.

When Pell opened in September 2013, the pre-kindergarten children were in the classrooms designed for them, with a bathroom in each classroom, and there were two art rooms and two music rooms for grades 1 through 4.

That was the only year of pre-kindergarten classes being held at Pell because it became overcrowded and the pre-k classes were moved to the JFK School beginning in September 2014.

That initial year was the end of two art rooms and two music rooms as well until the current 2019-2020 school year, because one or more of the specialized rooms were re-purposed as regular classrooms each of those past school years.

Beginning in September 2014, music teacher Scott McEneaney, one of two Pell music teachers, went mobile. His music room in the lower school wing had become a regular classroom, so he had to cart his teaching materials and the musical instruments from class to class.

He told School Committee members that he needed a large cart to transport either 25 keyboards or 25 ukuleles around the school, and the school passageways were not designed for that.

Maneuvering around tight corners and doorways was difficult and he often had to lift the cart to make turns and position the cart. The result is that he injured his back and he even had an X-ray at the School Committee meeting to prove it.

“I can’t do that again,” he told the committee.

With the pre-k kids returning, there is a good chance his music room will again become a classroom, school officials have said. It depends on enrollment. For example, in the past, there have been eight Grade 3 classrooms, but in the current school year there are seven. If there are eight Grade 3 classrooms again in the coming school year, the music room goes. Also, the required number of kindergarten classes fluctuates.

Two third-grade girls, accompanied by their mothers, also addressed the School Committee and said they do not want to lose their music room as a learning space.

Janice Masciarelli, who has taught in Newport’s pre-k program for 23 years and now teaches at JFK, outlined for the School Committee all the different spaces needed to instruct and care for the pre-k children, especially those with special needs. The staff would not have those spaces at Pell, she said.

Also, under the current plan, the kindergarten classes would continue to occupy the classrooms at Pell designed for pre-k children, the classrooms that have their own bathrooms.

Instead, the pre-k children would be in classrooms with no bathroom, Masciarelli said. The children would have to use the one bathroom in the nearby hallway, or walk all the way to the cafeteria where there are bathrooms.

Masciarealli said she has one paraeducator assisting her in the classroom and they cannot abandon classroom duties to accompany kids to the cafeteria. These children are being potty-trained and they typically wait to the last minute.

“They are not going to make it to the cafeteria without accidents,” she said.

Kerri Smith, an occupational therapist who spends most of her days in the pre-kindergarten program at JFK, also explained why the space at Pell was insufficient for the program. For one, there are lacking “sensory rooms,” she said.

“We have significantly delayed children with special needs,” Smith said.

“JFK isn’t perfect, but it is working for now,” Masciarelli said.

Pell Principal Traci Westman, Pell Assistant Principal Kathy McKeon and Director of Special Education Candace Andrade told the committee members they could make the pre-k move to Pell work, arguments the committee majority accepted.

The administrators and committee Vice Chairwoman Aida Neary said they wanted all the children together, as part of one community. They said the transition from pre-k to kindergarten would be easier for the pre-k children if they started out at Pell.

“I want my kids – all the Newport kids are my kids – back in Newport,” Neary said.

Long term, the School Committee members support a plan to construct an addition of eight classrooms on the west end of the Pell School, where the basketball court is now. The addition would be for the upper grades, but it would free up pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms at the other end of the building.

The most recent estimated cost of the addition would be $9 million, for which the city's residents would have to approve a bond referendum targeted for the November 2020 general election.

sflynn@newportri.com