STONINGTON — Construction vehicles rumbled past towering mounds of dirt at West Vine Street and Deans Mill elementary schools Friday, but inside the new portions of the buildings, teachers were readying brand new classrooms for the first day of school on Sept. 4.
“When you look at the school, you can’t imagine that this is actually happening because so much of the construction is happening right on the road,” said Kristen Morehouse, a fourth-grade teacher at Deans Mill, Friday. “But when you come inside, you can see [the building is] ready to go.”
Morehouse was standing in her bright new classroom on the second floor of the new addition. She’d spent a few days unpacking and organizing books and educational materials into the new cabinets and shelves.
“Everything is so new and nice, it's a great space. It’s like a fresh, clean slate,” she said. “We have a lot more storage, and I think it’s really nice when you can pack everything away because it’s less busy in the classroom for kids.”
The desks, which came from her old classroom, were arranged in orderly rows and will be replaced as soon as the new desks are delivered in mid-September.
“The first two weeks we’ll use old furniture and then the kids will come back one day and have brand new desks,” she said.
She also has windows and central air-conditioning, which she didn’t have in her old classroom.
“I have a beautiful view. I had no windows before,” she laughed. “I’m going to get some plants this weekend.”
In West Vine Street’s new wing, kindergarten teacher Heather Priest was considering where to put books and educational materials in her new classroom.
“It’s exciting. The space is great. It’s cheerful and there’s lots of storage, much bigger than we had before,” she said. “It’s a self-contained space with everything at our fingertips basically.”
For the last three years, Priest had been teaching in a portable classroom, but the new space will be her permanent home.
“That’s why I’m taking the time to do it right,” she said as she surveyed the cabinets and shelves. “I’m trying to be thoughtful in the process. We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
In April 2015, voters approved a $69 million bond to construct additions and renovate the two schools. The project will accommodate the relocation of the fifth grade to the elementary schools from the two middle schools, which will be consolidated in September 2019. Next year, West Broad Street School, which the third- and fourth-graders attend, will also close and the two grades will move to West Vine Street.
This year, the Deans Mill wing built in 1975 as an add-on will house grades 1, 2 and 3 while the school’s original building is being renovated. Next year, those three grades will move into the renovated building and the 1975 wing will be demolished.
Second-grade teacher Gail McLeod’s classroom was located in the original Deans Mill building but was relocated to the 1975 wing for the coming school year.
McLeod said moving has provided an opportunity to cull her educational materials.
“It has been a great time for weeding out,” she said. “It has forced to let go of things that I’ve been hanging on to, thinking maybe I’ll need this, maybe I won’t. Time to let it go. It’s a fresh start, too.”
She said students were adaptable when it came to classroom space and the key was to be organized and on-task.
“They are so flexible. As long as we’re settled and organized, it’s just business as usual,” said McLeod.
In her classroom in the new wing at West Vine, first-grade teacher Chris Mercier said she was on the advisory committee for the new paint colors, cabinetry and furniture.
“I wanted calming colors, like this soft blue,” she said, pointing to the gray-blue wall at the far end of her classroom. “We looked at catalogs, went to warehouses to see furniture options and worked on playground equipment too. We had input from all grade levels.”
Mercier said the new spaces are designed with flexibility in mind, which will allow for a broader range of educational activities.
“The room is inspiring and will give me the opportunity to do different things, like have more room for stations,” she said. “I have a lot more whiteboards to work with and it will be easier to display things for the kids and make resources more easily accessible to them.”
Construction work will continue through the year but the schools will be open and ready to welcome students on Sept. 4, said Jennifer McCurdy, principal of Deans Mill Elementary School, Friday.
“We’re making sure everything is safe and presentable. The classrooms are ready,” she said. “It’s still a work in progress. There are some things that are not done, but it will be clean, (and) it will be ready.”