NORTH STONINGTON — Cheerleaders waved pom-poms, teachers held homemade “Welcome Lions” signs and the high school band played tunes like “Louie Louie” and “Sweet Caroline” as students in grade 6 through 12 stepped off their buses Monday morning and entered the town’s brand new Wheeler Middle and High School that that’s been in the works since 2016.

On March 1, students and teachers spent their last day at the old school across the street at 298 Norwich Westerly Road, giving the district two weeks to move teachers’ materials to the new school and finish prepping, furnishing, painting, and organizing before Monday’s grand opening.  

“It’s newer and a better environment. I expected it to be not completely done. I really like it,” said Hannah Ritchie, a 15-year-old ninth grader, who joined her advisory in one of the two new art rooms.

The classroom belonged to art teacher Melissa Lincoln-Fortier, who said she and her fellow teachers unpacked their classrooms on Thursday and Friday with lots of help from students.

“Many students came in and helped get us packed up to move across the street and some of the them came in during their vacation to help us on Thursday and Friday to get our classrooms up and running,” Lincoln-Fortier said. “There’s a sense of community where everyone came together and all worked to get where we are today, which is really an exciting time.”

Principal Kristen St. Germain called Monday the school’s “second first day of school.”

“Lots of people are going around just smiling because, remember, we’re coming from a building where on a rainy day, we had buckets all around us, we had leaks, we had to relocate classrooms, and they’re walking into this modern, current, new building and you can’t not smile,” she said.

Phase one of the $38 million project (the town will pay $21 million after reimbursements) includes construction of the two-story, 43,600-square-foot middle and high school, built as an addition to the gymnatorium, which has also been renovated. Phase two, which commences this week and will finish in March 2020, is the renovation of North Stonington Elementary School, which also includes a small addition. Phase three, this summer, comprises a roof replacement on the old high school, which will be the new home of the Central Administration and the Board of Education.

In an email Friday, Pam Potemri, chairwoman of the School Modernization Building Committee, said the new Wheeler building has 41 classrooms, which is similar to the old building, and has special features such as security upgrades, flexible instructional space throughout the school, updated science labs, expanded and updated music rooms, a new guidance suite and the accessibility and Title IX updates in the gymnatorium, including new bleachers, a trainer's room, fitness center, and locker rooms.

First Selectman Mike Urgo, who was on the building committee before he was elected, said Monday it took tremendous effort to get the building constructed.  

“It was a lot of work to get here,” he said. “It’s impressive that we got here in a year.”

A long road

The project has a rocky history going back to 2004 when a report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or NEASC, stated the district needed to improve its facilities or its accreditation would be re-evaluated. In 2008, NEASC placed the district on “warning” status because the town had not taken steps toward forming a facilities improvement plan.

When Superintendent Peter Nero came on board in July 2012 after a 34-year career in the Cranston Public Schools, he worked with the Board of Education to begin improvements on the schools, but progress was slow.

In 2013-14, after two proposals to modernize the schools both failed in referenda, the Board of Selectmen formed the Tri-Board to oversee the Ad Hoc Building Committee to develop an affordable school modernization project. The Tri-Board consisted of representatives from the Boards of Selectmen, Finance and Education.

On May 16, 2016, after two years of work, the committee, renamed the School Modernization Building Committee, sent a new $38 million plan to referendum, which squeaked through by just three votes, 908 to 905. The vote was recounted on May 24, 2016, validating the original result. The recount was required by the state’s recanvass statute, which requires a recount when the winning margin of election or referendum is less than 0.5 percent.

The committee proceeded to hire Quisenberry Arcari and Malik Architects, of Farmington, solidified financing and took care of preparatory procedures.

The project was to break ground immediately after June 30, 2017, the deadline for passing the state budget, but ran into delays because the state didn’t pass its budget until fall of that year.

Then, in January, 2018, two citizens filed a petition to bring the 2016 referendum to another vote, potentially halting the project.

However, on Feb. 8, 2018, voters overwhelmingly supported the project, 1,352 to 611, and town officials didn't waste any time — they broke ground the next day.

Ever since then, Pat Ostrout, a seventh-grade math teacher who also teaches a sixth-grade advanced math class, said she’d been watching the new construction from her classroom window across the street.

“We’ve had strong support from the town, from the building committee, from our administrators, we just knew that everything was going to be here for us today,” said Ostrout, who has taught in the school district for more than 20 years. “I think this is an uplift for the kids. I think they’re seeing how important education is because the town gave them this kind of building.”

Excitement for the future

Jack Dowrey, 12-year-old sixth grader and one of Ostrout’s students, said the new building felt warm and inviting.

“It feels all modern and it feels like a huge, different type of school,” he said. “It makes me feel better about coming to school because it’s brand new.”

Jordan William, 18, a senior, said he thought the new school wouldn’t be ready on time.

“I didn’t expect them to get it done in time, I was a doubter,” he laughed. “It was a shock to see everything done and to have it all prepared for us to walk in.”

Amid the excitement, Nero was already looking ahead at work that will begin on the elementary school immediately.

“There’s not a whole lot of resting on our laurels. It’s time to move on to get that building. It will be done sometime between next March and next June,” he said. “I can’t believe how this all came together, thanks to my staff, my teachers — everybody. It’s been no egos, all positive energy.”

St. Germain called Monday “the best day ever.”

These kids have waited for this for so long and they’re in a facility they deserve to be in,” she said. "Their level of excellence now matches where they are learning every day. I am happy for all of them and so appreciative of the town.”

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