STONINGTON — It is a year of change for Stonington schools.

Pawcatuck and Mystic middle schools have been consolidated into a unified Stonington Middle School. Career center opportunities at Stonington High School have been expanded, and pre-kindergarten and fifth grade classes are returning to the renovated West Vine and Deans Mill elementary schools.

Mary Ann Butler, assistant superintendent of curriculum and assessment for the Stonington Public Schools, said the staff has worked diligently through the summer and teachers and faculty throughout the district are ready to welcome students back.

"Our staff has worked so hard and we are excited and ready to go," Butler said. "I think this year, the theme is a year of change. There are a lot of long-term plans that we've been working on that are finally coming to fruition."

Butler said noteworthy changes in the district are intended to improve instruction, enhance opportunities and promote teamwork and unity among teachers and students alike.

Middle school consolidation

For the past year, students and staff members have worked to meld two school communities into a unified middle school. When students in Grades 6 to 8 return to class on Tuesday, they will be together in a single location for the first time.

Tim Smith, who served as principal of both Pawcatuck and Mystic middle schools last year, said the transition began during the 2018-19 school year and will continue during the first few weeks of September.

"One of the things we did was to build the two rosters mindfully so that each had a mix of both students and staff from both schools," Smith said. "We will also continue to host programs in classes during the first few weeks of school to show we are one school and to build on the positive community-based mindset."

Smith and Butler each said the district held several events in the spring to allow students at Pawcatuck and Mystic to mingle, and students were given an opportunity earlier this month to attend orientation sessions.

These meet-and-greets, paired with regular community interaction through sports leagues as well as town Recreation and Human Services programs, made the transition a natural one for students, Smith said.

Combining the schools has helped to expand offerings, Smith said, and has led to the introduction of a new program, Encore, that will more closely mimic electives at the high school level and supplement core courses. Butler praised the effort, which was brought forward by teachers and developed in partnership with students, who were surveyed on their interests.

The end result is a range of opportunities in areas such as biometrics, forensics, photojournalism, photo art, and even a home economics course developed for the school's Unified program.

"We are all going to need to challenge ourselves," Smith said. "With twice as many kids to accommodate, there are some things we will need to do differently. We will all need to be a little flexible."

Expanded elementary schools

Before the 2019 school year, fifth-grade students attended the middle school and pre-kindergarten classes were held at Stonington High School and at the site of the former district central office in Old Mystic.

Now the West Vine and Deans Mill schools, which will be fully operational for the first time since renovations began, will serve as homes to seven different grade levels.

"This is the end of a multi-step transition," said Alicia Sweet Dawe, principal at West Vine School. "When we began last year, we had grades K to 2 at the school and in March, we brought over Grades 3 and 4 from West Broad Street. This year, everyone will be here at the same time for really the first time."

Dawe praised her staff, saying many teachers went above and beyond to move into their new rooms over the summer and make sure everything is ready. She said that everyone except the kindergarten were in temporary classrooms as of June and the move made for a busy summer.

"It's been an ongoing process for more than three years. Mentally we were ready, but physically there was a lot to do. Now we are excited to get the kids back in to enjoy these brand new facilities," she said.

Butler said that a new offering at the elementary level is an expanded instrumental music program for fifth-graders. And the school as a whole will have more of an international flair thanks to a world drumming component. The goal is to enhance students' exposure to world cultures and further promote unity throughout the school and community, she said.

"Both these are new, beautiful school facilities and we are excited about what we have to offer," Butler said.

Focus on students

Stonington High School Principal Mark Friese said he wanted to find a way to do more for the students. He wanted them to have more resources for planning their postsecondary education or careers, more personal instruction while at the high school, and more opportunities to grow as lifelong learners.

So he called upon his staff to step up their game — and took it upon himself to set the tone by stepping into the classroom to teach a math class himself. His goal, he said, was to experience what his staff does on a day-to-day basis while freeing them up for new initiatives.

"I've always said, teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world and here, I'm asking a lot more of my staff," Friese said Thursday. "They do such a wonderful job. I want to show them they have my support."

The school is seeking to free up more time for co-teaching, including providing shared planning time for teachers who work together. The purpose is to make sure classes meet the needs of every student, not just those who excel or have an individual education plan, or IEP.

Butler and Friese also discussed changes in the career center, with expanded office hours and a full-time staff member for the first time. With a greater selection of opportunities, students can focus on finding internships to hone their skills, prepare for higher education or begin focusing on their careers.

Nine students received hands-on training through a program run at the Westerly Education Center during the 2018-19 school year, and Friese said all nine were hired by area companies over the summer. This year, a partnership with the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board will seek to provide a permanent, in-house option for skill-based learners moving forward.

"Times have changed. The skills needed for most jobs, even those without going to college, are rigorous," Friese said. "We want to make sure our students, all students, have the opportunity to excel."

Students in 2019-20 will also see an expanded home base that will be 40 minutes long. The purpose of the new period is to provide another outlet for students who need added help or even individual instruction, while opening new opportunities for students who excel in certain areas.

"We are focusing all our efforts on making sure that the students, no matter their skill sets or backgrounds, have the foundation they need to chase what they want and be able to go out and do it," Friese said.

New home for administrators

Butler said the administrative team will be in for a busy fall. The district office, currently housed on North Stonington Road, will be relocated to the former Pawcatuck Middle School.

The move is currently scheduled to take place Sept. 7 to 9, though that is subject to change.

Butler said the move will bring the offices closer to the schools and allow the district to expand a pilot program designed to provide alternative education opportunities for students who may need more individual instruction or are struggling to adjust upon their return from outplacement.

The program will start small with four students next week, she said, but is likely to expand over the next couple years.

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