For West Side Middle School in Groton, 'Everything's in shape'

West Side Middle School seventh-grader Dominique Dominguez, 13, center, gets a bit nervous as she attempts to find her bus as students depart school Wednesday on the first day in Groton. This is the first school year since the district closed Fitch Middle School, causing an influx of new students at the school.

Groton - For more than half the students and staff at West Side Middle School, the first day back Wednesday was the first day, period.

After the Board of Education passed a redistricting plan in April, ahead of the summer closing of Fitch Middle School, West Side began preparations to absorb both an influx of elementary school students entering the sixth grade and the displaced seventh- and eighth-graders from Fitch.

West Side would have to accommodate a doubled student population - up to 520 from 260 last year.

In a blue blazer and red tie, Principal John P. Jones stood outside the main entrance, welcoming and directing, in a state of smiling calm amid the chaos of arrival.

"We've been anticipating it and working hard," he said.

As one bespectacled, pink-T-shirted girl rushed up to Jones, speaking quietly enough to be confiding a deep secret - "Um, where do I go?"- he leaned down as if to confide in turn.

Jones doubled up on his staff over the summer, which now has 60 certified teachers compared to last year's 29. And some creativity was required in reassembling the school itself: Everything from the art room to team gathering rooms and even some storage space was repurposed to create more classroom space, he said. A portable with space for two more classrooms will arrive in October.

But for now, Jones said, West Side is ready to go.

"Whenever you approach a deadline for anything, it gets a little crazy and a little hectic," he said. "But everything's in shape, everything's in place, and I can't be happier."

One visible symptom of change was the six traffic officers guiding the 11 buses - up from last year's four - and chauffeuring parents in their drop-off loop off Brandegee Avenue and around the parking lot into a set of orange cones.

Groton city Sgt. Scott Sanford, in a yellow vest, was on greeting duty.

"Good morning! All right, you ready for school?" he called after one student as she clambered out of a back seat.

The officers must deal with not only a sharp increase in school-bound cars and street-crossers but also with drivers along the same route on their way to Pfizer.

"We have a game plan to make it as safe as possible, and then we'll adjust," he said. "The idea is to assist the school in a positive way. I think our department's about community, and it's a small area, and so this is a good morning for all of us."

Around 7:45 a.m., the landing just outside the main entrance was abuzz with reunions, clusters of friends in their impeccably chosen back-to-school outfits. The overachievers touting pristine new backpacks already clutched books to their chests, while a staticky voice greeted the crowd every so often over the outdoor PA system.

Seventh-grade guidance counselor Kathy van Engelen has been at West Side for 14 years. She stood in position just inside the main entrance, ushering students into the gym to find their homeroom assignments on pieces of paper taped to the walls.

"We're expecting a smooth opening," she said, echoing Jones' confidence. "We're in really good shape. We have a great schedule this year."

Seventh-grader Joseph Huey, 13, scanned his class list for his homeroom. He was new to West Side, and with a combination of nerves and excitement under his gray sweatshirt and black-and-blue skater shoes, he had all of the normal hopes of coming to a new school.

"That the teachers will be nice, that it should be easy to find my classes, and my locker-opening should be easy," he said.

Outside, Ally Woodhall, 13, an eighth-grader and West Side veteran, was calm and collected as she stood waiting with her friends.

"There's a lot of new kids," she said. "I'm okay with it."

When the bell finally rang at 8 a.m., an impressively synchronized stampede squeezed through the front doors. It was a trial-run day, a day for orientation and introduction - a long homeroom period, shortened classes and an extended lunch so students could learn how to navigate the cafeteria lines.

French teacher Elaine Makela stood out in the front of the wing, directing those who seemed less sure. Makela spent 11 years at Fitch Middle before coming to West Side.

"It's gonna be an interesting year. We all are working together and it's all a part of teamwork and as long as we keep our attitudes positive, I think the kids will be fine," she said. "I think we'll all adjust."

Shortly afterward, sixth-grade guidance counselor Pamela Faley popped in to check on Patricia Hird's homeroom, a social studies classroom with a world map, green chalkboard and picture chart of geographical terms.

"Who remembers who I am?" she asked.

Some eager hands shot up; others looked apologetic.

"We're all little fish and we're going to be swimming together, so don't worry," she said.


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