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Stonington middle schoolers have first day of classes after merger

Stonington — Tuesday’s first day of school meant big changes for elementary and middle school students here.

Students at Deans Mill and West Vine Street schools returned to the buildings where $65.5 million of expansion and renovation projects have just about been completed after two years of work.

And Tuesday was the formal opening of Stonington Middle School, previously known as Mystic Middle School. Arriving for the first time were sixth- through eighth-grade students from Pawcatuck Middle School, which has been merged with the larger Mystic Middle School. The consolidation project was designed to not only save money but produce a much wider variety of courses and opportunities for students because all middle school staff will be in one location, eliminating the redundancy of operating two schools. In addition, fifth-graders, who had attended the middle schools, now will attend the elementary schools.

Over the past year, Stonington Middle School Principal Tim Smith had not only run both middle schools, but headed up the consolidation effort.

So in many ways, Tuesday was a relief for him.

“I’m really excited it’s finally here. Everything from now on is easy, it’s just doing school,” he said, as he prepared to address a group of students in the sparkling new gymnasium, which features the new school mascot: a stingray with an S-curve tail for Stonington. “I know I’ll sleep easier tonight.”

Over the past year, the curriculum was expanded, class schedules were adjusted to accommodate the new students and courses, staff were moved and a myriad of other tasks performed to prepare for Tuesday. Smith commended the school’s maintenance and custodial staff and contractors for getting the building ready.

“It was long, strange trip together but we’re happy we’re here,” he added. “Once the kids get in the building, the teachers know what to do.”

It also wasn’t the first time the Pawcatuck students were in the school. Last March they came by grade to Mystic Middle School to get familiar with the building and participate in activities. And just before school opened, they had orientation led by a group of high school students who help freshmen at their school get acclimated.

“So that took a lot of the sting out of opening day and not knowing where everything was,” Smith said.

The 480 students arrived Tuesday and met in the new gym. They then participated in an evacuation drill onto the school lawn where the new school flag was raised and a ribbon was cut. The students then marched back into the school between lines of teachers and staff members. The rest of the day was spent participating in activities and meetings.

Smith explained there are 16 new courses this year, ranging from online privacy and international sports to beginning guitar and photography. The new courses were created by teachers based on their own and students' interests.

The “economy of scale," with all staff under one roof instead of being split between two schools, is allowing the school to offer more sections of popular courses so students don’t get closed out of their top choice, as well as offer advanced classes in math and language earlier so students can take more higher-level classes in high school.

The school also has a newly painted cafeteria with the new school logo and tables, little-used rooms in the lower floor of the school have been turned into dedicated Spanish and French rooms and a second art room and defunct woodshop has now been renovated into space for special education.

It’s not just the students who have had to get adjusted to a new school. There are five new teachers at the school, and the Pawcatuck teachers had to pack up their classrooms and move while most of the Mystic teachers have found themselves in new classrooms, as well.

Eighth grade teacher Daniel Agins, who was a member of the consolidation committee, taught in the same Pawcatuck classroom for 15 years.

“My whole adult life has been spent in that classroom. It was a huge emotional connection I still miss,” he said. “But when the kids got here today, you get in your zone and do your thing.”

He added, Tuesday’s first day was going much easier than he thought, with students from the two schools already sitting together at lunch.

Eighth grade teacher Jennifer Raymond, who also has taught at Pawcatuck, pointed out that by this age many of the students from the two middle schools already know one another.

“I think it's harder on the adults than the kids,’” she said, commending the work done to spruce up the school for the merger.

Sitting on the bleachers during an afternoon assembly, school psychologist Lori Liguori described Tuesday’s first day as “seamless and orderly.”

“All the kids seemed happy. They were mixing together at lunch. There was no separation,” she said. “There are a lot of happy faces today.”

Fellow school psychologist Cate Dowling added that “the kids always surprise us with how resilient they are.”

She also pointed out the benefit of have all school psychologists and social workers under one roof, where they can more easily work together with students.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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