It may take a while to get used to thinking of the New London High School campus on Jefferson Avenue as the North Campus (NLHS Multi-Magnet Campus) on Chester Street. The building orientation has rotated to the north, and the lot formerly lined with parked yellow buses now leads to a big, wide, welcoming entrance with an unmissable sign — in Whaler green, naturally.
The total remake of the campus will accommodate the magnet pathways of International Education, Performing and Visual Arts, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), as well as the arts magnet pathway for middle schoolers. The combination of new construction and renovations won't be done until the end of 2023, on a schedule that allows two more summers for environmental mitigation work while students are safely out of the way.
But last week New London Mayor Michael Passero could not wait another minute to show off the new spaces already in use. He chose 3 o'clock on a Thursday — after-school activities time — to host a tour led by architect Drew Ferris of Antinozzi Associates, construction managers from Newfield+Downes, Senior Project Manager Diana McNeil, and Kate McCoy, assistant superintendent for magnet pathways and district operations.
The vista from the new front entrance is magnetic, architecturally and educationally. The view opens up wide and deep and inviting. In the morning and afternoon it serves as a hallway for hundreds of students as they arrive or leave, but on that after-school hour its length provided a practice ground for the Junior ROTC program. Girls and boys drilled on bearing the colors for future presentations of the flag.
After a half-century of making do with the old building, nothing about the new wing feels too tight or tight-fisted. Instead of a new gymnasium, which according to current standards for state reimbursement would have had to be much smaller than gyms of old, the project managers convinced the state that a renovation of the legacy gym should qualify. Girls basketball players were practicing dribbles under rehung Whalers championship banners. It just felt right.
Students and faculty needed no time at all to make themselves at home in the space that got its official occupancy certification in September. On the lower level the tour group briefly interrupted a teachers' meeting in the new cafeteria. The room itself is appealing, but when you know that it was built on top of the filled-in pool that always leaked and was rarely open, it looks even better. The old auditorium is now a new auditorium; it has not moved, but around it have sprung up a TV studio, a bandroom apiece for the high school band and eventually the middle school band, dance studios and practice rooms.
The school system's website notes that administration of the New London Public Schools, city officials, the School Maintenance & Building Committee, and the staff of New London High School have been working on the expansion and renovation since 2014. I would add Diana McNeil who, as senior project manager for the Capitol Region Education Council, has been working with all of them for years on plans and reimbursement for the high school and the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.
Just one month before anyone knew that a pandemic would close the schools, The Day's Greg Smith reported that the "long-delayed" $108 million reconstruction of the high school would soon begin. Covid-19 notwithstanding, it went ahead.
No project is without complications, but Thursday was not the day for carping. The high school improvements are a lift for a pandemic-weary school community and a place for pride. I think that will help with the challenges of returning to class after more than a year without the activities and community spirit this building is designed to foster.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.