Wheeler High School seniors 'walkthrough' the past

North Stonington — The third annual Wheeler High School senior walkthrough was a little different — and more meaningful — this year.

"You guys are the last graduating class from 298 Norwich-Westerly Road," Superintendent Peter Nero told the seniors gathered in front of the construction site for the new Wheeler High/Middle School building. 

The current middle school was built in 1950, the connecting high school in 1956. Next year's high and middle school students and staff are slated to move across the street into the new complex, which connects the middle and high schools to the gymatorium, in March. Upon its completion, North Stonington Elementary School students and staff will occupy the old high/middle school for a year while the elementary school is renovated as new. Once the elementary school renovations are finished, the old high/middle school will be used for renters, certain town meetings, such as the Board of Education, and to store equipment.

Nero acknowledged the difficulties of making the new school happen. Construction costs $38.5 million, and it took 14 years of discussions, as well as two town referendums, to bring the project to fruition.

"This class was instrumental," Nero said, referring to the graduating seniors. "Someone came up with the word Build It, the hashtag #BuildIt. Two years ago when we were doing this, it was a hashtag #WeAreWheeler. I guess we can change it to hashtag #BuildingIt."

Beginning in the library, the walkthrough lasted 40 minutes. The seniors strode in full graduation regalia through the tunnel connecting the elementary and high/middle school campuses, then along the fence around the construction site of the new school. Driving passers-by honked and whistled in support, and the students peeked over the fence to survey construction of the school their younger counterparts soon will be attending.

They stopped outside the elementary school, where they were to be greeted by eager students lining the hallways.

"Don't walk fast through the hallways: They want to see your tags, they want to know your names," Principal Kristen St. Germain said.

"A student in the building has a sign with your name on it — when you see it, say thank you and take it," Assistant Principal Ryan Chaney said. The students cheered.

"Take it very gently!" St. Germain added.

The seniors smiled widely as they continued their walkthrough. They soaked in the applause of the younger kids and their own previous teachers.

Before returning to the high/middle school, where they'd be met with a similar reception from middle school students and teachers, they stopped to sign a steel beam, which will be used in the construction of the new school, with Sharpie markers. The entire district will be signing the beam, including students from the elementary on up, as well as faculty and staff.

St. Germain praised the 2018 class for selflessly attempting to move along plans for the building of the new school.

"This class has been a huge part of the Save Wheeler, get this building project passed," she said. "For them, it's bittersweet; they'll never see it. ... They did a lot of the hard work and they won't reap the benefits but they don't care, they knew how important it was."

While St. Germain appreciates Wheeler's history, she will "not miss old — we are so ready for new."

"On rainy days I won't miss this place, because every window and ceiling leaks," she said. "When you get heavy rain, sometimes we have to close classrooms, because it's like being on a cruise ship. ... These kids deserve up-to-date science labs, I mean we have terrible science labs. They deserve a facility that they can feel good about."

"They make this one work, don't get me wrong," she said, "but I know when they get into the new they're gonna be like, 'Wow, this is what we've been missing.'"

Senior Anthony Cibarich echoed the sentiments of Nero and St. Germain when he detailed the Student Council's involvement in advocating for the new school.

"I think it's great that the next class gets to see it," Cibarich said. "I would say our Student Council of this graduating class really did make the effort to push for that new school."

Cibarich will "definitely" miss Wheeler, especially the people.

"The teachers are really nice, everyone knows you by name and it's a great place," Cibarich said.

Following the walkthrough, students took off their caps and gowns and picked up their seven graduation tickets in the library. With its role in getting the new school built and by signing the beam, the Class of 2018 cemented itself in Wheeler history even before graduation.



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