Stonington elementary students to return to new additions

Deans Mill School Principal Jennifer McCurdy, right, gets help from kindergartner Erin Wade, 5, daughter of kindergarten teacher Anne Wade, not pictured, to test the height of new classroom chairs for the school Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. When schools open on Tuesday, students will be divided between a new wing and an old wing, which eventually will be demolished once another old wing has been renovated this spring. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Deans Mill School Principal Jennifer McCurdy, right, gets help from kindergartner Erin Wade, 5, daughter of kindergarten teacher Anne Wade, not pictured, to test the height of new classroom chairs for the school Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. When schools open on Tuesday, students will be divided between a new wing and an old wing, which eventually will be demolished once another old wing has been renovated this spring. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Stonington — After 52 years, the town finally has new elementary schools.

Well, almost.

When students at Deans Mill and West Vine Street elementary schools return to class Tuesday morning, they will be greeted by gleaming new additions with large classrooms, improved security, full-sized gyms, a glass atrium in one case and compass rose designs in the floor tiles of each lobby.

Over the next year, crews will continue to renovate portions of the original sections of each school, with the entire $65 million project slated for completion in the spring of 2019. That means that in August 2019, the 118-year-old West Broad Street School will close and its third- and fourth-grade students will move to West Vine for the 2019-20 school year.

Also at that time, Pawcatuck Middle school will close and all students in grades six, seven and eight will move to Mystic Middle School, which will become known as Stonington Middle School. Fifth-grade students, who now attend the middle schools, will move to Deans Mill and West Vine Street.

After more than a decade of effort by school officials, residents in 2015 approved a $67 million project and work began in June of 2017. The cost since has been lowered to $65 million.

Last week, teachers and other staff members moving into new classroom space raved about their new homes, with many using word such as “amazing” and “even better than expected.”

Deans Mill physical education and health teacher Sherry Castodio, who is in entering her 36th year at the school, called the new gym “a dream come true.”

“Every PE teacher dreams about something like this,” she said last Wednesday about the gym, which has a full-sized basketball court with six hoops, a horizontal climbing wall, bleachers for 200, an office and storage space.

“I could have retired this year but I helped design it so I wanted to come back. I had to teach in it,” she said.

What’s new at both schools

While Deans Mill and West Vine were built as sister schools and were very much alike, the expansion and renovations have made them somewhat different due to site characteristics and the educational and design requests from staff. In areas such as security, new gyms, libraries and nurses rooms, they are much the same.

For example, visitors to both schools, other than staff and students, enter a locked vestibule monitored by cameras. They have to identify themselves and show identification before a locked door is opened to allow them into the main office. Visitors have no direct access into the school building. The police department can directly access the school’s security cameras.

The schools' nurse offices have two bays, a private exam room and office. Each classroom has 65-inch interactive smartboards, which have Bluetooth connectivity. There is also money in the project budget to purchase iPads and Chromebooks for each student, depending on their grade level.

“These are state-of-the-art classrooms,” West Vine Street School Principal Alicia Sweet Dawe said. "Our kids deserve this.”

The kindergarten classrooms all have their own bathrooms, so students do not have to leave the classroom. The large new libraries also include individual rooms for STEM activities and computer labs.

Playground equipment will be delivered later this fall, as landscaping and grounds work still needs to be done. Each of the schools, which are air conditioned, has dedicated art, music and special education rooms.

Because cafeterias will not be completed until next spring, hot lunches will be bought to the school each day. Half of West Vine’s new gym will serve as a cafeteria while Deans Mill’s old gym will serve as its cafeteria. Both schools have a large increase in space for parking. 

West Vine Street School

Students and staff at the school enter a two-story glass atrium with a compass rose design in the floor tiles. The school has a blue and white color scheme with a smattering of multicolored floor tiles throughout the hallways. A gray tile line in some areas help students form lines.

Dawe said that the compass rose, which also appears at the center of the basketball court in the gym, is a natural tie-in with the town’s seafaring heritage and the school’s mission, which is “Setting the Direction for Lifelong Learning.”

She added it also is a natural tie-in with the school’s partnerships with the Mystic Seaport Museum and Mystic Aquarium.

Those walking along the second floor can look down onto the lobby. Off to the right is the main office. To the left is the new gym, which can be partitioned into two sections by a moveable wall. This year, half of the new gym will be used as a cafeteria while the new cafeteria is being built.

Like Deans Mill, West Vine had a small committee of teachers and staff who picked out colors, designs, furniture and made other decisions.

At West Vine only kindergarten students will be in the permanent classrooms, as rooms will shift once the old section is renovated and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders arrive.

Because Dawe and her staff were so intimately involved in the planning of the school, she said it looks exactly as she thought it would.

“It's phenomenal. It worked out the way I wanted it,” she said.

West Vine Street kindergarten teacher Nicole Turgeon had taught in one of the school’s portable classrooms last year. On Tuesday she was organizing her new classroom.

“It’s bright. It’s big. It’s beautiful,” she said. “It feels like I have double the space.”

Dawe said she loves coming into the kindergarten classrooms.

“I can see the kids sitting in here. It makes all the hard work worthwhile,” she said.

Deans Mill School

In addition to new gyms, classrooms, library, nurse’s room, special education, art, music and physical therapy rooms, a temporary corridor is being constructed at Deans Mill to link the new addition with classrooms in an old section of the school that will be used this year but then demolished when the project is done.

The wing that once housed the cafeteria, classrooms and main office is being renovated.

While it’s still under construction, the school’s play area will feature a large grassy area surrounded by an asphalt track, bookended by two fenced playgrounds, one for younger students and one for older students.

The Leslie Buck Reading Garden will be relocated from the entrance of the old school to a new location when the project is complete. Parking will increase from about 80 spots to about 125 with more in the area of the bus loop if needed, such as during nighttime events.

Kindergarten teacher Gina Hetu called her classroom amazing and “kindergarten friendly.”

“Everything here is brand new and state of the art,” she said.

Fourth-grade teacher Ryan Durham called the school better than he expected.

“It’s bright and inviting,” he said, something that promotes a positive attitude.

Principal Jennifer McCurdy said the challenge for her staff over the next year is to deal with a large facility that is essentially two buildings connected by a corridor.

“We’re also learning about the new security system, the lights, the new technology and finding the things we packed way, as well as educating parents about parking and dropping off and picking up their children with the new bus loop.

“It’s like trying to get used to your home again,” she said.

McCurdy praised the flexibility and support of her teachers, some of whom will have packed and unpacked three times before being in their permanent classroom.

“And our kids are flexible. This is the new normal for them even though they occasionally get distracted by a new mound of dirt or a new bucket loader,” she said.

Both Dawe and McCurdy praised the work and cooperation of project contractor Gilbane Building Co., which is based in Providence. Gilbane worked on the high school renovation and expansion project a decade ago.

The project remains on budget despite the need to spend additional money to remediate PCBs found in the caulking of both schools. That extra work delayed the completion of the project until next spring.

j.wojtas@theday.com

A custom compass rose that will greet students to the foyer at Deans Mill School in the new wing of the school is seen Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
A custom compass rose that will greet students to the foyer at Deans Mill School in the new wing of the school is seen Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Office staff at Deans Mill School train on the school's new phone system Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. Gilbane of Providence was the general contractor on the school project. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Office staff at Deans Mill School train on the school's new phone system Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. Gilbane of Providence was the general contractor on the school project. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Construction crews work at West Vine Street School in Stonington on Nov. 21, 2017.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Construction crews work at West Vine Street School in Stonington on Nov. 21, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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