East Lyme elementary students welcomed back to newly renovated schools

East Lyme — Students and staff had a busy and hectic year of moving between classrooms, navigating stripped hallways and listening to the sounds of drills and cement pouring.

All that paid off when they returned to East Lyme’s three elementary schools — Lillie B. Haynes, Flanders and Niantic Center School — Wednesday after the ”much-needed” and “intensive” renovations were completed.

Students were all smiles, hugs and laughs as they filtered off school buses, said goodbye to parents and walked into their new, bright and colorful classrooms. The buildings have sparkling new floors and lighting, open and airy hallways and classrooms, installed central air, as well as several other improvements.

“It came down to the 11th hour, but it looks beautiful,” said Lillie B. Haynes Elementary School Principal Melissa DeLoreto Wednesday morning before welcoming her new students, many of whom were redistricted to her school this year. “All the flooring, all the lighting, it’s all new. There’s central air, fresh paint, all new doors, water fountains, fire alarm system, air conditioning. Now its bright, freshly painted and it doesn’t look old. It looks a lot more elementary.”

Originally built as a middle school in the late 1950s, Lillie B. Haynes Elementary has received only minor updates to some of its classrooms 16 years ago, Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said,  while the other two schools hadn’t seen renovations in a half-century.

Starting in June 2018, the $37.5 million project, which was approved at town referendum in March 2017, to upgrade and restore the three schools was carried out by construction firm O & G Industries over the last 14 months. Besides obvious cost savings, the expedited renovation plan sought to minimize the impact of the many changes on students and staff.

Because of the intensity of the renovations, students and teachers had to flexibly navigate changes being made, having classes in concrete rooms and using larger common rooms, such as cafeterias and gyms, as multi-use areas.

The cafeteria at Flanders Elementary school, for example, was used to host music classes and custodial closets, among other needs, while its gym had functioned as a library.

Students and staff in all three schools also were required to switch classrooms in the middle of the school year several times to allow for the different phases of the construction, which, according to Newton, took place “right up to the wire.”

“It was a busy summer, it was all hands on deck,” Newton said Wednesday morning while visiting Lillie B. Haynes, where his daughter was entering fourth grade. “We were still striping Niantic Center School’s parking lot last night. They were still pouring sidewalks. The teachers were only just allowed to come into their classrooms on (last) Thursday.”

“There’s still small things with all three buildings that we still need to do,” Newton continued. “But for the most part, the renovations are just about finished.”

As part of the renovation plan, improvements to air quality, handicapped accessibility, security, interior building finishes and electrical, lighting and other technology were carried out, as well as the replacement of the roof at Flanders Elementary School; reconfigured drop-off areas and the re-establishment of the second gym at Lillie B. Haynes; and upgrades to the gym and exterior masonry at Niantic Center School.

Newton said that some work still remains, but that the bulk of it was finished on time and “within budget.” He said the gymnasiums at Lillie B. Haynes and Niantic Center School still need to undergo renovations, while the roof at Flanders Elementary still “needed to be buttoned up.”

“We just need to go around and touch up things. Its painting and its trim work. It’s all now smaller, finishing touches,” Newton said. “In 14 months, it’s amazing what transformation has occurred. It was just a great joint effort with the town and taxpayers to make it all work.”

Welcoming students into her new classroom Wednesday morning, third grade teacher Catherine Ellal said she was thrilled to finally be in her new room.

“It’s just brighter and cleaner and happier,” Ellal said. “Before, the colors were drab, out of the '60s or '70s, old blue, just tired. The ceilings had these funky, industrial lights. It’s just nice to have a fresh coat of paint."

“We have AC now and we a lot more storage,” continued Ellal, whose been working at the school for a decade. “I can organize my books for the first time. We have a sink, even. It’s much more uniform and everyone has a nice room now.”

Speaking toward the ease with which she will be able to teach this year without the construction, Ellal said it "will be a huge plus for learning. There’s not a lot of dust anymore. There’s not a lot of noise, and I think the kids are excited for that.”

“It was kind of distracting and hard, because by the windows there would be a cement truck coming up, pouring cement into the building, and we would stop our learning to go to the window and check it out,” she said, laughing. “But we just did the best we could last year given the circumstances. It was a lot to do and just meant sometimes living out of boxes and in a bit of a chaotic state. But the kids were awesome with it."

"I think teachers are really great at going with what they’ve been given and making the best of a situation, so that’s just what we did. We just made it fun.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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