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New Groton Middle School opens

Groton — As Principal Peter Bass stood outside Groton Middle School on Monday morning after students arrived, he said he couldn’t believe the school’s opening day was here, after years of planning.

Bass said it was exciting not only to see students back in school for the first time since March, but also to see all middle schoolers from Groton coming to the school.

“It’s a day we’ve dreamed about for years, and now we’ve realized it,” said Bass, adding that “now the magic begins.”

Monday was the day that Groton Middle School, the town’s new consolidated middle school adjacent to Robert E. Fitch Senior High School, opened its doors to students. 

Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin called the day “historic” and the culmination of years of planning as part of the Groton 2020 plan in which the community decided to bring all middle school children together in one building. They previously attended either West Side STEM Magnet Middle School or Cutler Arts and Humanities Middle School, which both closed at the end of last year.

Groton 2020 plan, a $184.5 million school construction project that passed at referendum as the largest in state history, is intended to upgrade and consolidate school buildings and promote equity, according to school officials. The town also is building two new elementary schools on the sites of the former middle schools.

The school district started the school year on Sept. 8 and is following the hybrid learning model, in which students, separated into cohorts, go to school in person two days a week and participate in distance learning for the other three days. The families of about 25% of students have opted for fully remote learning, Austin said.

Middle school students started their first week by distance learning and got tours of their new school, so Monday represented their first day of in-person classes in the building.

A steady stream of buses dropped students off at the new building's back entrance Monday, while parents bringing their children to school dropped them off at the front entrance. Staff members greeted the students and helped direct them where to go.

Eighth grade science teacher Ben Strouse, who was directing cars, said he felt “excited relief” that the day was finally here to welcome students to the middle school after years of anticipation.

He added that what he was looking forward to most was teaching students in person.

Alicia Ross, a school psychologist, said she felt both excited and nervous and had butterflies in her stomach. She said it was great to see some familiar faces as well as some new ones.

Ross said the students will have access to different curriculum that they hadn't been exposed to, and she is excited for the opportunity to combine two school cultures to create a better overall one for Groton.

“You have a very diverse teaching staff,” she said. “You have a very diverse student population, and it’s great to just have that all in one school community.”

“That’s probably the most exciting piece: that we get to meet tons of different kids,” Ross added.

The middle school is an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme candidate and a Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics, or STEAM, themed school that blends together West Side's STEM curriculum and Cutler's arts and humanities curriculum, Austin said.

Susan Marquardt, parent and co-president of the PTO, said it’s nice that Groton now has one middle school in which students can experience both arts and humanities and STEM. She said her sixth grader is interested in robotics and is excited about the school's STEM programs.

“I just think it’s going to be a great experience to get all the kids together in town instead of having them separated,” she added.

When Jemal Davis, one of the school’s three assistant principals and former assistant principal at West Side, was hired by the district four years ago, the Groton community knew the new middle school project was going to come to fruition, so he said Monday represented a special moment.

“The anticipation of being able to join West Side with Cutler has been a long one for me and to come today to see the students come in from both sides of town I think just speaks to the commitment that 2020 had established in the community,” he said.

Davis added that the beautiful building, with state-of-the-art classrooms and a student-centered layout, demonstrate the district's commitment to the community.

He said after students toured the building last week, a lot of families who originally had opted for full distance learning for their children decided instead to follow the hybrid learning plan, which he said is a testament to the building and, particularly, the staff, who made students feel welcome and safe to go to school.

Building features

The 181,000-square-foot building was designed to bring in natural light through windows and has a four-story classroom wing, while the rest of the building is two floors, said Tammy Hamelin, project manager with Arcadis. Each floor features its own color: dark blue on the first floor to emulate the ocean, green on the second floor to represent grass, turquoise on the third floor for the sky and yellow on the fourth floor for the sun.

Austin said the school is offering about 100 different classes, in subjects from broadcasting to art.

The building’s amenities include a gym, fitness center, movement studio, where students can practice yoga and dance, a black-box theater, “cafetorium,” a music center where kids can take offerings from guitar to African drumming, science labs and arts and music spaces.

The school also has its own nurses and a school-based health center, where families can sign up for everything from flu shots to check-ups, Austin said.

The vast majority of the building is completed, said Superintendent Michael Graner. The last aspect of the construction process will be the completion of the gym floor, which is anticipated to be done by mid-October.

Elementary schools

The town’s two new intradistrict magnet elementary schools are under construction and are scheduled to open in September 2021. The Mary Morrisson, S.B. Butler and Claude Chester elementary schools are slated to close, as the two new elementary schools open.

Charles Barnum Elementary School also will become an intradistrict magnet school, joining existing intradistrict magnet schools Northeast Academy Arts Magnet School and Catherine Kolnaski STEAM Magnet School.

The five elementary schools will have neighborhood zones but also will be themed magnet schools for Groton families to choose, Austin said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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