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Groton bids farewell to three elementary schools

Groton — After decades in the community, three Groton elementary schools — Claude Chester, Mary Morrisson and S.B. Butler schools — closed last week.

With celebrations ranging from dance parties to carnivals, the school communities bid farewell to the schools. Many family and staff described the moment as "bittersweet" as they felt sad to say good-bye but also excited about the new schools that will replace them.

Scheduled to open for the next school year are two new instradistrict magnet-themed elementary schools: Thames River Environmental and Marine Sciences Magnet School on the site of the former West Side Middle School and Mystic River Active Exploration — Play and Ingenuity — Magnet School on the site of the former Cutler Middle School.

Charles Barnum Elementary School will become a magnet school next year, and with the existing Northeast Academy Arts Magnet School and Catherine Kolnaski STEAM Magnet School, the school district will have five intradistrict magnet elementary schools. Claude Chester, Mary Morrisson and S.B. Butler elementary schools closed as part of the Groton 2020 school plan.

The Groton 2020 plan calls for addressing aging infrastructure, consolidating schools and addressing racial imbalances. Groton Middle School, which consolidated the two former middle schools, opened at the beginning of this school year as part of the plan.

Claude Chester Elementary School

The grounds of Claude Chester Elementary School in the Poquonnock Bridge section of town transformed last Thursday into a dance floor. Students and staff members, one class at a time, danced to their own song, while students and staff on the perimeter cheered, clapped, danced and jumped up and down.

"Good morning, and happy last day!" Principal Jamie Giordano told the school community at the beginning of the dance celebration.

Toward the end of the celebration, teachers and staff went to the center to dance, clapping and waving their hands as "Happy" by Pharrell Williams played. The students then joined the staff members in dancing to "Happy" and then "One More Time" by Daft Punk on the sunny morning.

First-grade teacher Tracy Robillard, who has taught at Claude Chester since 2014, knew as she was dancing that this would be a moment she would always remember: students crossing the dance floor to find their old teachers, and teachers looking for their old students.

Robillard said the caring individuals working as staff and administrators and the volunteers, along with the families, make the school special.

She called it a community, explaining teachers build a rapport with families, which continues over the years when the students' younger siblings arrive at Claude Chester.

Tara Andersen, co-president of the PTO at Claude Chester, said her son, Colin, in third-grade, loves going to school at Claude Chester, and it’s the same school his father went to as a child.

“He’s always excited about what the next day brings,” she said.

She said Claude Chester has a wonderful staff, from Giordano and Secretary Melanie Russell and Assistant Principal Megan Bibby, to all the teachers.

“It’s just a great team,” Andersen said. She said the school provides a comforting environment for students, and each month, a student from each class is recognized for their thoughtfulness and kindness.

Heather Cobb, a paraprofessional and longtime PTO secretary whose son, about to turn 21, and daughter 14, both attended Claude Chester, said her children liked going to a school in which the adults "loved them just as much as mom and dad did." 

She said the school felt like another home where everyone is accepted, and the school's diversity made it unique.

"Everybody brings something different to the table here, and we just learn something everyday," said Cobb, adding that the school community puts kids first.

The school, which opened in 1952, was named after Claude M. Chester, who contributed 25 years to the Groton Board of Education and was postmaster in Noank and a Noank funeral director.

Giordano said people have come back because they wanted to walk through the halls again. She added that once someone has been part of the Claude Chester community, they're "family."

"This school has touched so many lives in so many ways since 1952," Giordano said.

Mary Morrisson Elementary School

Fifth graders walked though the halls of Mary Morrisson Elementary School on June 10 to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance," as younger students, teachers and staff members applauded them.

They proceeded outdoors for the last fifth-grade promotion ceremony at Mary Morrisson. Family members, sitting on chairs on the grass, watched and clapped as their students were recognized for their accomplishments. A storywalk on the school grounds featured each fifth grader.

Fifth graders sang the school song, written by a former music teacher, for the last time: "We are Mary Morrisson School!"

The school, which opened in 1963, is named after Mary Foulke Morrisson, described in a 1971 obituary in The Day as a "pioneer in the women's rights movement."

Fifth graders, wearing "votes for women" sashes, spoke at the ceremony to celebrate the final Mary Morrisson fifth grade class and also celebrate the "58 years of outstanding staff and teachers." The students called the school's namesake "a strong and courageous woman dedicated to civil rights, government and especially world peace." They said she "was among the most active supporters of women's suffrage."

The students thanked Principal Kathleen Miner, who is retiring, for all her "love and support to not just the students and teachers here at Mary Morrisson but all the Groton Public School lives you have touched over the years."

"It has been the joy of my life to work for Groton Public Schools," said Miner, adding that Groton is a "phenomenal district that does so much for its students" and "the teachers here are just the best."

Brittany Mrsny said her three kids went to Mary Morrisson from preschool, so she wishes her youngest daughter, Autumn, in third grade this year, could get to finish Mary Morrisson like her siblings, Zeke, in fifth grade and sixth grader Belah.

"I wish that they could stay open," Mrsny said. "It’s a great school, amazing staff. They’ve been here for our family a lot."

Her husband serves in the military, and she said staff members have been supportive of their kids during his two deployments. The staff gave them teddy bears and will tell the kids it's going to be OK or call her if they are having a sad day and miss their father.

"The support has been amazing," Mrsny said.

About 60% of students at the school come from military families, said Miner.

Erin Anderson, whose husband is in the Navy, said the school is warm and welcoming and has helped guide her daughter, Rose.

Rose, who was being promoted from fifth grade, said the school changed her life: "All the teachers were unbelievable, and all the students were unbelievable," she said.

Reading Specialist Kelsey Davidson said being part of Mary Morrisson is like being in a family.

"We are a very collaborative school and I think we work together to make sure that kids are having the best experience possible and I think we meet kids where they're at and move them forward," she said.

Reading Specialist Katie Ralston called it a "tight knit community" where the teachers work together to ensure students' emotional, social and academic needs are met.

S.B. Butler Elementary School

Students at S.B. Butler School in Mystic cheered, laughed and played in the playground area last Tuesday in an all-day school celebration. 

They played water toss with brightly colored sponges, enjoyed kickball and other games, created necklaces from beads, and traded in tickets for prizes during the carnival.

Donna Purdy, principal from 1993 to 2010, looked out on the kids having fun in the area used over the years for field days and other activities and remarked that: “It feels like home.”

She said being principal of the school “was a true gift.” She said the community and parents always were so supportive and worked together with the teachers and staff.

"I love this school’s big heart," said Gretchen Romilly, community coordinator and kindergarten aide and parent to two children at the school. "After a really long year for staff, kids and parents, and during the last week of school in the midst of packing to move, it’s so great that SBB staff was able to put together this day of pure fun!"

Patricia Selander, a paraprofessional and a parent of a third grader at S.B. Butler, said the school helped identify her son’s strengths and provided extra resources in areas he needed some help so he could grow academically.

“This school has been a community, a team,” she said. “What they do for these kids is amazing.”

The school opened in 1953 and was named after Groton's first superintendent, Sylvester Benjamin Butler, who "brought local education into the modern era when he supervised the expansion of the school system between 1951 and 1956," according to the school's student handbook.

Assistant Principal Pam Porter, whose children attended school at S.B. Butler and who herself went to the school, remembers as a child playing marbles on the playground and climbing over the stone wall with a friend to walk to the friend's house for lunch. 

She said parents often remark on how the small, quaint school reminds them of where they went to school. 

Principal Steven Wheeler said the school community is tight-knit and feels "like a family." He said the school's focus on optimism and positivity through its Life is Good partnership will carry over with the Play and Ingenuity theme at Mystic River.

Shira Sabo, a special education teacher, and Francie Grigg, a first-grade teacher, have been teaching at S.B. Butler for 15 years.

Grigg said the sense of community, the kids, supportive parents and closeness of the staff make the school special.  Sabo fondly recalled dressing up as the Statue of Liberty during Ellis Island reenactments and going on field trips to Boston.

"Every day was a new day. We enjoyed it. We played. We learned," said Sabo, adding that she learned as much from the kids as they learned from the teachers. 

She, like many people interviewed, felt the moment was "bittersweet." She said the closing of the school was a little sad and the end of an era, but it's also exciting to go to a new brand-new school. She and Grigg will be teaching at Mystic River next year.

"It's going to be a much bigger community so I am excited to bring the schools together, to work with new staff members, to be in a fancy new building," Sabo said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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