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The view from the third floor of the new Walsh Intermediate School academic wing, which is home to the school’s grade 7 and 8 population, includes this interior window looking down into the media center, described as the building’s learning hub. See more photos at www.zip06.com. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Walsh Intermediate School Principal Raeanne Reynolds traverses a contoured hallway past a STEM project exhibit in the new academic wing of the school. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez (left) pauses to speak at one of the building’s small-group learning sites situated at the end of an academic hallway at the new Walsh Intermediate School. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
WIS principal Raeanne Reynolds points to movable wall, at back, between this new science lab classroom and the math room on the other side. The wall can be opened to allow for collaborative STEM learning. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
The cafeteria includes a wall mural representation of the Thimble Islands. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
WIS principal Raeanne Reynolds at one of the exterior hallway learning locations at an end of an academic wing. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
A classroom space at WIS. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
“Promethium” computer monitor boards, mounted in front of a wall teachers and students can write on and erase, are in every classroom. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Looking down from the top of the grand staircase, the bottom of two retractable doors are visible beneath the window wall looking out. The doors will be lifted during school hours once the second phase of project construction, to renovate adjoining portion of the former WIS, is complete in 2021. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Branford First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove at the base of the grand staircase inside the new academic wing at WIS. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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Traditional classroom spaces equipped for 21st-century learning and show-stopping areas designed to inspire education and community now welcome Branford’s 5th through 8th graders in a new academic wing at Walsh Intermediate School (WIS).
Students and staff began using the new space on Jan. 6, transitioning in from the former administrative, open classroom, and media center spaces in the original WIS building, where Phase II of the $88.2 million WIS facility expansion project is now underway. Approximately 35 percent of the project is being reimbursed by the state.
On March 7, Branford Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez and WIS principal Raeanne Reynolds led members of the press, First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, Branford Board of Education (BOE) Chair Shannen Sharkey, Public Building Commission Chair Peter Banca, and additional BOE members and public building officials on a tour of the brand-new, three-story building addition at 185 Damascus Road.
Hernandez reflected on the work done by so many during the eight-year concept-to-construction process to bring about the “next-generation” WIS.
“When you think back to having an aspirational space for our students, the team has done very well in creating that,” he told Zip06/The Sound. “Everything from schematic design to the end product, really does hit that goal, and this will serve the community for years to come.”
Students are temporarily entering the new school via front doors leading into stairwells that take them up to the top two floors. Grades 5 and 6 populate a “lower school” on the second floor and grades 7 and 8 an “upper school” on the top floor. Head administrative, school-based health, and the building’s public reception area are temporarily located in the building’s eastern end of the ground floor, which will be transitioned to become the new offices of the BOE/ Branford Public Schools (BPS) central offices once the entire project is completed in 2021.
Every floor of the new academic wing incorporates design and color touches reflecting one of three themes: sea (ground floor), land (second floor), and sky (third floor). Hernandez also pointed out several “touches of Branford” in the construction, including the Stony Creek granite at the eastern entrance’s reception desk and in the pavers leading up to the door. The building also marries the traditional brick of the former WIS building with a white, marble-look façade of phenolic panels, a durable man-made component.
Located at the heart of the building where the new WIS will join with the renovated building is the school’s interior, grand staircase. Done in tile wood tones with modern steel railings and lantern posts set at points alongside the main railing (a brick wall set with display cases stretches up the other side of the stairs), the grand staircase is another way to take students to academic spaces between the ground floor, second floor, and third floor. Zip06/The Sound asked Hernandez if navigating the staircase may seem a bit intimidating, at first, to some of the students.
“We have 900 children here, so I’m sure there are some,” he acknowledged. “But for the most part, kids are navigating this—and they have four years to master that.”
“If you look at it, it’s really more perception,” Cosgrove added. “The stairs are set by [building] code, and if you look to where the second floor [landing] is, it’s like the central stairs that used to connect at [the former] WIS.”
The stairway continues with another level beyond that point.
The academic wing also has traditional interior staircases in stairwells between building levels.
Just past the grand staircase on the ground floor is the entrance to the new WIS cafeteria, which overlooks the rear campus of the school. The tile leading into the cafeteria blends blues of the water and browns of beach sand, while its wall mural depicts a stylized rendering of Branford’s famed Thimble Islands.
In addition to being an enclosed purposeful space (the old school had an open-plan, sunken cafeteria space that could be transitioned into seating for performances on the stage), for the first time in WIS history, the school has its own a full-service kitchen rather than the former, dispensary-style set up. Reynolds praised BPS food service provider Chartwells and its WIS kitchen team, saying they are “over the moon” about having the work space to provide school meals.
“It’s amazing,” said Reynolds. “The [kitchen manager] told me it is so much more efficient.”
The grand staircase and cafeteria area also will marry the new building with the old building, once the project is complete. A wall between the two buildings includes two large, pull-up doors that will be opened to access Phase II’s brand-new music room spaces, auditorium, and stage and school-based health center/nurses’ offices, as well as renovated gymnasium, locker room, and indoor swimming pool, once complete.
The doors will be pulled down and be secured at non-school times when public performances or other community gatherings will take place in the renovated spaces, completely closing off and securing access to the academic wing, Reynolds noted.
‘The Learning Hub’
The main feature of the second floor explains what’s behind that eye-grabbing two-story window wall seen from the exterior of the new wing’s eastern side. It’s WIS’s two-story media center. The media space isn’t in the center of the school, as it was in the old WIS, but it still serves to gather students together, said Reynolds.
“This is our learning hub for everyone in the building. It’s still our hub,” she said. “Kids find their way here. We were so concerned that it wasn’t in the middle anymore, but it’s not a concern at all.”
Classrooms and Hallways
One of the first eye-catching changes students love book-end their academic hallways: small-group work areas that are comfy, colorful gathering spots with café-style seating and work surfaces. The spaces are also completely technology-equipped, from WiFi access for school-issued student devices to fixed computer stations.
“The students really love these spaces, and they respect them, too,” said Reynolds.
The upper- and lower school main classroom hallways include lockers and classroom doors along the corridor, with areas of exterior light drawn in from skylights and other featured window locations.
These halls are 300 feet from end to end, with “dot” system visual cues incorporated into the shiny floors, Reynolds explained—one dot indicating a nearby restroom, four indicating a hallway intersection.
Reynolds said teachers and students are finding that the three-minute hallway passing time between classes is more than ample. One of the most remarkable changes, as noted by teachers, is the quiet that permeates the building’s academic areas when their doors are closed and classes are underway.
“I think they didn’t realize how distracting it was until they had a door,” she said, of the old school’s open classroom layout. “But at the same time, we’re not losing community, because I think that’s what they were afraid of. But when the students are moving through the hallways, the teachers will come out and they’ll talk to their [team] teachers at the door, and then they’re all going into class together. So it’s still there.”
Each floor also features another, softly contoured hallway off the grand staircase. These halls take students past more classrooms and other learning lab spaces, as well as each floor’s administrative/counseling offices and faculty room. Connecting hallways bring them to the media center entrance on the second floor or, on the top floor, past an expansive interior window overlooking the media center below and pulling in natural light from the center’s two-story window wall.
Shaded exterior windows in every classroom bring natural light while teachers can dim and raise interior overhead lighting a touch to adjust to the needs of the class underway.
As with the former system at WIS, students learn in teams in grade 6, 7, and 8. Students in each of those grades are split into two teams, with seven teachers on each team. Each grade fully gathers during lunch, recess, and assemblies. Grade 5 has two teachers to help transition students from elementary school and prepare for the team system, said Reynolds.
“We believe in the team model,” she said. “In the teams within the grade level, the teachers really take care of their kids, and the kids take care of their teams, and then they all take care of each other.”
Safe, State of the Art, and STEM
The state-of-the-art building conforms to all safety requirements and is filled with high-tech educational components from Internet accessibility to on-site learning backed by Promethium monitor boards, mounted in front of a wall teachers and students can write on and erase, in every classroom.
Several spaces, such as the art rooms, connect between classrooms, with the most significant connection on the top floor where a wall between a traditional science lab classroom can be raised to incorporate the math classroom behind it, to help advance learning practices including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning. The second floor has two science lab learning spaces.
More to Come
Phase II construction is currently pulling down the old academic and media center spaces at the back of the remaining original school building. Residents can follow the progress of Phase II by checking in with BOE committee reports from Hernandez monthly, which appear online at www.branfordschools.org.
Hernandez praised the work of project manager Christopher Toussaint of Fusco Construction, saying it has been and continues to be done with minimal disruption to student learning at top of mind.
“Fusco’s been outstanding,” said Hernandez.
The BOE/central office will move into its new space at WIS during summer 2021. The spaces are slightly smaller than the current district offices at 1111 Main Street, but are more efficiently designed. They include traditional offices for administrative staff, a central bull pen for support staff, and a BOE main reception desk and meeting conference room.
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