A walk through the new middle school, on track to be complete by August 2021, reveals the shell of a three-story building that will provide students with the latest tools in 21st-century learning.
Officials are thrilled the $87.3 million Woodrow Wilson Middle School project at 1 Wilderman’s Way is on schedule and under budget.
“This is the little engine that could, because it forged up the hill and it kept going, regardless of what they were faced with,” Middletown Common Council Majority Leader Gene Nocera said. “This has been an incredible team effort.”
About 140 workers from a variety of trades are doing work concurrently — in sections labeled A, B and C. That meant work needed to proceed at a rapid pace, Nocera said. “It’s an avalanche of stuff. Sometimes it’s like a blizzard coming at you.”
“Things happen in sequence, so if you were to just build the building ground up, you’d start with steel, have the steel guy do his thing first, then the roofer or electrician;it would take forever,” said project manager Joe Vetro of Torrington-based O&G Industries.
All along, project principles have been working hand in hand with architect Randall Luther, a partner at TSKP Studio of Hartford.
“Randall and his team have an incredible vision of what this new school will look like,” Nocera said.
The exterior will be brick and limestone to match the former Middletown High School across the street, now converted into apartments.
Sixth-grade students, who would have entered Keigwin Middle School, will be incorporated into the facility, which is divided up into three, three-story pods, or houses, where sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students will be mostly isolated from the others.
The design is much like the team arrangement of junior high schools.
Each group will proceed through the houses as they advance in grade, Vetro said. It’s meant to impart a feeling of progression.
The relatively small plot on which the facility is being built presented some problems, architect Luther said. “We couldn’t fit the building on the site without tearing down part of the school to start.”
“We could barely fit the building in,” Vetro said. Hunting Hill Road, which passes by the middle school, was closed, and is expected to remain so during the week. Visitors will pass by a gated entrance to gain entrance.
The new complex, in conjunction with the athletic fields across the street, will convey a campus feel.
A problem presented itself one month into the pandemic: Once COVID-19 hit Connecticut, the governor said only construction projects already underway could continue.
The steel came from New York-based Schenectady Steel, where production was deemed nonessential by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said Nocera, co-chairman of the Middle School Building Project committee, along with Councilwoman Jeanette Blackwell.
In mid-April, the city implored Connecticut leaders that leaving one-third of the steel standing indefinitely could present a safety hazard. The project eventually was allowed to continue.
The council is expected to vote Aug. 3 on renaming the facility for the Beman family, abolitionists who were instrumental in the city’s participation in the Underground Railroad.
“We’re on the right side of history,” said Common Council Minority Leader Phil Pessina, who has come out in support of the new name.
“Our children, when they get into that building, yes, they’ll know it was formerly Woodrow Wilson (named after the 28th president, now regarded as a racist), but they’re going to learn about the family, the Beman Trail, and the historical perspective this building will represent,” Pessina said.
Those involved in the project understand former graduates feel they’ll lose a piece of their history if the facility is renamed, the councilman said. “But, we need to heal.”
The building will be entirely air-conditioned, with the HVAC system circulating fresh air; and full of skylights letting natural light in, with daylight sensors for cloudy days and evenings. Also, photovoltaic panels will offset energy use, Luther said.
The sun will shine through the three-story school and be visible all the way to the ground floor due to the open design plan.
Those standing in the hallway, which runs the length of the building, will be able to see through the entire facility and out the windows overlooking the old middle school and, on the other side, the new Pat Kidney Athletic Complex.
Pessina likened the setup to neighborhoods amid a larger backdrop of the city.
“You’re going to spend all three years in one little town,” Luther said, where there will be only 300 students per pod instead of 900 in total. The ascension from grade to grade will give students a sense of “graduating” to each floor.
Each house will be color-coded — red, orange and green — with graphic images exclusively for each.
The facility will include an innovation lab and STEAM classrooms, among other state-of-the art features. Instead of a cafeteria, the lobby serves that purpose.
“It’s all wide open. You can see other classes. It’s very transparent,” Luther said.
“I see it as a very holistic community because of the grades, mixtures. We, as humans, need to interact. We need to identify our strengths and weaknesses, and the educators will bring that out,” Pessina said.
“I really feel confident we got it right,” Nocera said.
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