This morning, many students in Ridgefield are saying "so long" to summer break and waking up early to head back to school in brand-new buildings.
Construction crews spent the summer putting final touches on the district's expansive $49 million facilities upgrade. Less than 24 hours before the first classes of fall 2014 would begin at Ridgefield High School, crews waited for the glossy finish of a bright new wooden gym floor to dry before they could get to work on adding the final touch: sets of retractable bleachers on either side of the room.
Meanwhile, other workers continued installing an outfield fence and smoothing concrete around the perimeter of a new softball field next to the school. And another crew was busy working on the ceiling of a new auditorium with balcony seating and a versatile floor space, where a stage can be moved around to accommodate a variety of performances.
In all, the work on the district's collection of new facilities began nearly two years ago, and new Superintendent Nathan McCann said he expects the last bits of it to wrap up this fall. Come October, crews should be ready to plant the grass on the softball field, and students will be able to check out the finished auditorium, which will seat more than 600 people, he said.
McCann took over for former superintendent Art Edgerly this summer, joining the district during its first major facilities upgrade in two decades. With outdated buildings and one of the fastest growing populations of any city in the state — enrollment grew by nearly 20 percent in the past 10 years — Ridgefield's campuses were long overdue for an expansion, McCann said.
In recent years, enrollment at each of the district's four schools had grown far beyond capacity. More than a quarter of the students took classes in portables before voters approved a $47 million bond measure in 2012 to pay for the bulk of the construction.
Ridgefield High School took the largest chunk of that funding — more than $23 million. The money also covered installation of the school's new turf football field, which wrapped up last summer.
Last year, the high school had eight portable classrooms, Principal Tony VanderMass said. District officials set out to add that many classrooms to the new wing next to the old gym.
The school also has a new classroom specially dedicated to its new pre-engineering program, an extension of the woodworking program, VanderMass said, in a move to expand the school's curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math.
Now entering his eighth year at the school, VanderMass said he sees a new optimism throughout the community about the future of Ridgefield's schools, thanks to the facilities upgrades.
"I just think there's a lot of excitement in the community, and I've already heard it from parents and students," he said. "Our goal is to become a premiere school district, and I really think these facilities are going to help us on that road."
At Union Ridge and South Ridge, the district's two elementary schools, about half the students will take classes in new buildings. Each has its own multipurpose room with a small stage and sound system and a wide-open space for audience seating.
Joe Thayer, who teaches sixth grade language arts at Union Ridge, said he's excited about no longer having to teach in a portable. The new building adds 12 classrooms to the campus, leaving only a couple of portable classrooms.
In a larger classroom, Thayer has more flexibility to move around and change seating arrangements.
"In my old room, there was exactly one way I could arrange it and have the minimal sort of fire safety clearances," he said. "People have personalities in sixth grade. Sometimes they want to be away from each other."
The new Union Ridge building will house grades four through six. Having them all in one building will allow for greater collaboration among the grade levels, Thayer said. Now, any younger students with advanced skills could easily attend an upper-level class just down the hall, he said.