New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
‘I love it, I’m thrilled’
Branford’s renovated Walsh Intermediate School made to ‘service the future’
BRANFORD — Five years after a project to renovate and rebuild Francis Walsh Intermediate School began, the curtain has been lifted. Quite literally.
A garage door-like divider from the new wing and the just-completed renovated wing of the combined 171,503square-foot structure now is open with the start of the new school year.
Mounds of dirt and construction trailers remain on the Damascus Road site, but they are off to the side, replaced in the front and back by fresh blacktop and playing fields.
“I love it, I’m thrilled,” Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernan
dez said on a recent tour of the school. “I think it is something that our children and our community will reap the benefits of for years to come.”
Although the first phase of the project — which included a new academic wing — was completed in January 2020, students had just settled in when a pandemic sent everyone to remote learning for the rest of that academic year.
The 2020-21 school year was spent largely in hybrid mode with many students still learning from home. The school serves students in the fifth through eighth grades.
With the start of the
2021-22 school year, students are getting the benefit of both the new wing and the renovated wing for the first time.
“Ultimately it’s a building,” Hernandez said. “It’s what happens inside the building that counts. We have a phenomenal staff and this is just icing on the cake.”
There is a lot of icing. From a grand staircase that rises from the first to third floor of the academic wing, to office and library counters made of Stony Creek granite, to a slopedfloor auditorium with plush seating and chandeliers, the new Walsh — still with its new-carpet smell — bears little resemblance to the outdated, open classroom structure it
Raeanne Reynolds is getting used to the large gathering places, the technology and the plentiful break-out rooms.
She calls her new school an amazing building. “We are all still getting acclimated,” Reynolds added.
Tara Marrandino, a special education teacher in the district for more than two decades, said the newness still is settling in.
“What we had before was so much different,” she said.
The old Walsh had character, but it also had leaks.
Sometimes it rained in the stairwells.
The only thing that spills through the stairwells now is sunlight, by design. It was one of the must-haves, according to Hernandez.
The newly finished wing includes many of the school’s common spaces such as office, gyms, auditorium health suites and pool. It can be closed off from the classroom wing when necessary.
The school’s pool remains a work in progress and is set to be complete by the end of the calendar year.
Plans are in the works to build new athletic fields at the school. The hope is to include that in the district’s next capital budget proposal.
While several schools have been renovated, this is the first time in a long time a school in Branford has been reconfigured from the ground up.
While it may not seem it, the new school has a smaller footprint than the one it replaced. . There are fewer students, roughly
800 this fall. The school size was largely dictated by the state that is expected to pick up roughly 35 percent of the $88.2 million project.
Sometime this school year, the district’s Central Office also will relocate from downtown to a rear, first-floor wing of the school, Hernandez said, using a card key to gain entry to the front foyer.
The school is flush with security measures. Some are visible, like large room numbers posted at each window and improved traffic flow around the building.
Other security features are hidden.
“There is a high level of protectiveness,” Hernandez said.
While the grand staircase is the school’s structural focal point, there are phenolic panels throughout the structure and efforts to pay homage to Branford beyond the granite. A mural of the Thimble Islands is painted across a wall of the cafeteria.
On this day, the Branford dance team is using the cafeteria as a practice space
The Walsh cafeteria also is where Branford Board of Education meetings are held.
Upstairs, on the second floor of the classroom wing, is home to the fifth and sixth grades.
The long corridor on that floor leads to the media center, what Hernandez called the hub of the school. The library’s modular seating is heated.
There are gender neutral bathrooms.
On the third floor, home to the seventh and eighth grades, the science labs are fully equipped. Some labs connect through removable walls to adjoining math classrooms for collaboration.
Classrooms are 800 square feet, larger than the ones they replaced, and have chairs that are designed to be both comfortable and easily moved for daily cleaning. Student and custodial staff both weighed in on the decision of which to get.
Another prominent classroom feature are Promethean interactive whiteboards, said to be more high-tech than smart boards.
Although long and linear, the hallways have distinctive features, including a student-created mosaic of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai on the third floor.
There also are alcoves in the corridors, complete with technology stations to allow students to work independently.
Hernandez confesses his favorite part of the school is its new auditorium. He calls it a theater.
“Branford has a robust performing arts program,” Hernandez said.
It starts in middle school. The Walsh auditorium used the Branford High School auditorium as a model, he said. The technology is comparable. The sound and catwalk slightly different.
Gyms in the renovated part of the school have been upgraded. The tired climbing wall has been replaced. There are new bleachers.
PCBs were removed from all the brickwork.
To accommodate as many sports as possible, one of the two gyms has a dizzying pattern of multicolored marking tape embedded in the flooring.
Nearby is the health suite, which includes both a school-based health clinic and nurse’s room.
“We wanted something that could service the future,” said Hernandez. He credits the town, its representative, Colliers International, architects Antinozzi and Associates and Fusco Construction, the builders, for bringing the project home.