#schoolsafety | New Winslow Junior High School marks fresh beginning for students, staff

WINSLOW — Dakota Riley is a mix of happy, scared and nervous after her first week back at school — two days at the new Winslow Junior High School and two days of remote learning — but is “mostly happy” about starting eighth grade.

Dakota Riley, 13 and an eighth-grader at Winslow Junior High School. Courtesy photo

The new Winslow Junior High School is finally up and running, but not as initially planned. The new space opened last week, but the old building is still in use as students returned for the 2020-21 academic year under the district’s hybrid model.

Seventh- and eighth-graders are in the new wing attached to the high school, but with a separate entrance.

“I get lost really easily, but there are arrows on the floor so I know which way I am going,” said Riley, 13. “It looks a lot bigger, and we went into the gym — it looked polished and really clean, and I liked that.”

Jason Briggs is in his fourth year as the junior high school principal, overseeing seventh- and eighth-graders in their new space.

Sixth-graders, who were originally destined for renovated space for 100 students at Winslow Elementary School, are at the old middle school to comply with distancing and safety protocols related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The plan is for one year, unless something happens in which we can go green with our return-to-school model and meet all the safety guidelines for the state,” Briggs said.

“Not only do we have the pandemic, but (for) every student and most of our staff, this is brand new territory. All our seventh and eighth grade, anyone who works in our new building, it’s brand new space for them.”

The high school building renovations for junior high students include a new band classroom, a reconfigured and enlarged cafeteria and an expanded auxiliary gymnasium to become a second, full-size gym as part of the $8.1 million project. There are separate entrances for the junior high school and high school.

“The space is beautiful. It’s bright, airy, spacious. It’s a gorgeous place,” said Marybeth Bourgoin, who is starting her 25th year as an eighth-grade social studies teacher. “I loved that old building, having gone to school there, but it was definitely needed. As much as I loved that building — and I do — it was time.”

Cory Riley, Dakota’s mother, said she is still learning about the new school. Dakota Riley has a younger brother, Jackson, who has also started kindergarten.

“In the old building, where it was the original Winslow High School, a lot of the facilities and the utilities were outdated,” Cory Riley said. “It’s for the kids. It’s important that they have everything that they need to be successful — as many resources as they can have.”

Kelvin Francis Jr., 12, is one of the sixth-graders at the old building, but it does not bother him.

Kelvin Francis Jr., 12 and a sixth-grader in Winslow. Courtesy photo

“I mean, I’m happy that I can see all my friends again and stuff because it’s good to be near people in times like this,” Francis said. “I’m good with it.”

Francis’ mother, Karen Brown, said she understood why her son was not yet at a new building.

“It’s kinda different, but because of the whole COVID situation, and it’s to keep children safe,” Brown said. “It makes me feel good that my child is safe.”

Heather Tompkins, a sixth-grade science teacher, is beginning her 19th year in the district. She said the teachers in her grade do not mind being at the old building.

“We were all perfectly fine to have our familiar spaces to us for one more year, or however long it takes,” Tompkins said. “We’ve worked together for a while, and we are continuing to do that — and do it well — here in our space. It’s worked well. It’s not crowded.”

The district pushed back its first day of school to Sept. 8 due to a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but by Wednesday afternoon, all Winslow Junior High School seventh- and eighth-graders who chose in-person schooling had attended their first day at the new wings attached to Winslow High School.

“I can tell you that the students and staff are thrilled to be in the new facility,” Superintendent Peter Thiboutot said via email. “I am very proud of the responsible attitude our students and staff have taken in order to keep our schools and community safe.

“Things have gone exceptionally well in Winslow. All of the planning and preparation to get our students safely back to school has certainly paid off. Everyone seems happy to be back, and we are all working hard to keep our schools open.”

Winslow students had the option of taking classes at school part of the week and remotely part of the week, or they could opt for fully remote learning.

Students who chose to attend in-person education are split into two cohorts — one with last names A-La and the other Le-Z.

The cohorts alternate days, but there is a staff inservice day Friday, Sept. 18, to discuss future proceedings, and a proposal is expected to be brought to the Winslow School Board on Monday, Sept. 21.

In May 2019, the Winslow School Department announced tweaks to the school renovation, which added band and chorus rooms instead of a proposed, 410-seat auditorium and a new freezer, instead of an entirely renovated cafeteria.

The $8.1 million bond for the renovations, done by Ledgewood Construction of South Portland, passed 881-825 in 2018, with 194 ballots left blank.

Voters defeated the original $10.3 million school renovation bond in November 2017.

“It has been a long process getting to this point, but the consolidation into a two-building campus is already resulting in significant annual cost avoidance that is almost entirely paying the bond cost of the new junior high space and renovated areas at the elementary school,” said Joel Selwood, chair of the School Board.

“This project has provided modern, cost-efficient buildings for learning, while also allowing for the better use of personnel and other resources. Our School Board appreciates the efforts of the many administrators, teachers, staff, council and community members for bringing this project into fruition.  Their work will benefit Winslow for many years to come.”

Together with the pandemic, moving into new school space is an adjustment for all, including administrators and staff members.

Students knowing they are not charting new territory alone is also important, according to Briggs.

A bus arrives Thursday at Winslow Junior High School. The new building opened to seventh- and eighth-graders for their first days of school Sept. 8 and 9. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“It’s an orientation for sixth-grade students, seventh-grade students and eighth-grade students, as well as our faculty and staff,” he said. “Then you add the pandemic, with safety protocols in place. That’s new for all of us.

“This is brand new for every adult here, as well. When they see Mr. Briggs in front of them, wearing the mask and role modeling, I think it’s a breath of fresh air — ‘Oh yeah, Mr. Briggs had to do this, too.’”

Seventh- and eighth-grade students have different transition times to make movement more comfortable. The high school students, along with seventh- and eighth-grade students, share the band and chorus rooms, cafeteria and library, with library services mostly online. There are separate lunch hours for the two school levels.

Winslow recently secured funding to provide free breakfast and lunch to students for the academic year.

“When you talk about safety — not just the physical safety, but the emotional and social component for a middle school student developmentally — they’re really trying to find their confidence,” Briggs said. “Through this whole building project, that was a major focus.

“We want kids to have a sense of belonging because that’s important to middle school,” Briggs said. “It’s all brand new right now, and time will tell.”


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