On Wednesday morning New Lebanon School students and staff celebrated the opening of their brand new school in Byram.
The morning was all about the students’ first day in the building. This Saturday, Feb 23 there will be a second ribbon cutting and celebration where the community is invited to come take a tour.
Student council leader Theresa Knuth aptly summed up the sentiments of the wide eyed children, who were taking in the sight of their new school surroundings for the first time.
“Now we are living the dream,” Theresa said.
Principal Barbara Riccio who will retire at the end of this school teacher, was her usual bubbly self. Arm in arm with “Bob” the school mascot, she shook purple and gold pom poms and danced with the children.
“We don’t need to have idols or celebrities,” principal Riccio said. “We need to admire the hard work, dedication and competence of everyone in this room – Our wonderful parents and amazing children – that’s what this morning is about.”
The last time the school community gathered at the site of the new school with local officials and school administration was for the ground breaking ceremony on December 9, 2017, and all the children were given plastic construction “hard hats” for the occasion.
Up to that point the timeline was marked by battle after battle.
There was the Municipal Improvement process, followed by the wearying debate about where to locate the school. At one point, hundreds of New Leb families turned out with signs encouraging building the school on the William Street ball field.
For a time there was consideration of locating the children to modulars and constructing a new school on the footprint of the existing 1950s era school.
Once the ravine behind the existing school was selected, there was some controversy about removing so many trees that had provided noise barrier between Byram and I95 and absorbed pollution.
As the battles dragged on, the children kept their spirits up. They ate lunch in the miniature cafeteria, and had PE in the baby sized gymnasium. And they were split apart when seam-bursting class sizes necessitated housing kindergarten classes across the street at the Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center.
Once the plans were in place though, the construction of the new school in the ravine stayed on time and on budget.
A video played on Wednesday morning featuring the students’ favorite moments when construction crews “blew up rocks.”
After the pledge of allegiance, Ms. Riccio asked the students too look around, absorb their new surroundings, and share a thought.
“Where is my ALP room?” one boy asked.
Ms. Riccio said after the ceremony all the children would be shown to their classrooms and learn the layout including the bathrooms, which more than one child had wondered about.
Steve Walko, chair of the New Lebanon building committee, who attended hundreds of meetings leading up to Wednesday, said, “Today is the most important day. Today is about all of you.”
“Winnie-the-Poo once said, ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think,'” he said to the children. “All of you inspired us to do our jobs. You inspired us to pick the right school. You inspired us to pick the right location. You inspired us to fight for state funding. You inspired us to design a wonderful school. You inspired us to fight the critics when they were against building a new school. You inspired us to build a magnificent gym,” he said. “And you inspired us to be on time and here today.”
New Lebanon, which has been cited for racial imbalance, which is calculated according to a state formula, features magnet seats as part of a District plan to balance the school racially. It also includes preschool classrooms.
The new school also addresses severe overcrowding. Enrollment has crept up over the years from when 20 years ago when there were just 180 students. Today enrollment is 265.
The new building is designed to accommodate all the students in the school’s attendance area. A number of students districted for New Lebanon are attending other magnet schools including Julian Curtiss School, as well as Glenville School and Parkway School.
On Wednesday, Principal Riccio invited former state rep Mike Bocchino, who attended New Leb himself as a boy, and whose sons attend the school, to share reflections, noting that when he was in office he fought for state funding for the project.
“When we were up in Hartford we had some people tell us that they would never allow this school to come to fruition,” Bocchino recalled. “We were able to overcome all the obstacles.”
“You guys have a great honor and we’re looking for you to excel and exceed in everything that you do, and don’t ever let anybody tell you you can’t do something. You can be the best you can possibly be, with the best school and the best teachers….From the bottom of my heart, from our delegation, congratulations. This is family. This is our community. Welcome home!”
After a slide show and video retrospective on the process leading up to Wednesday’s celebration, and after much pom-pom shaking, “rockets,” chanting and dancing, around 9:30am all the children found their teachers and were escorted to their brand new classrooms.