GHS PTA Envisions a Transformed Student Center

Times have changed since the “new” Greenwich High School opened on Hillside Rd in 1970.

Under the guidance of Headmaster John Bird, the students were excited to move from the old Field Point Road building (now Town Hall) where the cafeteria was in the basement and there was no air conditioning, to the new, modern building.

Volkswagen Bugs parked at the old Greenwich High School on Field Point Road in the 1960s. Photo: Compass yearbook

Bird was headmaster from 1969 to 1980. In the early 1970s, enrollment was nearly 2,200 students which was considerable given GHS was only grades 10-12. Also under Headmaster Bird, the “house system” was introduced to make the school feel smaller, and the dress code loosened up to allow girls to wear jeans.

While the pay phones are gone, the picnic bench style tables have been replaced, and smoking is no longer allowed, one thing that has changed very little in 50 years is Greenwich High School’s student center.

Alumni from decades ago still joke about how athletes, theater kids, freshmen and various other groups assign themselves to areas within the stadium size space.

Student Center at GHS after lunch time, circa 1972. Photo: Compass Yearbook
Greenwich High School student center in 2019. Photo: Leslie Yager

This week, PTA co president Stephanie Cowie said that during Covid-19 it became clear the student center was inadequate.

She said after the PTA had discussions with the GHS administration, they decided to make the Student Center their main focus for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Cowie explained that the idea is not for a large construction redesign, but rather more of “a face lift” with paint and electrical to create learning spaces with charging stations and comfortable seating. There will be an open concept allowing movement throughout, with different types of tables to encourage greater socialization and high tops for smaller groups.

Stille, “face lifts” are expensive, and Cowie said typically before the PTA funds any school improvement beyond their typical spending, they ask if the requested improvement can be funded by the district.

She said based on recent discussions with Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, the student center transformation might be a good match for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER 3) 2021-2022 funds, though there are many “asks” for the relief funding.

Cowie said that over time the improvements to the student center will impact all students in the district and benefit everything from academics, to SEL to physical well-being.

And as for those cliques who take claim of various sections in the student center, the idea is for a reimagined student center that breaks barriers to inclusivity.

A transformed student center could reestablish behavioral norms, including students cleaning up their tables after lunch. Students would be able to get work done without going to the media center.

Another possibility is to extend the space beyond the walls of the student center, adding flexibility and diversity to common areas including the outdoors and underused indoor spaces.

“The culture of GHS will be even better if we can make the student center a more desirable and functional space for students of all backgrounds and social emotional needs,” Cowie said.

Parents have been writing to Dr. Jones to show their support for the idea of transforming the student center. 

Student center at GHS transformed for social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Members of the GHS class of 2021 have used the student center both before and during the pandemic, which necessitated rows of socially distanced desks and a one-way walking pattern around the perimeter.

The four GFP spring interns shared their thoughts.

Elizabeth Casolo said a new layout has been something needed for a long time.

“Before COVID, many students would opt to eat lunch in the Media Center, outside, off campus or in their cars if they had parking privileges,” she said, adding that by leveraging underused spaces, students can have more independence deciding where they want to eat lunch and study.

“Having friendlier environments encourages students to maximize the resources GHS has to offer and engage with more of their classmates,” she added. “A refreshed student center would also incentivize students to stay on campus for lunch, which would reduce traffic, parking issues and potential accidents during lunch block.”

Stella Santini said she would welcome improvements, but hoped the student center would remain a focal point of the school.

“As cheesy as it sounds, the student center is a place where hilarious memories have been made for my friends and me throughout our four years,” Stella said. “I wouldn’t want it to lose that casual, loose vibe.”

Kathryn O’Donnell said in response to the many Covid-19 restrictions in the student center, students took advantage of the outdoor seating in the front of the school

“All of my friends loved eating and even working in the outside atmosphere,” she said. “If there could be renovations to really utilize the outdoor spaces, not only in the front of the glass corridor, but in the courtyard behind the class corridor, I think students would be more engaged.”

“Additionally, it is fair to say that the student center is pretty dated,” Kathryn added. “With 21st century technology developing every day, I think there can definitely be more introductions of technology to the student center to give it a more modern and accessible touch. Something like monitors or computers – like in the library – could help deliver this.”

Kade Tibberts said she wasn’t sure she agreed with the proposed improvements.

“The student center is the only space for students to hang out and chat openly,” she said. “It isn’t a place for studying, having meetings, or having performances or exhibitions.”

“Providing charging stations or technology upgrades ignores the main purpose of the student center, which is to have lunch, not use technology,” Kade added. “That being said, I do think the student center needs to be upgraded. Put simply, there aren’t enough tables and chairs, indoors or outdoors. All of this year, I sat outside on the ground while eating my lunch because there was nowhere to sit. In past years, 10 friends would crowd around one table. The best thing the school can do for the social and emotional well being of its students is give them an area to socialize and relax that has enough chairs.”

See also “A Look Back” series by Maxine King, GHS Class of 2017

A Look Back—GHS in the 70’s: A Transition under Headmaster John Bird

A Look Back—GHS in the 1950s: The Classic ‘50s Experience   

A Look Back: 40 years of GHS, an Interview with Jory Lockwood