Freshly Renovated White River School Opens New Year With Enthusiasm, Pride

  • White River School teacher Diane Langley, right, leads her second grade class back to their room after a restroom break on the first day of school in White River Junction, Vt. Tuesday, August 30, 2016. New, no-touch faucets in restrooms and re-tiled floors were part of the recently completed $3 million renovation of the building to improve its safety, efficiency and learning atmosphere. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River School librarian Gail Haynes, right, talks with para-professional Kelly Mock, left, in the school's library Tuesday, August 30, 2016. New carpet was installed in the library as part of the renovation and carpet in classrooms was replaces with new tile. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • White River School Principal Sheila Powers welcomes third grader Colbey Daniels-Hood, 8, as he arrives on the first day of class in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, August 30, 2016. A $3 million renovation of the school building included new roofing for the gym and the main school to protect from heavy snow loads, and re-surfacing of exterior steps and walkways to improve safety. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2016

White River Junction — A town’s $3.6 million investment bore fruit on Tuesday morning when the White River School’s returning students entered classrooms that seemed, for the first time in decades, to be as welcoming as the teachers.

For years, the 108-year-old building’s burgeoning list of maintenance needs created a learning environment that kindergarten teacher Ann Cerasoli, after exchanging a glance with Principal Sheila Powers, politely referred to as “a challenge.”

Over the last two summers, contractors have worked to address an environment that made it difficult for staff to teach and students to learn.

Under a heating system reigned over by an old, fussy boiler, Cerasoli’s classroom was “very cold,” she said. She taught her kindergartners to bring and put on extra layers of clothing so they could focus on their lessons.

But the same heating system that kept her room icy typically blasted the library with heat. As soon as Cerasoli brought her students there, they would peel off their layers, a distracting and time-consuming chore that would have to be reconsidered as soon as they re-entered her cold classroom.

Built in 1908, the building served as Hartford’s high school until 1963, and was converted to an elementary school in 1970. The last significant renovation was in 1992.

Powers walked through the renovated building, pointing out the new boiler system that allows for effective temperature control. It’s one of many upgraded features replacing flaws that, like the previous heating system, once had the potential to distract students from learning.

Hartford School Superintendent Tom DeBalsi called the previous building “worn and somewhat tired-looking,” while Powers called it “gloomy.”

Various factors conspired to foul the very atmosphere of the place — the roof over the gym leaked, the bathroom fixtures were ancient, the classrooms were covered in carpeting that was some 25 years old, and the storage attic above the rotting pillars of the school’s old entrance was filled with a century’s worth of disintegrated insulation and bat droppings. Bundle all that up with the lack of an effective air circulation system, and you get air that is unpleasant, if not unhealthy, to breathe, Powers said.

Now, “the air quality has changed pretty dramatically,” according to Powers. The roof of the gym has been replaced, the bathrooms boast new toilets and washing stations, and a variety of minor hazards — from the gym’s uneven steps and out-of-code bleachers to the classrooms’ haphazardly constructed thresholds — have been fixed.

“Of course, it’s easier to learn in a comfortable environment,” Powers said. “It smells better.”

The pre-K through fifth-grade school also looks better, a fact that didn’t escape parents like Elvis Lowe, who stood outside the school moments after escorting his fourth-grade son across the blacktop.

“It’s much brighter — the hallways, the floors,” he said.

Lowe was reacting to some of the cosmetic changes — every classroom has had its carpeting removed, replaced by new flooring that, combined with the newly painted walls, brightens the atmosphere in each room.

The classrooms that house younger children have washable rugs, Powers said.

In one such room, teacher Amanda Ehret sat in a circle with her first-graders, smiling as she led the children through an ice-breaking exercise.

“Who knows the names of two other people in the circle?” she asked, prompting a series of children to raise their hands.

The staff — including Powers, Cerasoli, Ehret and kindergarten teacher Linda Trombley — are acutely aware that not that long ago, the future of the school was uncertain.

For years the School Board, concerned about budget pressures and dwindling enrollment, had discussed the possibility of combining the district’s elementary schools into Dothan Brook School, DeBalsi said.

In 2014, after years of proposals to close the aging structure altogether, Hartford voters were being asked to spend $3.6 million on the school.

“I was not confident,” Trombley said of the day the voters went to the polls. “I was scared.”

Part of the reason for Trombley’s concern was that the bond was on the ballot with another bond asking voters to borrow $3 million to build a track for the high school.

There was reason to think voters would reject the measures (a previous slate of bonds had been approved, only to fall short of their objectives after it turned out officials had dramatically underestimated the costs of the projects, leaving some of the work undone).

White River School supporters didn’t know whether the voters would reject both bonds, or approve the track and leave the school by the wayside.

“Lots of times,” Cerasoli said, “they go with sports things over school things.”

But the voters defied that expectation — they rejected the athletic bond and approved the school renovation by a healthy 1,065-546 margin, preserving the school in the heart of White River Junction.

DeBalsi said on Tuesday that the vote cemented the community’s commitment to making the building work for its roughly 250 students.

“It pretty much solidified the current sentiment that WRS should not close,” he said. “It is a vibrant and strong program.”

DeBalsi said the work, which was completed just last week, came in under budget, though he said he still was awaiting final numbers.

“The building looks awesome,” he said, “and is ready for the next 100 years.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.