As the doors to Oyster River Middle School (ORMS) opened on Monday, February 28th, 2022, students danced and grinned as they entered the building, thrilled to be back at school after their February break. Greeted by applause from community members, students poured up the stairwells to the four brightly colored stories of their brand new school.
The building was designed to incorporate the Oyster River Cooperative School District’s values in sustainability, safety, and a positive learning environment. It features modern technologies and large team learning spaces, as well as appropriate classroom sizes that meet state standards. Entering the school, people are greeted by a huge wall in the front entryway celebrating sustainability. This complements the solar panels outside that make the school’s energy usage net-positive. The new building also demonstrates the district’s commitment to equity and inclusion with its entirely gender-neutral bathrooms.
Staff and students are loving the new school and all its features. Eighth grader Nora Robbins (‘26) said one of her favorite parts of the new building is that “it’s a lot easier to know where everything is because it’s all in one area. Like, all my classes are in one stairway… It’s also a lot more sustainable for the environment, so I can go to school without feeling a little bit guilty that we’re making an environmental footprint.” She added, “it’s still kind of weird to think that I go to school there because it’s so beautiful.”
This feeling has been echoed by staff, as well. A few days before moving into the new school, Language Arts teacher Jennifer Snow said, “I’m absolutely thrilled. I’m very excited about being in the new building.” In addition to having taught at Oyster River for 20 years, Snow grew up in the district and went to school in the old building from kindergarten through eighth grade. She said, “I’ve got great memories of [the old] building, but it’s seen better days. It’s time to move forward.”
To Snow, one of the most notable parts of the building is the new team learning spaces. She said, “I think the team space is probably in the long term going to have the biggest impact on kids… There’s a lot more space for them to work cooperatively together that’s not necessarily in the classroom.” Snow named the music space and the learning commons as two other great features of the school and is excited for the opportunities they will bring to kids.
Principal Jay Richard is also delighted with the new building. He said that working there is “amazing… It’s really hard for me to believe, even still. I walk around and I want to pinch myself.” He added that throughout the school, “there’s a lot of positive enthusiasm. A lot of the challenges that we had before are just gone.” One of many examples of this is that for the first time, Oyster River Middle School has the capacity for full-school assemblies. In the past, there has been no place big enough for that, but the new performance space with 901 seats gives more than enough room for ORMS’s 632 students.
Throughout ORMS, there is a large culture of gratitude for the new opportunities granted by the new school. Nick Bellows, the middle school’s librarian, shared that “it says a lot about the communities Oyster River serves that they would invest in their kids with this building. It could have been done in a way that was a lot less expensive, but that would have had to cut out some of the features of the building that reflect the values of the community… one of those being how they educate their kids. They consider that to be important enough to invest 50 million dollars in a middle school. That’s a pretty awesome thing to be part of.” This sentiment was repeated by both Snow and Richard.
Another benefit to the new school building is that it gave teachers the chance for some much-needed decluttering. While preparing to move to the new school, Richard said, “one of my biggest challenges is making sure that staff members go through items and only bring items that they’re gonna really need.”
To actually transport all the teachers’ things, their boxes were first put onto large pallets, then transported into the new building and brought to each teacher’s classroom. On the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before February break, middle school students did not have school. This gave teachers a chance to unpack and make sure their classrooms were ready for when students came to the new building.
While packing up was stressful at times, it paid off. Snow said that in her old classroom, she had materials leftover from old teachers that had been sitting untouched for decades. In her new classroom, “I know where everything is, I know what everything is, and everything is being used,” which she is very happy about.
In addition to the issue of moving physical goods, staff and students also needed help transitioning into their new building. Richard described February 28th as a “brand new first day of school,” because everybody was new to the building and needed to learn where all their classes would be. To help them, all staff and students went to the new school for an hour on the Monday and Tuesday before February break to get oriented, similarly to how step-up day usually works.
Robbins said that this process “was pretty seamless. The teachers did a really good job of making the transition as easy as possible for the students and kept a lot of things normal so it wasn’t a huge change.”
There’s also an issue of a mental transition from the old middle school to the new one. Many former students are nostalgic for the old school and the memories they made there (as covered in Bhavana Muppala’s article “Middle School Memories”). However, Richard explained that “a lot of the [current middle schoolers] don’t really have a big attachment” to the old building. The eighth graders are the only ones who have experienced a full year at ORMS, and for many of them, their biggest fifth grade memory is when they had sewage in the school and had to evacuate to the high school. While many students have great memories of the building, most of their focus has been on excitement for the new one.
Speaking for himself, Richard thinks that when the old school is torn down, he won’t be upset at all. He said, “the things that are special to me are the memories of the students and the experiences that happened in this school… I’m not going to be sad because I still have those memories and experiences. You can’t take those away from me.”
When asked how the new school compares to the old one, Richard said, “If I was doing a scale of one to ten, I’d say [the new building] is a ten, and the old one is probably a two.” But, Richard emphasized that “one of the most important things… is that what makes a great school is the people in it: the staff and students. So, I would say we had a great school back when we were in the old building, because we have great kids and great staff. But now, we have the great kids, we have the great staff, and we have a great facility. I think it’s just gonna give so many more positive opportunities to our staff and children.”
Richard concluded, “it’s just been a lot of fun. We still have a lot to learn because everything is brand new… but we’re happy to learn it. We’re thrilled.”