Judging by the excitement of the administrators at Cider Mill School, the building maintenance projects completed in the facility over the summer was a “bright” thing to do. When students and their families return today to walk through and meet their teachers before the start of school next week, that’s likely going to be their reaction as well–things look much brighter at Wilton’s school for students in grade 3-5.

Walking through the doors of the school, anyone familiar with Cider Mill will immediately see the work that was done over the summer–the carpeting that covered the majority of the floors throughout the entire building was pulled up and white floor tiles were installed in its place; almost all the walls received a fresh coat of paint (somewhere between white and very, very light blue-grey); and brand new ceiling tiles and LED lighting were installed throughout the school. Officials have said it’s as if they’ve got a new school, without the significant costs associated with a full scale renovation like what was necessary at Miller-Driscoll School a few years ago.

Pops of bright colors identified with the four ‘houses’ that make up the sections of the school–green for Kent, yellow for Belden Hill, red for Cannondale and blue for Nod Hill–add eye-catching accents on railings, columns or alcoves. And new, modular soft furniture (also custom colored for each house) has been assembled in common areas to make cozy, kid-friendly tech areas that can be used as alternative teaching spaces or collaboration areas.

Altogether the effect is a lighter, brighter, more energized environment, one that principal Jen Falcone says really enhances the student-focused philosophy and mission.

“I’m really excited for the kids to come back and just feel a new vibe in the building,” Falcone says. “The biggest thing is our theme for the year–Be Here, Be You, Belong. To make it really student-centered and inclusive–really celebrating everybody’s individuality and that this is their place. This is their home for the hours that they’re here.”

The new furniture in the common areas echoes the flexible seating many classroom teachers have adopted, with soft-sided geometric shapes that can be used for seating or desks and moved into different arrangements around on a whim. In addition, the school is recognizing that kids this age have a lot of energy to burn, so they make sure to program in movement breaks and free play during the day.

“As we’re totally focused on the academic piece, we’re also trying to keep the whole student wellbeing in mind, really supporting them and understanding that that makes the student learning go,” Falcone adds.

The faculty helped get the school ready for the cosmetic changes starting last spring, taking part in a Marie Kondo classroom challenge clean-up. “We got a dumpster, we had an in-school tag sales where we put things out, and we donated to schools in Bridgeport,” says Falcone, noting that the big clean uncovered lots of even obsolete items that just needed to go–including a couple old-style overhead projectors.

There are also more outside areas being put to use. The inner courtyards (above), once overgrown with thorny bushes, have been cleaned up and replanted. Seating areas will allow teachers and students to use those spaces as alternative classrooms as well.

There’s also a sizable flower and vegetable garden planted by the PTA last year that is flourishing on the building’s south side.

“The food that’s been harvested from here, some of it has been herbs and flowers, but they also planted vegetables that have been going up to Comstock to the food pantry,” says Cider Mill assistant principal Catherine O’Keefe.

But the pièce de résistance of the summer renovation has to be the school’s Library Learning Commons (LLC). The space has been rethought to incorporate all the hallmarks of 21st century learning–STEM, collaboration, student-directed learning and flexible areas.

O’Keefe points to the decorative painted walls, the soft stools that look like logs and even a pattern in the carpet that makes the floor look like a huge tree trunk with the center seating area as the branches and leaves.

“The theme behind all of this was to bring the outside in. So you’ll see both the trees and the woodlands and all of that when you go through this space.”

The old floor to ceiling bookshelves have been replaced by shorter shelves that now don’t block the light and are a more kid-friendly height. Plus, like every bit of furniture in the LLC, the shelves are on wheels and easy to move around, which makes the entire space very customizable for bringing in large groups of people or holding all sorts of different activities and events. There’s also comfortable seating that’s inviting to kids to curl up on and read.

Also in the LLC is the maker space and primary STEM area, under the direction of former 5th grade teacher turned LLC/Stem specialist Jason Greasley. The former computer lab room has been transformed into a room-sized maker space with communal tables ideal for project work. This lets the kids come to a dedicated space where they can really get hands-on rather than have Greasley toting materials from classroom to classroom around the school.

“There’ll be all kinds of things going on in this room. The maker space is any hands-on, creative outlet for our kids. So if they want to paper mâché; if they want to origami; or we’ve got projects like a robotics–we’re building our own robots instead of using robots. Coding will be the next level to it–you build your robot, you code it; 3-D printers. That’s what that room’s about,” Greasley explains. “Giving the kids options to be creative in how they show what they’re learning and that they get to direct it, that they get to figure out teamwork and do it all.”

Plus, he says, “They can take all those skills they are learning in the classroom and they choose how to apply it, which is really cool to watch.”

Falcone said the work done by the custodians in getting the school in shape and cleaned up for this year was extraordinary. “They have gone above and beyond to get this place ready. I mean, if you had seen this place just last week…”

The other major cosmetic change people will see is immediately noticeable even before stepping foot in the school. The Cider Mill parking lot has been entirely repaved and re-striped, all of which was included in this fiscal year’s road restoration and paving bonding.

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