Open for learning; New school overcomes politics and rancor to put students first.
UXBRIDGE - After many studies and more than a decade of work by School Building Committee members, town and state officials opened the new $45 million Uxbridge High School with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday morning.
An illuminated sign with a waving American flag welcomed guests to the school at 300 Quaker Highway, marked by a newly christened entrance road, Dan Stefanilo Way, named in memory of the district superintendent and building-project champion who died of a heart attack in February 2009.
The new 123,000-square-foot high school on the edge of town is 10,000 square feet bigger than the former high school at 62 Capron St., downtown, which was built in 1937 with additions in 1967, 1989 and 1998.
The new school is built to serve 600 students and includes state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories, addressing an issue of inadequate educational facilities that at one point brought the old high school close to losing its accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
The project cost approximately $45 million, with state reimbursement coming to around $22 million, according to Jack McCarthy, executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Mr. Stefanilo's memory and the project's long and at times contentious history in town were commented on by several of the speakers.
Superintendent Kevin Carney told the audience that the ceremony was not just about new beginnings, but also about bringing closure to memories of challenges.
"Your challenges make it all the more worthwhile for the memories that have not yet taken place," Mr. Carney said.
"This was Dan's (Stefanilo's) vision," said Ernest Esposito, School Committee chairman. "I know Dan is a happy, happy man today."
State Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge, remarked, "It has been said that good things come to those who wait. By that measure the ribbon-cutting for this new Uxbridge High School is truly a great thing."
The polarized debate over building a new high school characterized town political discourse since a school space needs committee reported in the 1990s that existing buildings couldn't accommodate the town's growing student population.
State Rep. Kevin J. Kuros, R-Uxbridge, who is also a member of the School Building Committee, said he knew the school would be a hot topic from the day he moved to town in 1999. He received a copy of the New Uxbridge Times and saw a full-page ad encouraging residents to vote against a new high school. Flipping the pages, he saw another full-page ad advocating for a new high school.
He said, "Nothing good in life comes easily or without perseverance, or without pain and suffering in some instances."
While crowding and town rancor over building a new high school increased, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges placed the existing high school on warning status in 2003 and then on probation in 2004, the penultimate step before withdrawing accreditation. NEASC cited overcrowding, small or inadequate classrooms, inadequate laboratory facilities, windowless instructional areas and limited space for collaborative work, among its concerns.
Parents and students responded to the deteriorating facilities at Uxbridge High School and the threat that it may lose accreditation by leaving the district through school choice.
In 2002, 103 students left the district through school choice. The numbers then began to climb, peaking at 244 students in 2005, according to the Uxbridge School Building Committee. The number of students leaving the district continued in that range then fell under 200 in 2009.
Many others opted for private schools or Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School.
School officials are counting on the new high school to counter the trend of exporting students.
Former Superintendent George Zini said this year's ninth-grade class will be the largest in 10 years. He told the audience the stigma of Uxbridge having the largest proportion of students in the Blackstone Valley who "choice out" is fading.
Uxbridge High School Principal Tara Bennett said she knew of eight local ninth-grade students who had committed to attending another district changing their minds since spring to enroll in Uxbridge. She's also heard of school-choice students returning in Grades 10, 11 and 12.
Approximately 480 students will occupy the building this year, Ms. Bennett said.
The incoming senior class representatives were excited about being the first to graduate from the new high school.
"Personally, I just never thought it would happen. It's fantastic," said Andrew Reardon, class president.
Wade O'Neil, Student Council president, said the new building was "a total 180" from the old one.
After the ribbon was cut, the high school doors were thrown open to welcome community members to come in and take a look. No one seemed disappointed.
ART: PHOTOS; MAP
CUTLINE: (1) Several girls sit off to the side while officials speak during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new $45 million Uxbridge High School yesterday. (2) School Committee Chairman Ernest Esposito talks during the ceremony at Uxbridge High School yesterday. (3) A digital sign welcomes visitors to the new Uxbridge High School. The entrance road is named Dan Stefanilo Way, and located off Quaker Highway. (MAP) New Uxbridge high school
PHOTOG: (PHOTOS) T&G Staff Photos/CHRISTINE PETERSON (MAP) T&G Staff/TOM HUNT