New Canaan Country School debuts new, improved Lower School
NEW CANAAN — Once every week or so, New Canaan Country School students and faculty gather for building-wide assemblies.
Each of the academic divisions at the private day school meets in a centrally located, gym-like communal space — aptly dubbed “the commons” — to discuss educational themes and upcoming events, to highlight individuals and groups of students and to perform.
On a recent Thursday, the 217 first- through fourth-graders comprising the Lower School met for their second assembly of the new school year, run in part by a group of fourth-grade students and featuring skits about inclusiveness, a poem from a group of second-graders and a school-wide song celebrating Rosh Hashana. But the assembly was significant not just because of the then-upcoming Jewish holiday. It marked only the second such assembly in the newly renovated Lower School building, on which work was completed this summer.
“The best thing about the first day of school — because I have such a good vantage point — was watching the children coming in,” said Head of Lower School Meaghan Mallin, whose office abuts a refurbished lobby. An expanded window between office and lobby was installed, allowing for students to see into the administrator’s space and for Mallin to look out.
“The openness of this was really important for us, for kids and for parents. We really wanted parents to feel this was a space they could gather and feel welcomed in,” Mallin said walking through the lobby as the assembly dispersed.
The renovations to the Middle and Lower schools are part of a large-scale master plan, overseen by the Master Planning Task Force — comprised of faculty, administrators, members of the Board of Trustees and parents — that includes capital projects, like the building of a new dining hall and improved athletic facilities, as well as renovations to academic buildings.
According to Master Planning Task Force Co-chairman Randy Salvatore, his group looked at the ways in which uses of school facilities might be optimized.
“It always came down to the program and the mission of the school. We started with that and said, ‘How can we better continue that mission into the future?’ We reflected back on the state of our facilities and tried to marry those two things. That’s really where the master plan came from,” Salvatore said.
The task force was formed in 2015 and first convened to discuss plans for the Lower School less than a year ago.
“We started meeting in the fall of last year. And we started working on it the day that school was out,” said Stephanie Bowling Ziegler, task force co-chairwoman and an alumna of the school. “We had done the Middle School last summer with the same kind of changes. So we had learned from the previous summer.”
Funds for the project came out of the school’s regular operating budget. New Canaan Country School would not disclose the total cost of renovations.
The Lower School renovation allowed for the classrooms to be grouped together to allow for better collaboration. Each grade is situated together in a cluster, with the first- and second-grade classrooms closest to administrative offices and the refurbished lobby at the front entrance to the building. Between each grouping of classrooms is a shared breakout room — converted from closet spaces by adding skylights and all glass fronts — used for more personalized, small-group education and increased collaboration. The core classes like science and music, taken by all Lower School students, were moved to the corners of the building.
“The bones of the building are terrific. They have a central gathering space in the middle with the classrooms and other spaces circulating. It’s ideal. So we tried to honor the building and not disrupt it too much, but make the most of what was there,” Bowling Ziegler said.
According to School Archivist Mark Macrides, the building was constructed in 1967 by New Canaan architect Gary Lindstrom, who also built the Watson Gym and the Stevens (Upper School) Building, originally with only eight classrooms.
“It was built with this sort of village idea in mind, with this common area and then these pairs of classrooms on each side of that central room,” Macrides said.
The general layout remains, though corner additions were added for more space in subsequent decades.