'It feels like home': A Westport middle school reopens after $32 million renovation

WESTPORT — Jennifer Tedesco-Alfano has seen Coleytown Middle School undergo many changes over the years — as a student and as a teacher.

On Tuesday, she joined her fellow staff in welcoming students to the first day back in the completely renovated CMS. The building closed in 2018 due to mold problems, but a $32 million remediation project has brought it back better than before.

“This is my 26th year teaching here so I’ve seen it through a lot of changes,” said Tedesco-Alfano, a sixth-grade language arts teacher. “This has been amazing and the changes have been wonderful. It just feels great to be back home.”

Tedesco-Alfano, who attended Coleytown back when it was a junior high school, said there was a lot of excitement on the first day with many saying it almost felt like the first day of a new school year.

Administrators shared similar sentiments.

“It’s overwhelming, it feels like home,” Coleytown Middle School Principal Kris Szabo said of re-entering the newly renovated school.

Szabo said all of the hallways have new tiles, all windows were replaced, and the school community will also enjoy a new HVAC system. The library also had a huge overhaul with flexible furniture and new books, and the atrium was completely cleaned.

CMS staff and students spent the past two years sharing space at Bedford Middle School, a situation made more challenging during the coronavirus pandemic. But Szabo said the reopening of CMS will again give teachers their own work spaces.

“I think one of the challenges for teachers was having the privacy to make phone calls and contact parents via email,” she said. “Now, they can go in, sit at their desk, make those calls and respond to those emails. That’s a huge part of their job — parent communication.”

Szabo said teachers also had to constantly change classrooms at Bedford, but now their work flow does not have to be interrupted. Another big plus with staff and students returning to CMS is science teachers now have lab classrooms.

“This is really going to help us deliver the curriculum that was written for the Westport students,” Szabo said.

Superintendent Thomas Scarice said the reopening of the school marks a bright spot in what has been a challenging year for many.

“It really is a boost for morale for people to come here,” he said. “We need some optimism and some positivity. This staff here and this administration here is providing that for the community.”

Coleytown teachers similarly shared excitement in returning to the newly renovated school.

“It’s fabulous to be in this new building,” said Jennifer Socha, a seventh-grade language arts teacher. “It’s fresh, it’s new, the kids are very happy and seem very well adjusted.”

Gina Zaleski, a seventh-grade math teacher, said students adjusted to having to switch classrooms in the middle of a double period at BMS, but they were happy to now have their own classrooms. When the double period came on the first day back, she said students asked was it time for a switch.

“I told them ‘No, this is our class, this is our home for the year,’” Zaleski said. “They’re very excited.”

Jodi Rieman, a seventh-grade science teacher, said she was so excited to have her room back she splurged on decorating her new classroom.

“I’ve been here for 16 years, but these last couple of years have been really challenging,” she said. “It’s just so nice to have everything back.”

CMS Building Committee Chair Don O’Day said work will continue on the exterior for the next two months, but by spring everything will be completed. O’Day, who has an office in the building, said he will be around until the exterior is done and will continue to help even after that.

“We spent $30 million plus dollars to make sure this works,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon my team that Kris’ team and the facilities’ team understands how to use the HVAC system...it’s got to be done right, and when it’s done right everything will work perfectly.”

O’Day said the town’s investment in the children was very clear with the investment in the school. He added he was happy to see students and staff back.

“When the first buses started rolling in today, and the teachers started coming in, it made the last two years worth it,” he said.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com