Monroe's first multi-storied school building rose up near the chalk mines in town 43 years ago. Chalk Hill Middle School welcomed approximately 800 sixth, seventh and eight graders into the new $2,550,000 facility at 375 Fan Hill Road for the 1969-70 school year.
During Chalk Hill's run it had seven principals in a school where many teachers' careers began, but a decline in student enrollment over the past few years eventually led to its closing as a school in 2010. As recently as last month, town officials mulled different options for the building, ranging from a community center to a wrecking ball.
Mere hours after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School took the lives of 20 children and six adults, Chalk Hill's immediate future became clear. With Newtown's school a crime scene, Monroe offered use of its building.
Today, Newtown's students will breathe new life into Chalk Hill when they hold their first classes in what will now be called Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Susan Koneff, who used to be a teacher at Chalk Hill, remembers how she felt when demolition was mentioned as one of the building's future options.
"That just broke my heart, to tear down such an important town resource," Koneff said of the place where her career in education began. "I'm very pleased that it can be put to such good use and the Sandy Hook students can have a new home in a building that I have very fond memories of as a teacher."
Koneff taught there from 1978 to 1997.
Nancy Zorena, who taught enrichment classes at Chalk Hill in the '80's, said, "Everybody is delighted that it's being put to such good use, that's for sure."
Assistant Supt. of Schools John Battista had his first teaching job at Chalk Hill in 1983 and went on to become its fourth principal in the late 90's after Jockey Hollow Middle School was built. Chalk Hill had become a grade 5 and 6 school and Jockey Hollow taught grades 7 and 8.
"It was exciting for everybody," Battista recalled. "It was new for the 5th grade. We were building a new school, a new configuration. It was just an exciting time."
Battista's wife, Belinda, last year's Teacher of the Year, also taught at Chalk Hill.
Michael Fettig was Chalk Hill's first principal when it had opened in 1969 and his assistant Ralph DeGruttola followed in his footsteps. Other Chalk Hill principals over the years include Anita Healy, Battista, Stan Peska, Colleen Girard and Bruce Lazar.
Lazar is currently serving as liaison to Sandy Hook Elementary School for as long as he is needed.
Bang for the Buck
Chalk Hill was built in the back of the same property where Fawn Hollow Elementary School is. It was designed by architect, Fletcher-Thompson Inc.
Town officials worked hard to get the best school at the lowest cost. The original estimate came in at $2.6 million and the Board of Finance wanted the price tag to be no higher than $2 million.
Chalk Hill was ultimately built for $2,550,000 with a $1,150,000 reimbursement from the state.
Of eight new schools that opened in Connecticut for the 1969-70 school year, Monroe's had the lowest construction costs, according to Connecticut State Board of Education News Journal. Other schools ranged from $2.7 million to $5 million with comparable enrollments and facilities in the middle and junior high school category.
"It was well designed with the children's safety in mind," Koneff recalled. "I always felt it was a safe school for students to be traveling along the hallways and in the stairwells."
Koneff also liked the versatility of the lecture room, which could be divided up into three classrooms or opened up into one big room for events. The lecture room could seat 260 students.
There is also easy access to the field in the back of the building, where volunteers are now building a playground for Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"It really lends itself to an elementary school with recess," Koneff said. "I think it's the perfect solution to a really sad event."
Chalk Hill's Rebirth
The last time Chalk Hill was used as a school, the sixth grade was on the second floor and the building was shared with the Parks & Recreation Department downstairs. Parks & Rec. is still there and the Monroe Volunteer Emergency Medical Service uses the building for training.
"When it was time to close it was a sad day," Battista said of the sixth grade leaving. "I think everyone felt it was sad day because so many children had gone through that school. There were a lot of memories, so it was difficult, but we understood. It was decided and we moved on."
Prior to the tragedy in Sandy Hook, John Kimball, a developer in town, had offered to transform Chalk Hill into community center via a public/private partnership, but extensive work had to be done to upgrade the old building.
Battista remembers when he first heard the town had offered it to Newtown.
"I was thinking, 'You know what? It's going to be a school again,'" he said. "When you walk through the school, it just feels like a school again. Bulletin boards were put up today. All the student furniture is in. It looks bright. They changed light bulbs and ceiling tiles making it shiny — and looks nice. They're doing a lot of things to make it a welcoming place for the students."
Zorena said, "It's undergoing a very big overhaul, which is a good thing. It's a rebirth."
Supt. of Schools James Agostine said "the stars aligned" when the town still had the building available at Newtown's time of need.
"I'm proud of what the leadership in our town decided to do," Battista said.
Monroe had found itself in need of a school building itself in 1982, when a ditto machine was left on and overheated, causing a fire at Monroe Elementary School. Shelton came through for the town, allowing Monroe to use Sunnyside School on Route 110.
Two large scrap books with newspaper clippings and photos of the history of Chalk Hill School were used for this story. They can be seen in the Monroe Historical Society's room of the Edith Wheeler Memorial Library by calling the society at 203-261-1381.