Students, staff settle into renovated Fisher Hill

Students line up for dismissal under the overhang at the entrance of the new Fisher Hill School in Orange.

Students line up for dismissal under the overhang at the entrance of the new Fisher Hill School in Orange. Franz—Paul Franz

New playgrounds at the Fisher Hill School in Orange.

New playgrounds at the Fisher Hill School in Orange. Franz—Paul Franz

New playgrounds at the Fisher Hill School in Orange.

New playgrounds at the Fisher Hill School in Orange. Franz—Paul Franz

First grade teacher Alyssa Rousseau works with her students in the new section of the Fisher Hill School.

First grade teacher Alyssa Rousseau works with her students in the new section of the Fisher Hill School. Franz—Paul Franz

The former Dexter Park School has been razed and will become a meadow at the new Fisher Hill School in Orange.

The former Dexter Park School has been razed and will become a meadow at the new Fisher Hill School in Orange. Franz—Paul Franz

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 09-22-2023 4:19 PM

ORANGE – Fisher Hill Elementary School now accommodates all Orange students in kindergarten through sixth grade, as the expanded 97,000-square-foot building opened its doors for education earlier this month.

Students through third grade moved from the school’s pre-existing section to the new three-story, roughly 50,000-square-foot addition when the holiday break ended on Jan. 3 and returned to the gutted and renovated portion when summer vacation concluded on Sept. 7. The fourth, fifth and six-graders at the longstanding adjacent Dexter Park Innovation School finished out the facility’s final academic year in June and now sit in Fisher Hill classrooms.

“[Students] like the new digs. Everything is shiny and new. They especially like the HVAC system that is actually a dehumidifying system, so the rooms stay a constant temperature,” Dr. Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski, superintendent of the Ralph C. Mahar Regional and Union 73 school districts, said on Thursday. “The staff, they’re really happy with what they have.”

Dexter Park, opened in the early 1950s, was recently demolished and will be replaced with a pollinator meadow. The Massachusetts School Building Authority, a quasi-independent government authority, designated Dexter Park a Category 4 school — its lowest rating — in 2006. Voters approved funding in 2018 for a feasibility study and to come up with options to repair or replace it. Hill International Inc. is the company managing the project on the town’s behalf.

The Fisher Hill project costs $45 million, with Orange on the hook for roughly $22 million. But the renovated building is getting positive feedback from students and guardians.

“It’s awesome. It’s new. It’s really good,” said second-grader Victor Freytag as he was getting picked up by his mother Riana on Thursday afternoon. “It looks good.”

Riana agreed wholeheartedly.

“I think it’s fabulous. I think Orange needed something like this. The kids deserve something like this,” she said. “I haven’t heard any complaints. Everyone seems to enjoy it.”

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Riana Freytag said she also has a fourth-grader, Alaric, who attended Dexter Park for its final year.

“He’s here now. He loves it. He especially loves being in the same school with his brother,” she said. “And he did not like Dexter – he said it smelled like dust.”

Felicia Gowey has a fifth-grader, a second-grader and a pre-kindergartener in Fisher Hill and hasn’t heard any negative reviews.

“They love it. They love all the activities they get to do, they love all the specialists they get,” she said. “It’s big. It’s spacious. I like the [playground] structures – those are pretty cool. They love it, too.”

There is a playground for students in pre-kindergarten through first grade and one for those in grades two through six. The playgrounds are on opposite sides of the renovated building, and Teahan-Zielinski said they are hugely popular. She has previously said they have apparatuses appropriate for the ages of the children they serve.

Bruce Scherer, chair of the Orange School Building Committee, previously explained the play structures are surrounded by soft, colorful synthetic surfaces to protect children against falls. The smaller of the playgrounds includes a modest slide, sandstone letter blocks and an age-appropriate swing set, while the other has taller slides and a jungle gym.

Amber Houle, who teaches reading to third- and fourth-graders, said it is nice to have merged the two schools into one cohesive unit.

“So that’s really cool, just to get to know all the kids,” she said. “I love it. It’s beautiful.”

Teahan-Zielinski mentioned the gymnasium won’t be opened until Monday, because the final coat of floor sealant still needs to be applied. She also said the school is in its fourth and final stage. She explained the traffic pattern will again change once this stage is completed, which she expects will happen near the end of October.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.