If you’re a regular reader of The Herald and keep up with the happenings in the community, you’re likely well aware by now that Cheshire is moving forward with a rather ambitious project.
The first phase of school modernization — a multi-year plan designed to replace or refurbish all of Cheshire’s public schools — gained voter approval at the most recent election, with nearly 8,000 residents casting a ballot in favor of the $166 million proposal, to a little over 5,000 votes against.
Now, the Town will go from planning to doing when it comes to this project and, when the dust settles, Cheshire should have two brand-new schools — one in the north end of town, one on the south side.
As a part of the plan, the community will be closing two current buildings — Chapman and Darcey Schools. What the town does with the buildings and the properties remains to be seen, and no definitive plan for their futures has been announced.
However, this won’t be the first time that Darcey, at least, has undergone major changes.
Built in 1947, Darcey was an elementary school and home to the town’s pre-school program until 1972, when that program was moved to Highland School. Then, in 1978, it was moved back to Darcey as the school was repurposed.
In the Oct. 28, 1982 edition of The Herald, a front-page article explained a bit of Darcey’s history, as well as what school administrators at the time envisioned as a grand future for the facility on Waterbury Road:
The future for special education is that more and more local money will be required to fulfill state and federal mandates, Superintendent of Schools Stephen August told a joint meeting of the Board of Education and Town Council Tuesday night. The two groups met at Darcey School on Waterbury Road, home of the Cheshire preschool program and the center for the Waterbury Regional Center’s program for trainable (special needs) children in their care. The Board closed Darcey School as a regular elementary school in 1977 and rented it the following year to the Faith Baptist School, which used a portion of it as a school. That same year, the preschool program for handicapped children moved to Darcey from Highland School with $80,000 in federal funding to redo several classrooms into specially designed learning spaces suitable for the program.
ACES (Area Cooperative Educational Services) leased the school in 1978 and rented a portion of it to the Waterbury Regional Center. According to Dr. August, the monies realized through this arrangement meant the preschool was being operated free of facility cost.
The article goes on to explain that, enrolled at the school were 105 students who were a part of the Waterbury Regional Center, while only 49 were preschoolers from town. If the community spent money to totally renovate the space, August predicted that it could, at the high end, accommodate 200 total students.
However, the Superintendent had his sights set on another possible future for the school:
… Dr August is hoping to obtain $300,000 in funding to develop a regional special education center at the school. Not only would tuition from students coming from other towns be realized, he said, but Cheshire would save on out-placement tuition for some of its own students plus transportation costs for those students.
Those costs, the article related to readers, were rather high for that period. The Town was responsible to pay, on average, $72 per day to transport students to other schools in the area equipped to handle special needs students, and the tuition costs ranged from $7,000 to $9,000 per year for each student.
Those numbers, August warned, would not stay stagnant:
However, out-of-town tuition costs can escalate as high as the mid- and upper-twenties for students who must be placed in a live-in situation. Dr. August stressed that the center he was envisioning would not be able to accommodate all special education children, but more likely would specialize in a limited variety of special education situations.
August, according to the article, seemed to be banking on similar initiatives being adopted by other towns. In his mind, districts would create specialized programs to accommodate students with certain needs, so that it would be easier for the Town to find homes for local children whose needs could not be served by this new, Cheshire-based regional center August envisioned being run out of Darcey.
That, he commented, would ultimately be good for students, parents, and the taxpayer:
Thus, Cheshire students who could not be accommodated within the Cheshire system might be able to shorten their transportation time, and the school board’s costs, by being transported to neighboring towns for their education, rather than to more distant areas.
Though it remained in the conceptual stage, August already had an idea of how he and the District would proceed, which he explained to The Herald:
In order to develop Darcey, Dr. August is hoping to win approval of an architect to be hired for plans and estimates for conversion of the site. With plans and estimates in hand, he can apply to the state under P.A. 1096, one of the few funding programs still available, in hopes of obtaining at least some of the $300,000 needed.
The resulting center, according to August, would be self-supporting and probably a producer of revenue.
The Birth-to-Three program was born in 1982, and from then until now, it has served students from Cheshire as well as Naugatuck, Wolcott, and Prospect. The school also became home to the Stephen August Early Intervention Center (EIC), named after the very man who believed in Darcey as a space where children dealing with all kinds of challenges could receive the help they deserved.
Those programs will remain, but in the next few years they will be moved out of Darcey. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Will new educational programs be based at the facility? Will someone repurpose the building for a completely different use? Will someone buy the property and provide a completely different vision for its future?
There’s no way to know.
What we do know is that Darcey has gone through several transformations over the years. This might end up being the most permanent.