Students, Staff Celebrate Opening Day at Cougar Mountain Middle School
On a day eagerly anticipated by students, staff and families alike, the beautiful new Cougar Mountain Middle School opened yesterday, March 1. For the first time, the student body of about 640 Falcons arrived at the campus in the Talus neighborhood.
“I’m feeling really excited,” said sixth-grader Eva O., one of the student leaders helping to greet CMMS students as they arrived on Tuesday. She and fellow sixth-grader Aditya P. took turns holding a sign for their peers, and stood ready to answer questions. “I’m glad that everyone is finally able to get in here,” Eva said.
“Excited” was the emotion that most students and staff shared when asked what they were feeling.
As buses and families dropped students off at the new building, the middle schoolers made their way to the commons. “Good morning and welcome to our brand-new school!” teacher Holly Stipe called out on the microphone. Any student who needed a fresh copy of their schedule picked one up, and then the school was dismissed by grade level to their first class. Staff members and student leaders holding signs were available in each part of the school to help direct students.
Small touches throughout the building helped welcome students and staff, from blue and gold paper birds flocking the halls, to flowers in the office and the library, to a large banner that the neighboring community of Timber Ridge provided welcoming students and staff. At the door to one classroom, the words on a small rug read “Yay! You’re here!”
These gestures are just one part of a larger plan to help create a sense of community and invite students to feel at home in their new building. Construction delays made it necessary for the school to begin its year in a borrowed building on the Ringdall Junior High campus in Newport Hills. Students from the ASB (Associated Student Body) and WEB (Where Everyone Belongs) programs, along with staff members and PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) volunteers, worked to create videos about the new facility, plan lessons to help students get to know their new school, and help smooth the move and transition from the borrowed facility.
“I am thrilled for our students, staff and families that we are now in our new beautiful building! I’m excited to fully use our amazing and unique spaces and resources to support student learning, creativity and community,” Principal Erin McKee said. “Although we have some restrictions due to our continued status as a construction site, we are planning opportunities in late spring for families to tour our campus. We want families to see this incredible facility for themselves.”
The new Cougar Mountain Middle School is one of many projects paid for using funds from the $553 million 2016 bond measure. Other bond-funded projects have included the construction of Cedar Trails Elementary, which opened in September; upgrades and updates to Beaver Lake Middle School; rebuilding of Pine Lake Middle School; the purchase of 70 acres providing five school sites; the critical expansion and modernization of Clark, Discovery, Endeavour, Maple Hills, Sunset and Cougar Ridge elementary schools; safety and security measures throughout the district; the renovation of the Holly Street building into an early learning center; and more.
Cougar Mountain parent Leah Maggs said her eighth-grade son, Lachlan, is a WEB leader and had an “awesome” first day. “It’s been a wild middle school experience for him with COVID shutdowns and remote learning to boundary changes and getting separated from many of his friends, to being bused to the old Ringdall campus,” Maggs said. “These kids have had a great deal of resilience and flexibility! He’s so excited to finish out middle school in the fancy new building. ... It’s such a positive thing for these kids after a difficult two years.”
Fellow CMMS parent Rachel Auffant echoed those sentiments. “My eighth-grade son is lucky enough to finish his middle school years in the new building. He has had a wonderful year, all things considered. The staff has worked hard to build community between students in the temporary location, and truly made the best out of a school year that did not start as planned, all while coming back from remote learning and still providing top quality education,” Auffant said. “Staff and students demonstrated resilience, flexibility, and patience moving into two buildings this year, building new relationships, and managing a seamless transition mid-year.
Other parents said their students were primarily thrilled with the new school as well, although several commented on climbing all the stairs in the multi-level facility (elevators are available for students and staff who need accommodation), and a few also mentioned that it was too hot in the building on the first day.
Parent Honey Fakhar thanked CMMS staff members for their hard work and effort planning and executing the move. "The transition was super smooth in terms of education and normality. My son has been bragging about how cool it is to be in a brand-new school. He said he will be super fit as he has to go up and down stairs. ...The fact that he didn't complain about anything tells me (the staff) did an amazing job transitioning. He is a perfectionist and that means anything that was not perfect was not a big deal.”
After spending Tuesday touring the new building – from the fifth-floor library with dramatic views of the treetops, to the counseling center, the nurse’s office and the sport court – students also had the chance to learn about the neighborhood that their new school is a part of, and neighbors such as the Timber Ridge at Talus community.
“We want kids to want to be here,” McKee said. “We’ve done a lot of work to make students feel welcome.”
Part of creating that sense of belonging is encompassed in the staff’s efforts to help students build connections with the area and with their neighbors at the Timber Ridge senior community. Staff members created lessons about the rich history of the land where the school sits, and encouraged students to make cards for Timber Ridge residents. Other details such as the school’s mascot were also chosen to help reinforce the sense of community and place in the new building. McKee said that when staff members first had the opportunity to visit the new site, they felt like they were flying because of the views and vantage points. Students later selected the falcon as their mascot from among a selection of various birds.
Librarian Laura Berry has known many of Cougar Mountain’s students since they were 5, when she used to teach at Newcastle Elementary, so she feels a special connection with many of the Falcons. Berry said she can’t wait until they start visiting the library during lunch to check out the collection of 17,000 new books, play games and connect. “I’ve been thinking about this school since November of 2020,” Berry said, noting that together, the school community overcame a number of challenges during their time at Ringdall. “It’s just exciting that it’s here – I hardly slept last night. It’s real and it’s here.”