South Orange–Maplewood School District breaks ground on South Mountain School project

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood School District broke ground on another portion of the Long Range Facilities Plan at South Mountain Elementary School on March 22, starting the 18-month process to build nine new classrooms, a courtyard and a revamped playground. The fifth project to get off the ground, South Mountain’s expansion is part of the districtwide $140 million facilities upgrade project that was passed by the Board of Education in December 2018 and approved by the Board of School Estimate in March 2019. The plan was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic but is now picking up steam again.

“This is one of the most exciting things we can bring to the community,” Superintendent Ronald Taylor said at the ceremony. “It’s a big investment to make in our students. These groundbreaking ceremonies never get old or boring. Thank you for being our partners in such a great project.”

When completed, the South Mountain project will boast nine new classrooms connected to the old building with a walkway, surrounding an enclosed outdoor courtyard. The addition will be built on part of what is now South Mountain’s playground in the back of the school; the playground will be reconfigured and outfitted with new equipment. BOE President Thair Joshua thanked town officials from South Orange and Maplewood, the BSE, and former members of the BOE who worked on the plan.

“This will be nine more spaces for students to learn and run around,” Joshua said at the ceremony. “It’s great to see it come to fruition. It’s one thing to see the plans on a pamphlet, but it’s even better to touch the work and see it happening.”

South Mountain is home to students in second through fifth grade; kindergarteners and first-graders go to school at the South Mountain Annex a mile away on Glenview Road. The annex will be getting four new classrooms. The expanded space will enable the schools to house more students, which is built into the LRFP to limit overcrowding. Part of the plan includes controlled choice, allowing students’ families to choose which elementary school the students will attend.

“If you figure there’s about 25 students per class, it’ll make a big difference,” South Mountain Principal Kevin Mason said in an interview with the News-Record at the event. “We’re still discussing what classes will be where, but everyone will want to be in the new ones.”

Mason has worked in the district for 13 years and has been the principal of South Mountain for the last three. The plan for his school was started before he took over as its head, but he’s excited to see the final product. So are the students, who have already had to make adjustments to where they play outside and line up to start the day every morning. They’re going to be the ones to decide on a use for the courtyard space.

“I think once they see the framing and actually see it being built, they’ll understand it better,” Mason said about the South Mountain students getting excited about the improvements to their school. “They’ve seen it on paper, but once they see the building, they’ll understand how big it will really be, especially with the walkway going from the old building to the new one.”

South Mountain Annex broke ground on its building project on March 28.

Photos by Amanda Valentovic