Published Sept. 11, 2011.
The opening of the new North Kingstown High School is a day students, faculty and staff alike will never forget. It wasn’t because the start date was pushed back by nearly two weeks. It wasn’t because it was a brand new, state-of-the art school. It wasn’t because construction workers were roaming the hallways with students.
For the nearly 1,600 students and hundreds of staff and faculty members, it was the date that made it unforgettable.
That's because North Kingstown High School opened on Sept. 12, 2001.
It was one of the biggest construction projects in North Kingstown in recent memory. The $33-million building – which replaced the aged old, campus-style high school – was set to be a state-of-the-art facility that would be the envy of every school in the state.
Televisions with cable in every room, a beautiful center hallway with windows from floor to ceiling, a gorgeous new auditorium, an athletic complex that residents would be proud to call their home field, a fully-stocked communications department awaited North Kingstown students.
But, the building would never get a grand groundbreaking ceremony as construction dragged on months after the original completion date. The first day of school was pushed back by 10 school days from late August to Sept. 12.
On Sept. 11, faculty and staff arrived to set up classrooms before the students entered the new school. Many had planned to make that Tuesday a productive day, organizing their rooms to perfection. Their day would be distracted by news of the terrorist attacks that unfolded that day.
“We were scurrying to get the school open regardless of Sept. 11,” said former North Kingstown High School Principal Gerald Foley.
Thomas Kenworthy, now principal of North Kingstown High School, was driving to the school to set up his history classroom when he heard the news on the radio.
“They didn’t even break into the broadcast,” said Kenworthy. “They just mentioned that a plane had crashed into one of the towers during the break.”
Kenworthy was still in the car when word of the second plane cut through the air waves.
“That’s when you started to figure out something big was happening,” said Kenworthy.
On a day when America turned on its televisions to follow the terrorist attacks, the state-of-the-art high school – with TVs in every room – was detached from the world. Cable had not been hooked up yet and the school was without Internet. Faculty and staff instead turned to more traditional forms of media, leaning over old radios and tiny, black-and-white television sets.
“I remember running around the whole building to find technology that was hooked up and working,” said history teacher Serena Mason.
In his classroom, communications teacher Aaron Thomas strained to hear reports over the radio. At one point during the day, Thomas said then Superintendent James Halley walked into the classroom as he gave a tour of the school.
“There’s something major happening in New York City,” Thomas told him.
According to Thomas, Halley asked, “What are you talking about?”
For the hundreds of students at home that day, it was the last day of summer and one they would never forget.
As students across the district watched the evening news with their families that night, a daunting realization struck them.
Tomorrow is the first day of school.
“You always look forward to the first day of school to see everyone smiling and happy to see each other,” said Thomas. “But that day, everyone was sad. And, they had a lot of questions.”
Instead of hugs and happy greetings, students struck up conversations about where they were the day before.
“It was strange,” said Shawna Arnold, who was entering her sophomore year at the high school. “It’s almost like it was hard to be excited about the new school or that it was the first day because everybody was talking and thinking about the people affected by the attacks.”
As if the previous day’s events weren’t enough for them, students were greeted with an odd sight once they made it through the doors of the new school. No books were in the library. The smell of polyurethane permeated the air. The spine, the spiral staircase in the middle of the school, wasn’t finished. The entire art and music wing wasn’t even open yet. The auditorium was off limits. Construction workers were milling about the hallways.
“We opened a school that wasn’t completely finished, but we still opened,” said Foley.
For that year’s incoming freshman class, it was a particularly difficult first day of high school.
“The excitement of being a freshman in a brand new building and mingling with our classmates was completely blindsided by this uncertainty and fear,” said Alexa Colavecchio, who entered the new school as a freshman. “At the same time, I think it brought us together.”
Teachers, attempting to get through first lessons and administrative housekeeping with their new students, instead set aside time to talk about the events of the previous day.
“It was a balancing act,” said Mason. “You wanted there to be some structure but at the same time the emotions were so raw.”
Some classes were allowed to watch television coverage instead of pouring over deadlines for covering textbooks and discussing syllabi.
Another new feature of the school was the advisory system, one of the first in the state. Students began their day in advisory with a small group of other students and one advisor, who was a faculty member at the school. The group would stay together until graduation, in most cases.
“With small groups like that, you can talk to them at times like that, in times of tragedy and significance,” said Foley. “Just to be together is the important thing.”
Despite everything new and uncertain on that first day of school, those at North Kingstown High School that day recall the perseverance of everyone involved with the school’s opening.
“Oddly, there was a feeling that we would get back in the routine,” said Kenworthy. “But the end of the week, we were back in it.”
It was the first day in a long and arduous year for North Kingstown High School. According to faculty and staff, the school was entirely completed until later that fall.
“That day always sticks out for me just as much as Sept. 11,” said Kenworthy.
Over the years, North Kingstown High School has continued to remember the events of Sept. 11. In 2002, for the one-year anniversary, the school held a special ceremony and unveiled a metal statue made by a former student to commemorate the events of that day. Each year, the communications department puts together a video tribute that is aired in every room.
Each year, the children who pass through North Kingstown High School’s doors become more distanced from the events of that day than their peers the year before. This year’s freshman class was only three or four years old when 2,996 people lost their lives in the attacks.
For teachers at North Kingstown High School, preserving the memory of that day for children who were too young to remember it is an ever-growing challenge.
In the corner of Serena Mason’s room is a poster of the Twin Towers, commemorating Sept. 11.
“I will always keep that poster up there for the kids,” said Mason. “I look up at it every day as I’m teaching so I won’t forget."