Sound School Returns To Its Roots

Melissa Bailey PhotoAfter Superstorm Sandy knocked the lights out at the Sound School’s newly dedicated building on City Point, students and teachers found themselves squatting in a temporary home—just as their founders did when they created an out-of-the-box alternative high school some 30 years ago.

Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center, a marine-themed high school, relocated Thursday and Friday to Gateway Community College’s former Long Wharf campus because of a power outage caused by Superstorm Sandy. 

The relocation took place just one week after the school celebrated a milestone: In honor of the school’s 30th anniversary, students and alumni gathered to formally dedicate their permanent home at 60 South Water St. to founder George Foote.

In a visit to the school for the Oct. 26 dedication, Foote recounted the school’s humble beginnings as an upstart program that spun off of High School in the Community, the city’s first alternative high school. Teachers and students shuttled around between borrowed spaces for the first seven years before landing a permanent home on City Point. Three decades after Foote founded a ragtag program with a dream to hook kids into academics by teaching them to build boats, Sound has now grown into a full-fledged 341-student high school serving kids from 23 municipalities. Today it ranks as the city’s top performing high school.

Students learned about that history at the dedication ceremony—and then, a week later, by re-living the school’s history of its earlier years.

“It’s ironic. A week after we celebrated the permanent home of the Sound School, we found ourselves in the position of needing a temporary home again,” noted Principal Rebecca Gratz.

“We once again find ourselves in a temporary home, but joining together as a community.”

Deja Vu

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, students reported not to their new building on the banks of the Long Island Sound, but to the 1970s concrete building that used to house Gateway Community College at 60 Sargent Dr.

Walking around with a floor plan, Principal Gratz found herself giving students directions on how to navigate the 150,000-square-foot space, which also houses the Hyde School of Health Sciences and Sports Medicine.

Four classes took place in the college’s library. Ned Costello (pictured at the top of this story) taught physics in one corner, while a French class practiced dialogues and an English class discussed a book. Alfonsina Improta’s Italian class camped out in a study carrel.

During a break, senior Jenna LaFontaine challenged New Haven Teacher of the Year David Low to a chess match using a makeshift chess board she created out of two sheets of paper.

Meanwhile, some classes took turns shuttling to the waterfront to tidy up after the storm. The wall damaged a wall of the McNeil building, one of five Sound School occupies along South Water Stree. All the repairs that were made to property damaged by Tropical Storm Irene held up fine in the most recent storm, Gratz said. Buildings right on the water filled up with about a foot of water.

On Thursday, students helped pull out equipment from the shop and take inventory of the storm’s impact.

Teacher Jack Cardello led 10 freshmen through the mechanics of moving boats.

“Bend your knees. Keep your back straight,” he directed. The students put back sharpies and dories that had been moved inside for the storm.

While City Point saw some of the worst flooding around town, Sound School emerged without any major structural damage, said Gratz. The main flagship building (pictured) emerged unscathed.

Though suburban schools had canceled classes in places like Seymour and Branford, dedicated students still found a way to come to school Thursday, Gratz said. About half of the 341-student body hails from suburban towns; 208 students showed up Thursday.

Gratz said students returned to the swing space Friday to hear good news: The power had come back, and they could report to their normal campus on Monday. Students, who had been “champing at the bit” to get back to their home on the waterfront, cheered when they heard the news, Gratz said.

“Nothing But Hope”

A two-day relocation would have meant little to the schools’ founding teachers, several of whom showed up on Oct. 26 to celebrate the school’s 30th anniversary. (The celebration came about a year late: The school was founded in the fall of 1981.) Students spread out on the school’s front lawn for a quick lesson in school history.

“When we started, we were in a sunken barge” that was “falling apart,” recalled Jeffrey Granoff (at right in photo). There were three rooms with “uneven chairs and tables,” he recalled.

Teachers had to drive from Route 80 across town to the City Point, and back, to commute between classrooms.

“You needed to have an umbrella in class because the room leaked like a sieve,” he said.

Staff and students stuck it out.

“We had nothing but hope that this experiment was going to be successful,” Granoff said. George Foote launched a pilot boat-building program in 1980, then opened the school in the fall of 1981. The school moved every year, occupying the former Betsy Ross School (now Ross/Woodward) on Route 80, Lee High School, the building that’s now New Horizons, a space on the campus of Southern Connecticut State University, and even a spot at the marine reserve station in Morris Cove.

In one swing space, Granoff recalled, “we had no windows, no electrical outlets, and the walls were made of steel.”

But “George led the charge” and overcame “every obstacle that came in front of us,” he said. Through it all, students kept up a 95 percent attendance rate, Granoff said. 

“Every year, we didn’t know where we were going to be, but we knew we were going to be somewhere,” recalled George Foote (pictured receiving a plaque from Assistant Principal Eric Yuhas).

Foote, who’s now 73, grew up in Newhallville. He first led a group of teachers who defected from Hillhouse High School to form High School in the Community (HSC), a teacher-run alternative high school, in 1970. Ten years later, he found himself losing a fight to keep HSC a school “without walls,” without a central physical building. He defected and founded the Sound School.

He taught at Sound until 1998, then stayed on to oversee one last task: Securing a permanent home for the school.

He recalled how parents rallied to lobby the Board of Aldermen to allow the city to turn former water treatment plant at 60 South Water St. into a school.

With the help of state money, the city razed the plant down to its foundation and built a brand new school at the water’s edge (pictured). The building, opened in the spring of 2003.

Sound School gave it an official name this year: The Foote Building.

After Foote received a plaque marking the milestone, students scooped up plates of 30th-anniversary cake ...

... and posed for photographs with their founding father.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” junior Kaitlin Fierlit (at left in photo) told Foote. “I’d be lost without this school.”

“Sound School is who I am,” the 16-year-old student from Hamden later elaborated. She said she likes the small environment. “Our teachers, they listen to us. We’re not just kids to them. They realize we may know something.”

Kaitlin said she’s considering becoming a physical therapist—or perhaps returning to Sound School to teach.

If she does, she’ll follow the footsteps of Neil Geist, who graduated from Sound School in 1988.

Geist said he attended Sound School at a difficult time in his life. Raised by a single mom, he started working at age 12. He continued working through high school. He said he never got in trouble with the law, but he had trouble staying focused in school and often ended up in long conversations with Foote about his behavior.

“I felt like I was safe” in school, Geist recalled. Teachers “were our family.”

Geist enrolled at Southern, dropped out of college and worked for a tree company for years before realizing he was on a dead-end path. He decided to go back to college to teach. He ended up back at Sound in 2000.

Now 42 years old, he can call himself a teacher at Sound—and the proud father to a Sound School student, 15-year-old Austin Geist. Austin, a sophomore, is following in the footsteps of his uncle and two aunts, who also attended Sound.

“I wouldn’t trade it for any other school,” said Austin.

Asked what he plans to do with his life, Austin gave one suggestion—returning to the school he loves.

“I’m considering teaching science like my father,” he said.

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posted by: Josiah Brown on November 5, 2012  6:47pm

I haven’t met George Foote but have had the opportunity to work with a number of Sound School teachers during the past decade.  Congratulations to them, to him, and to the broader school community on the occasion of the recent 30th-anniversary celebration.

George Foote (with Richard Silocka) participated as a Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellow in each of the two years prior to the founding of Sound in 1981.  The curriculum units that G. Foote and R. Silocka wrote appear below:

“New Haven Maritime History and Arts” (from a 1979 seminar led by Howard Lamar of the Yale history faculty)

“New Haven: Its Ships and Its Trades, 1800-1920” (from a 1980 seminar led by Jules Prown of the Yale history of art faculty)

posted by: SaveOurCity on November 5, 2012  7:57pm

one of the gems of New Haven

posted by: formerNhresident on November 6, 2012  11:03am

I remember being embarrassed to tell others where I went to high school. We were the butt of jokes. Why did the Sound School student cross the road ? to take a gym class at cross. But now I guess the joke is on everyone else as it is the top performing high school in the city. Class of 91.