EGG HARBOR CITY — A lot of people have a stake in the success of the new Cedar Creek High School.
For staff and students, it’s the chance to start from scratch and make it their own — a state-of-the-art, 21st century high school with a small-town appeal.
“A well-run high school does more than educate,” Cedar Creek Principal James Reina said. “It’s part of a community.”
For residents and town officials, it’s a chance to rebuild a sense of community in a town that lost its hub when the old high school closed in 1960.
“A high school contributes to the identity of a town,” said Egg Harbor City Mayor Joseph Kuehner, who likes to dream of football games leading to post-game pizza downtown. “This is a chance to transform a sleepy town that is hurting.”
Cedar Creek will open Sept. 7 with 436 students in grades nine and 10. The $81.7 million high school on 66 acres off Route 50 and Moss Mill Road completes a three-school geographic triangle that makes up the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District, or GEHR, in Atlantic County.
The smallest of the trio, which also includes Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing and Absegami High School in Galloway Township, Cedar Creek is designed as both a hometown high school and a magnet school. It is the designated high school for students from Egg Harbor City, Mullica Township, Green Bank in Washington Township, Burlington County, and Port Republic. Students in the far western sections of Galloway and Hamilton townships also have the option of attending Cedar Creek instead of Oakcrest or Absegami.
In addition to the traditional curriculum, two academy programs in engineering and environmental sciences are open to any student from the GEHR sending districts. About 150 of the freshmen and sophomores have chosen the academy programs.
Architect David Fraytak said the 66-acre site allowed some flexibility in design, but former Superintendent Adam Pfeffer, now deceased, also wanted an environment that was more personal and not just long corridors. Fraytak said at 192,000 square feet, the building is a bit smaller than the typical suburban high school, but is designed so that more classrooms could be added to the academic wings if needed in the future.
“There was a lot of foresight that went into this,” Fraytak said. “It was a very conscious decision to locate here.”
But it was not a quick decision. Reina remembers Pfeffer talking about a third high school when he hired him as a social studies teacher in 2001.
“He talked about the possibility of regional districts in the future, and how might be the best way to plan for it,” said Reina, who also spent four years as the assistant principal at Oakcrest before being tapped to run Cedar Creek.
Regionalization plans are on a back burner statewide, but should the issue come up again, the three high schools could now more smoothly align with the districts where they are located.
Pfeffer, who worked for years to get the third high school, died this year before he could see it completed. His name is listed as the superintendent on the entrance plaque, and there are plans to name the Performing Arts Center in his memory.
“He used to come out here when he could, to see the construction,” said Superintendent Steven Ciccariello, the former assistant superintendent who took over when Pfeffer retired in March. The opportunity to open a high school is rare, and Ciccariello’s goal is to make sure Pfeffer’s vision is accomplished.
School officials in the sending districts say the excitement has spread. Sports teams have been practicing on local municipal fields.
“People have come up to us saying how excited they are,” said Spanish teacher, girls cross country coach and yearbook adviser Lorraine Adkisson. “They are so proud to have us here. I really want to feature the town in the yearbook and spread the pride.”
Egg Harbor City school Superintendent John Gilly and Mullica Township Superintendent Richard Goldberg said their students have often felt like stepchildren at Oakcrest and Absegami. Gilly worked at Absegami from 1994-99 and can remember the Egg Harbor City freshmen looking lost and struggling to fit in.
“There was a disconnect because it was so far away,” Gilly said. “My kids grew up in Galloway and they always thought of Absegami as their high school. Now our (EHC) kids will be able to have that same connection to their high school.”
Mayor Kuehner said he believes the downturn of the city can be traced back to having the high school close. He said the opening of Cedar Creek promotes the town as a good place to raise a family. The city extended water and sewer lines to the school site and hopes that can attract residential development to that area. The city is also getting a new middle school, and Kuehner said that can only appeal to families looking for a small town with new, modern schools.
“We do realize that the school facilities are only one thing,” he said. “But the district is working on test scores, and we’re also working with the Chamber of Commerce and businesses to get more active with the schools.”
The freshmen and sophomores were bused in for an orientation last week, when they got a tour of the building and combinations to their lockers. Student athletes have already begun training, and some wore dark green “Pirates football” or white “Cedar Creek Lady Pirates” T-shirts.
“It’s our own high school,” said a delighted freshman, Jessica Caban, 14, of Egg Harbor City.
“Finally,” added her friend Gianna Bullington, 14, also of Egg Harbor City.
Caban happily noted that her bus pickup time is 6:54 a.m., almost a half-hour later than it would have been had she gone to Absegami, which her brother attended last year.
The extra time to sleep was a major topic among the students, who were already getting into the Cedar Creek spirit.
“I’m going to be a pirate for Halloween,” said Nyasia Shriver, a sophomore from Galloway Township, who was thrilled to reunite with her best friend, Tiffany Torres, 15, from the Sweetwater section of Mullica Township.
“It’s just cool to be first,” said sohomore Torres, who will be in the first graduating class in 2013.
Teachers gave the tours and were almost more excited than the students, with good reason. With its gated entrance, pillars and old-fashioned paned window design, the school has the feel of a rural college campus, albeit with the latest technology. There’s an electronic whiteboard in every classroom, allowing teachers to project directly from a computer terminal to the class.
Classroom lights are motion-sensitive and will automatically turn on and off and adjust wattage, conserving energy.
The windows are not sealed, and opening them provides an alternative on days when fresh air can save energy on the air conditioning — a hot topic among those coming from the un-air-conditioned Oakcrest. The site has a geothermal heating system.
A wall of cubbies in each room will hold student bookbags, eliminating the potential for tripping over them in the aisles and removing access to the ubiquitous cell phones, which are technically not allowed in school.
“You think we don’t know you try to sneak a text under the desk?” physical education teacher Linda Brennan asked her tour group. A lost cell phone had already been reported to the main office where security officer Sean Hackney and secretary Marian Stefanski dealt with late registrations and the last few photo identification badges.
Stefanski’s four daughters will attend Cedar Creek this year, two in the environmental sciences academy.
“There is just so much to offer here and it’s only eight minutes away,” the Mullica Township resident said. “I’m so excited.”
The bathrooms have automated faucets to conserve water use. The cafeteria has a mix of long and round tables to improve traffic flow,and give the room a less institutional feel.
“You’re in Oz,” Brennan told the students. “It’s like the Emerald City.”
Keeping with the community theme, there is a separate entrance to the auditorium and gym wing that can be opened for community events, but shut off from the rest of the school for security purposes. The entrance is large enough to hold a reception.
Abigail Castillo, 16, of Egg Harbor City, liked the use of the school colors, which are burgundy and dark green with added touches of cream, on the trim on alternating floors.
The color scheme was suggested by Zach Zachowski, of Sweetwater, and Brittany Eggie, of Mays Landing, as part of a districtwide contest that also chose Pirates as the school team name and mascot, submitted by Meghan Brennan, of Mays Landing, and Erica Mendillo, of Galloway.
The school’s name, Cedar Creek, was suggested by Richard and Mary Dovey, of Egg Harbor City, in recognition of the creeks that run through the area. Mary Dovey is a teacher in Egg Harbor City and her husband serves on the local Board of Education.
Students will enter from two side doors directly into the two academic wings. Each houses a security desk. The main entrance lobby leads to the library/media center in the center of the building.
The city welcomed its new high school students with Cedar Creek Day at the city lake, and Kuehner wants more such activities to connect the school with the town.
“It’s really nice out here,” he said. “We are trying to promote that.”
Contact Diane D'Amico: