Metro

Needham breaks ground on new school named after space shuttle astronaut

Astronaut Sunita L. Williams looked over a procedures checklist in the Quest Airlock of the International Space Station.
NASA
Astronaut Sunita L. Williams looked over a procedures checklist in the Quest Airlock of the International Space Station.

The Needham public school system broke ground Friday morning on a new building — an elementary school named after famed astronaut and Needham resident Sunita Williams, said Superintendent of Schools Daniel Gutekanst.

“The school committee and the community thought really long and hard about what to name this school, and they realized they were looking for someone who’s an excellent role model for students,” Gutekanst said by telephone after the ground breaking. “She’s got quite a unique background.”

Sunita Williams.

Williams, who graduated from Needham High School in 1983, was the first person to run a marathon in space and recently retired from the Navy after 30 years of service, he said.

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She most recently served in the NASA Astronaut Corps, he said, and she took her first trip to the International Space Station in 2007, then returned in 2012, according to her biography on the NASA website.

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The Sunita L. Williams Elementary School, a 90,927-square-foot structure with a total project budget of $66 million, is set to be the town’s first new school facility in almost 15 years when it opens for the 2019-2020 school year, Gutekanst said.

The building will be located at 585 Central Ave., on a plot of land that used to be the home of Owen’s Poultry Farm, a popular business known and loved in Needham for its Thanksgiving turkeys.

Gutekanst said the community was saddened to hear that the farm would be closing, but eventually embraced the idea of a brand-new educational facility.

“It was a little traumatic when Mr. Owens wanted to sell, but he knew it was for a good cause,” he said.

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The students at the new school are coming from the building that’s currently home to the Hillside Elementary School, Gutekanst said.

Built in 1961, the building is overcrowded and has several structural integrity issues, he said.

“It is a school that is well past its useful life,” he said.

But on Central Avenue, the new elementary school is located on prime real estate, right near a pond and wetlands that have already been explored by student conservationists in the town and deemed fit for academic use, Gutekanst said.

There will also be a garden even closer to the school, better lighting inside, and solar panels to help power the facility.

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“There will be lots of opportunity for students to interact with each other,” he said. “It’s just really been a well thought out and well conceived.”

NASA
Astronaut Sunita Williams during her first space walk outside the International Space Station.

Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.