MIDDLETOWN — City and Board of Education officials had a little fun Wednesday morning — a moment of glee — tossing shovels full of soil onto a large mound on the site of the city’s future combined middle school complex at 1 Wilderman’s Way.

The occasion was the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new facility for students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, which will incorporate students from Woodrow Wilson Middle School and Keigwin Middle School into an $87.35 million state-of-the-art building expected to be complete within the next two years.

Interacting with children is the highlight of school board Chairman Chris Drake’s time on the panel, which he did with the more than half-dozen students on hand for the event.

Much has changed since WWMS students left the school for summer break. Phase 1 of the plan — demolition — took place between June and August. When the children, teachers and staff returned Aug. 29, they discovered a changed landscape.

It’s been a long road to get to this day, Drake said, involving two and a half years of planning. That included preparing the site, demolishing the auditorium, and coming up with a busing plan for the intervening two years.

“A lot of that work is not very flashy, but it’s all groundwork before we do the fun stuff — which is to build a brand new building,” Drake said.

This is the first time a new middle school being built in Middletown since the 1960s, officials said.

“This is a major investment for our children, for our community: having a building that’s going to be state-of-the art, innovative, with a design studio in there,” said Superintendent of Schools Michael Conner, who thanked Principal Cheryl Gonzalez for her years of effort.

“It’s going to propel the education factor within our community. This is a great project and you’re going to see Middletown continue to soar,” he added.

The building will be as environmentally friendly as possible, explained Common Council Deputy Majority Leader Mary Bartolotta, chairwoman of the Woodrow Wilson Building Committee.

“That’s great for our kids, our community, and also for our environment. We’re showing we want to be partners in being proactive in creating a healthy environment moving forward,” she said.

While younger, Bartolotta was among the last class to attend a standalone sixth-grade school just like Keigwin. In seventh grade, she moved to a combined facility.

“I enjoyed it. It was great, because there were mentoring programs going on that helped make sure kids, like myself, not feel intimidated,” she said.

Although the new school will have the three separate sections for each grade, there will be other areas where students can mingle.

“Having these larger partnerships within the common areas that will be brought together by the principals and the teachers, I think, is really going to build camaraderie, and help kids rise through the grades in a healthy manner,” Bartolotta said.

Conner has experience with both vertical and linear (grades by floor) models of middle schools.

“There are pros and cons to it, but from a developmental process, the research states it should be integrated — sixth, seventh and eighth — to promote social dynamics,” Conner said.

He and district staff are still in the formative stages of figuring out dynamics that might work best for Middletown students, such as family-style dining, during which teachers sit with the students as they all have lunch. Conner imagines them having candid discussions about leadership, social/emotional learning and other topics.

The project meets Connecticut high performance standards, Bartolotta said.

“Connecticut’s green construction standards help achieve the state’s greenhouse gas emission, energy, and cost reduction goals while driving economic growth,” according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

These building standards are equal to the Leadership in Energy and Environment silver design building rating system, Bartolotta said.

Middletown Public Schools Director of Operations Marco Gaylord recalls the early days of the project, talking with retired Superintendent Of Schools Patricia Charles and former associate superintendent of schools Enza Macri.

“The old high schools have always been the hand-me-down,” Gaylord said, pointing to Woodrow Wilson, where the high school was before Middletown High School was constructed on La Rosa Lane.

He praised the new facility’s innovation and technology, as well as the committee’s selection of a tri-vertical house layout — in effect, a “school-within-a-school model,” according to Conner.

Each grade will have their own space on three floors, said Bartolotta, who acknowledged some Keigwin parents were concerned about “losing” sixth grade in the design.

“I don’t think they should be nervous, they should be excited for the fact that sixth grade is still going to have its own space, and allow their kids to be the kids they need to be at that grade level,” Bartolotta said.

Multiple learning spaces being used simultaneously by students within a single class will encourage their educational development, she added.

“It’s going to grow with them in the future, as well. We’re laying the groundwork in this building for our technology that allows us to keep growing,” she said.

Reflecting on his involvement in the project, Drake said he feels very gratified. “There is a lot of hard work that goes into the process before you even put a shovel in the ground,” said Drake, who has two young children, one attending Macdonough Elementary School.

“If you look across the street, and you see what the city has achieved already, this is going to be like a campus,” Bartolotta said, with tight security and the fields, track and other amenities available at the Pat Kidney Sports Complex.

This summer, after extensive public input, a Board of Education middle school committee arrived at three names for the new facility, which would incorporate the city’s rich history: Beman Middle School, Beman-Douglas Middle School and Mattabesset Middle School.

Drake said he expects the school board to take up the issue during a yet-to-be-scheduled special meeting during the first week in October, which would allow for ample public comment.