Effort to improve 'barren' South Portland High School space needs funds

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A year-long effort by students and teachers to raise money and draft a design for an empty high school courtyard is contingent on the School Department finding supplemental funds. 

Through a combination of fundraising and grant money from Portland Trails, the group has raised about $7,000. Now, as the school year is about to begin, teacher Tania Ferrante and her team need at least double that amount to bring the project to fruition. 

The courtyard is part of a 300,000-square-foot high school renovation completed last January at a cost of $47.3 million. The space is the last part of the project that is not finished.

“We left one piece undone,” Superintendent Ken Kunin told the School Board Monday, Aug. 29.

Costs for renovating the courtyard were slashed from the final renovation project budget, simply because, “We ran out of money,” School Board Chairman Dick Matthews added Tuesday morning. 

The courtyard has been pretty much left “barren” since the renovation was completed, he said. 

Rather than leave it that way, Ferrante, an English and alternative education teacher whose classroom faces the courtyard, pulled together a group of interested students to brainstorm ways to not only beautify the space, but to find a purpose for it.

Ferrante and her group surveyed approximately 600 students and staff about how they’d like the space to look and what function they’d like for it to have, she told board members at Monday’s meeting.  

Through fundraising efforts, which included selling raffle tickets and a bottle drive, Ferrante and the students raised nearly $7,000 to hire a landscape architect to draft a design concept. 

“Everybody was having a voice with this project, which was really important,” she told the board. 

One of the many positive aspects of the project, over the last year as well as moving forward, is that it “empowers” students as “designers, builders and caretakers,” she said. 

While that concept isn’t set in stone, the completed result will likely include outdoor classroom space, shrubs, trees and other landscaping, garden space and potentially a gazebo. 

A new courtyard would also allow the school to “expand service learning opportunities,” Ferrante said.

For example, it could include garden plots for students to grow produce to contribute to the cafeteria, or for biology classes, which would use the natural space for a variety of hands-on learning exercises. 

A courtyard can also offer a natural reprieve for students and teachers during the school day, and “improve physical and mental awareness,” she said. 

Matthews suggested discussing the project soon in a workshop, both to allow students to participate in an open dialogue, and to discuss potential ways the School Department can help fund the project. 

“We’ve come a long way,” Kunin said. The last step is figuring out “how we make it a reality and really finish our school with a beautiful courtyard space.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Teacher Tania Ferrante and a group of about 10 students hope to turn this courtyard at South Portland High School into a more attractive, usable space for students and teachers. 

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.