Forecaster Forum: Consolidation of South Portland middle schools makes sense

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As parent volunteers who have served on the South Portland Middle Schools Project Committee for the past two years, we are excited about the opportunity we have to move forward a plan for our middle schools that will best serve all students and our community at-large.

We got this incredible opportunity in August 2016, when the Maine State Board of Education placed Mahoney Middle School on the list of approved building projects, marking the first time in our city’s history that a South Portland school is eligible for a state-funded building.

But with the opportunity, came some requirements.

When a school is selected for state funding, the state requires the district to follow a specific timeline and multi-step process. Central to the process is the requirement that the district assess the needs of all its students from pre-K-8. For South Portland, this meant conducting a “new versus renovation” analysis of both middles schools and looking at the possibility of consolidation.

At a community forum in October 2016, we laid out the challenges facing both schools, some of the larger needs of the pre-K-8 community, and the process required by state funding. We then invited residents to share their vision for our middle school students.

More than 100 people came and talked about the value of smaller learning environments, the importance of community connectedness and diversity, and the need to ensure all our kids have access to an equitable educational experience.

Over the next year, we continued to gather input. Staff at both middle schools participated in school-based forums and administrators took part in brainstorming exercises to gather thoughts and ideas. We looked at information from other school districts that had renovated, rebuilt, or consolidated as part of a state-funded project.

We then reviewed the analysis of both schools, which revealed numerous structural deficiencies and challenges.

Mahoney has problems with classroom size; lacks proper ventilation, temperature control and plumbing systems; has limited accessibility for students with disabilities, and large spaces like the gym and cafeteria are inadequate for the number of students. Memorial Middle School has significant structural issues as well; it is nearing the end of its useful life and, while currently functional, the analysis made clear that addressing those needs would require rebuilding, rather than renovating.

Cost was part of the analysis, too. Any work needed at Memorial would be entirely a local expense for South Portland taxpayers; no state funding would apply. We also learned that the cost of renovating either school would be more expensive than rebuilding, but that state funding could cover the cost of consolidation.

In addition to understanding the physical and structural challenges at both schools, we looked more holistically at the entire pre-K-8 population, including changing demographics, community demand for pre-K, and space needs and limitations at the elementary schools.

We do not have enough space to accommodate elementary students appropriately, particularly with our growing pre-K program. This need opened the door to the idea of moving the fifth grade to a consolidated middle school, freeing up space in the district’s five elementary schools to allow for pre-K expansion and more learning spaces for grades K-4.

With this information in hand, the committee supported the recommendation for a grades 5-8 consolidated middle school, with a commitment to a design that would foster separate grades 5-6 and grades 7-8 learning communities within a single campus. The project would be state-funded and have the benefit of generating some local savings, since the elementary schools will not have to be expanded at local expense. All of this was presented last fall at a November community forum.

We are proud of the work of this volunteer citizen committee and believe that consolidation of our middle schools is a district-wide solution that makes good economic sense and best serves South Portland students. We are excited about the opportunity in front of us and look forward to working with everyone in our community to turn it into a reality for our kids.

Joan Ingram is a Small School parent; Jill Ward is a Dyer School parent. A straw poll on the proposed South Portland middle school project will be conducted Wednesday, June 13, at 7 p.m. in the South Portland High School auditorium.

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