FREEPORT — Elbow room in the hallways leading to the cafeteria is in short supply as the lunch bell rings at Freeport High School.
Table space is even more scarce – all 520 students take a 35-minute lunch break simultaneously and hallways, classrooms and the library are used for meals when the weather does not allow outdoor dining.
“I don’t mind eating in the library,” senior Jared Knight said, but Principal Robert Strong said the shortage of cafeteria space is just one reason the community should consider renovations and expansions at the high school, which was built in 1961.
In the next two weeks, residents of Regional School Unit 5 will have a chance to hear about potential plans to renovate and expand the high school. The first will be held Thursday, Feb. 2, at 4 p.m. at the high school.
On Monday, Feb. 6, members of the Facilities Study Committee will speak to Freeport town councilors at 6:30 p.m. at Freeport Town Hall. At 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 13, the committee will speak with Durham selectmen at Durham Town Hall.
RSU 5 Superintendent Shannon Welsh said the committee, comprised of parents, teachers and administrators at the school, has already outlined the needs and possibilities for making the high school more accommodating to Pownal selectmen and community members.
Catherine Breer, a Freeport resident and mother of two students, said she joined the committee because she was unhappy with the aesthetics and the possible safety hazards at the school’s main entrance.
Additional tours of some school areas revealed an aging facility that will be hard pressed to serve greater enrollment. Breer said she understands school expansion may be a hard sell to taxpayers, but said it is easier to understand when residents know the school is integral to all three communities.
“It is something that makes the whole RSU more desirable,” Breer said.
Welsh and Strong are bracing themselves for more students – as many as 80 in the next few years – as Durham students who once had town tuition assistance to attend other high schools lose that funding.
Elimination of the tuition assistance to attend other schools is part of the agreement bonding Freeport, Pownal and Durham in RSU 5. Welsh said there are currently 42 Durham students not attending Freeport High School.
After the 2012-2013 school year concludes, eighth-graders in Durham will not get tuition assistance from the town to attend high schools in other area towns.
As the committee approaches residents to discuss potential plans created by architect Lyndon Keck of Portland-based Portland Design Team, Welsh, Breer and Strong said they want it made clear they are seeking input about solutions instead of pitching Keck’s plan.
Creating a larger, safer area for buses, adding a second floor to areas of the school and expanding the edges of the school could help alleviate accessibility and modernization issues, but Strong said no cost estimate for work has been discussed.
“We don’t want to rush it, we need to talk to high school students and parents and students and from lower grades, too,” he said.
Freeport High School has been expanded three times since it was built more than 50 years ago. An industrial arts building and library were built in 1976, the gym and locker rooms were built in 1985 and performing arts center and science wing were added in 2008.
Strong said having students and teachers share meals in classrooms or the library adds a communal feel to the school day, but the community also needs to consider how changes in education and technology affect the daily classroom environment.
“When I was in school, you sat, faced the front of the room and got the information,” he said. “Students move around much more now.”
Welsh said it is likely any school renovations, whether piecemeal or all-encompassing, would require local bonds approved by voters because state funding for school construction projects is minimal.
Although the high school may be cramped and not well suited for 21st century learning, Welsh said, there are not health or safety issues to be considered, aside from sorting out traffic in front of the school.
She said the School Board envisions a master plan from Keck will be ready by June, but she does not expect a bond question for school renovation to be part of the November election ballot.
Freeport freshman Emily Harvey said she understands she could be graduating before work begins at the school, but she said the need for more space is evident.
“It is not good sitting on the floor to eat your lunch,” Harvey said, leaning against a wall outside the school’s arts center.
Edited on Feb. 2 to correct Facility Committee member Catherine Breer’s name.
After waiting in line for lunch, students at Freeport High School spread out through the school, eating in classrooms, hallways and the library. With enrollment anticipated to increase to 600 students from the current 520, Principal Robert Strong said adequate cafeteria room is near the top of the list for school improvements.
Freeport High School students find walking and storage space hard to come by as the student body of more than 500 shares the same lunch period each day. Crowded cafeteria space is one topic school teachers, administrators and parents will address at three upcoming meetings about school expansion.