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Portland's 'Education District' hopes for recognition

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Portland's 'Education District' hopes for recognition

PORTLAND — Ask a Portlander how to get to Munjoy Hill or the West End, and you'll likely receive a quick response and accurate directions.

But ask how to reach the University neighborhood in the city's "Education District," and you may get a puzzled stare.

Carol Schiller, president of the University Neighborhood Organization and a 22-year resident of Longfellow Street, is trying to change that.

The neighborhood covers a broad swath of the city, from the University of Southern Maine west in a rough triangle bounded by Forest, Brighton and Stevens avenues.

But Schiller, who helped found UNO in 2006, said those boundaries are only approximate.

"We're a little different from other neighborhoods," she said. "It's not really about being confined to boundaries. There's a critical mass of residents here from the universities, as well as working professionals, and we think of this as the education hot spot of Portland."

Besides USM, the area is also home to the University of Maine School of Law, the University of New England Portland campus, and offices for a collaborative program between the Tufts University School of Medicine and Maine Medical Center.

In addition, Deering and Catherine McAuley high schools are in the neighborhood.

Schiller said UNO began meeting when residents recognized there were common issues that required attention from the city, such as the maintenance of Longfellow Park at Longfellow and Oakdale streets.

Today, participation in the informal group fluctuates, but it is led by about eight core members and actively supported by USM, Schiller said. Besides organizing neighborhood events such as Christmas caroling and blood drives, UNO recently urged the city to address a dangerous intersection at Falmouth and Oakdale streets.

But the most challenging work for the neighborhood may be, literally, getting on the map.

Last year, the city began working with Portland's Downtown District and other groups to overhaul the hodgepodge collection of signs that guide vehicles around the peninsula and in other key areas.

Backed by $50,000 from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, the project will eventually create a new, color-coded network of signs for traffic downtown, along the waterfront, in the East and West Ends, and in Bayside and Parkside.

The signage was also planned near USM, prompting Schiller and her group to approach the city last fall about the possibility of including an Education District in the project. But such an expansion would cost an additional $18,000, not including the expense of installing the signs, according to a memo from the project consultant, Woodworth Associates.

Now it's not clear if the city will pick up that cost, Schiller said. The City Council's Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee is scheduled to take up the question when it meets Feb. 20.

The neighborhood group is scheduled to meet March 13 to update members on progress of the signs project and other issues.

Meanwhile, Schiller said she's hopeful that the creation of the Education District will serve as a magnet for people visiting for graduations and other events, bringing business to the area. She also said the district could instill a sense of pride among the area's young residents.

"Kids hear so much dialogue about failing schools, and it creates a kind of doubt," she said. "We want to create a sense of pride, and send a message that yes, you can get a great education here and even go to college where you live."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.