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'It's lovely to have a dry space that's a school': Portland Adult Ed, West programs settle into new homes

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'It's lovely to have a dry space that's a school': Portland Adult Ed, West programs settle into new homes

PORTLAND — Two School Department programs that were forced out of their deteriorating former building have now settled into new, temporary homes.

Classes have begun for both Portland Adult Education and the West Day Treatment Program, which were housed in the former West Elementary School on Douglass Street until the problem-riddled building became unsuitable for classes this summer.

Adult Ed was ultimately moved to the Kavanagh School, owned by the Catholic Diocese of Portland, after a section of the program was initially held at Portland High School. The West program, which moved into Kavanagh immediately after the closure of the West school, is now operating at the former Sampson D. Plummer school in Falmouth.

And while the department signed a three-year agreement with the Catholic Diocese of Portland in July for the Kavanagh school, a committee is expected to present the School Board with a plan for a permanent home for both programs in October. 

The department also signed a 10-month lease with the OceanView retirement community for the Plummer School in August.

Both of the replacements are more spacious than the West School and will allow the programs to better serve their students, said Doug Sherwood, the department's facilities director.

For Adult Ed, which held its first classes on Monday, Kavanagh is a huge improvement from the previous location, Director Rob Wood said.

"(West) got so depressing at the end," he said, referring to the drooping ceiling tiles bloated from leaking water, the lack of heat and the nearly opaque plastic windows. "For us, it's lovely to have a dry space that's a school."

The program now has 11 classrooms, two more than previously, that are much larger than the West school classrooms, Wood said.

It's also in a prime location for the more than 1,200 registered students, who mostly live between downtown and Munjoy Hill, said Anja Hanson, academic adviser for the program. The building is next to the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.

Parking for the building will remain a challenge because the program shares a lot with the neighboring cathedral, which regularly hosts events and church services. When the lot is full, students have to park along Congress Street or Cumberland Avenue.

The Diocese also continues to use the building on Sundays.

Elfadel Arbab, a student and refugee who escaped genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan in 2008, said that having a single, safe and healthy space to learn and meet is vital to much of the refugee community.

"So many of the students are coming here after surviving war and have to start from scratch," he said, adding that many have had professional careers, but don't have American credentials. "We come here for the education and because it's a community gathering place. It's everything for us."

Wood said the program is more diverse than most adult education programs and represented 82 countries last year.

In addition to larger classrooms and better facilities in general, the school also has a basement area that may be turned into a student lounge, Hanson said, something they have never had before. 

Only a job skills program remains in separate premises, Wood said. It is at Riverton Elementary School, but he said they plan to soon bring the program over to Kavanagh.

West Day Treatment program

The Plummer school, purchased from the town of Falmouth by OceanView in March, required little work because the Falmouth School Department only left the building in 2011, Susan Joakim, the West program director, said.

"When they left, they didn't take a thing with them. There were literally pencils left on the desks," she said, adding that they were able to use much of the supplies left behind. "We were really, really fortunate to set up so quickly."

The rear entrance to the two-story building opens to a large room known as "the commons" and is home to the main office. On Friday, classes were in session, but much of the building remained quiet, with fewer than half a dozen students in each class.

The Plummer building is much larger than the West School and allows ample classroom space for the program's 31 current students, Joakim said. The program also contracts to use the connected Motz gym periodically, which is still owned by Falmouth.

Joakim said the spacious building is ideal for the West program, which teaches students with emotional disabilities or mental health diagnoses, who often require one-on-one attention.

"Here, the classrooms are enormous," she said. "There's so many possibilities to program. We can really be creative."

One of those possibilities is re-purposing a classroom into a dance floor, where Joakim said she hopes to have a volunteer teach the waltz, and in the future, possibly hold a prom for the program's high school students.

And despite the program being outside of Portland, Joakim said parents and students have been receptive to the new location.

"It's kind of out of the hub-bub, and they like that quiet feel to it," she said.

In addition to moving the program, it could also soon have a new name. 

Named after the West School, it is now jokingly being called the "What Do You Think We Should be Called School," Joakim said, although staff also have a short list of names they voted on.

The Blue Heron Collaborative or Heron Academy are the leading titles, Joakim said, after a blue heron was spotted in the field next to the school on one of the final moving days.

The name would have to be processed thoroughly and would ultimately have to go before the School Board for final approval, Sherwood said.

Although the Plummer School is a good fit for the program now, he said the department eventually wants to have everyone back in Portland.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.