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High school tour precedes report on South Portland schools

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High school tour precedes report on South Portland schools

SOUTH PORTLAND — High school juniors Gabby Ferrell and Morrigan Turner stopped and gaped at what will be the new main entrance to the school late Wednesday afternoon.

"It is crazy to see it here and real," said Turner, who with Ferrell is a student representative to the Board of Education.

The tour of the addition to the school was led by School Superintendent Suzanne Godin, a physical presentation of the annual "State of the Schools" report she presented later at a School Board meeting.

Godin was joined by Steve Wilkins of PC Construction, lead contractor on the $47 million project funded largely through a $41 million bond approved by voters in 2010. Joining the tour were Mayor Tom Blake, City Manager Jim Gailey, Finance Director Greg L'Heureux, every town councilor except Patti Smith, and the entire School Board.

The 100,000-square-foot addition is still a work in progress: walls need tile and second coats of paint, the main stairwell is still a metal framework, the tables in the lecture hall are still on the floor and sawdust is abundant in work areas.

But occupancy is quickly approaching. When students return from the holiday break in January, they will no longer attend classes in the section of the nearly 60-year-old school known as the Annex.

Before that, the basketball teams will take the court in the refurbished Beal gymnasium, where Godin said a new floor is being sanded. The gym will have modernized locker rooms, and access for fans that finally fully complies with federal disability standards.

The fully completed school, including a rebuilt section where the Annex will be razed, is expected to be ready for the beginning of the 2015 school year.

At the center of the new construction is the main entrance, with separate access for students and staff, and an updated main office. After 7:30 a.m. each day, the school will be locked down, with access provided only after visual contact.

Godin said the interior will also be more visible to staff.

"There is not a spot in the building we can't see with a camera," she said.

Beyond security, Godin said the three floors of the new wing incorporate state-of-the-art concepts and construction for energy efficiency and 21st century teaching and learning.

Classrooms, with radiant heating from floors, have minimal desk space for teachers, Godin said.

"That's to push teachers out into classrooms," she said, adding it was incorporated at the suggestion of the teachers.

Each floor has small, satellite offices for administrators, to allow them to be active in the flow of the school day.

As the tour concluded, Ferrell said the reality of construction matched the concept plans.

"I am very very excited, it looks exactly like it did in the virtual representation," she said.

Councilor Michael Pock had a more visceral reaction to the tour.

"This is like 'Star Wars' compared to my high school," he said.

'State of the Schools'

Godin's annual report, presented with assistance from Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani, suggested changing demographics will determine the future of education in the city.

Using a revised mission statement that Godin said will guide professional training, curriculum and budgeting for the next decade, her report detailed changing needs and increasing numbers of students receiving free and reduced lunches: from 22 percent to 36 percent in a decade, with 55 percent of students at Kaler Elementary and 53 percent of students at Skillin Elementary qualifying.

Enrollment for the year is projected at 3,100, with 855 students at the high school and more than 1,500 students at five elementary schools.

Within the elementary schools, Germani said needs are vastly different than a decade ago. The number of students speaking English as a second language has increased from 43 to 195, with many arriving students lacking formal education because they were refugees.

"They come with a whole host of other issues," Germani said. "Some have been through significant trauma."

While the School Department identifies 18 percent of students as needing special eduction, down from 20 percent a decade ago, Germani said 74 students are now diagnosed as autistic and there are now two full-time classes for autistic students in elementary schools.

Germani said the number of homeless students is probably underestimated, especially at the high school. She added many of the students are from local families that have lost homes, but living in the city.

"I don't think 10 years ago (homelessness) was on anybody's radar, but these are your neighbors," Germani said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.