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Planned expansion of Portland's Casco Bay High School is an inside job

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Planned expansion of Portland's Casco Bay High School is an inside job

PORTLAND — Alan Kuniholm graduated from high school in 1972, but this fall he briefly attended classes at Casco Bay High School.

It was an "embedment strategy," the 59-year-old architect said. His goal was to study students in their setting, within the halls and classrooms of their building.

Kuniholm is principal at Portland-based PDT Architects – the company that's been asked to redesign Casco Bay High School's interior for a proposed $460,000 expansion project.

Like something out of "21 Jump Street" or "Back to School," Kuniholm is prone to attending classes with a much-younger crowd.

"We try to see what their daily lives are like," he said. "We use their spaces and their work environment. We get to know how they communicate with each other and what their culture is like."

A plan in the making

If funding is approved by the city, Casco Bay High School could be expanded by the beginning of the next school year.

The proposal has been in the works since 2010, but it gathered steam recently when the city approved the district's plan to purchase the Goodwill Industries building on Cumberland Avenue for use as the district's central offices.

With Portland Public Schools poised to close the purchase of the downtown building by the end of this month, the School Board turned its attention to the expansion phase, which was the focus of a workshop on Jan. 7.

Peter Eglinton, chief operations officer for the district, said the plan will cost the district about $460,000. The district has $200,000 socked away for the project, but will need approval for the remainder, Eglinton said in a telephone interview.

The expansion will focus on interior spaces. There will be no changes to the building's footprint or exterior walls. 

The district's central offices now occupy 11,000 square feet within the building. The high school uses 21,000 square feet. The proposed changes will bring Casco Bay High School's total available space to 32,000 square feet.

"It will be about a 50 percent increase in space, which is great," Eglinton said.

The expansion will also allow for increased enrollment. Currently, Casco Bay High School has 335 students with 105 square feet per student. After the expansion, enrollment could grow to 400 students with 166 square feet per student.

The school currently provides "far less square footage per student than you would expect for a high school environment," Eglinton said. "This will be a much more comfortable space."

PDT Architects intends to submit a final report on the project by the end of the month, which will likely prompt another School Board workshop.

The current vision calls for the creation of a so-called great space for student assemblies and performances. The rest of the project will be fairly moderate.

"Many of the spaces will remain unchanged, but used in a different way," Eglinton said. "There's some reconfiguration of walls to either create spaces that are more suitable to classrooms, or to create better traffic flow in the building."

The building at 196 Allen Ave. was constructed in 1976 to house Portland Arts and Technology High School. In 2005, it also became the home of Casco Bay High School and its non-traditional, expeditionary-learning curriculum.

The building was originally intended as a temporary home for Casco Bay. Over the years, the district considered many alternate locations, Eglinton said, but the vision of inward expansion took hold in 2011 after what he called a "most rigorous" study by the Future Expansion Task Force – a group that included teachers, parents, administrators.

Eglinton said a moving date for the central offices is not set, but "we're interested in moving as quickly as we can." Expansion for Casco Bay High School could be completed by the beginning of the next school year.

The expansion will not affect PATHS, Eglinton said.

Back to school

Kuniholm said his experiences in Casco Bay High School classrooms were "quite revealing and a lot of fun."

Kuniholm and other architects at PDT observed students and collaborated with them for about a month, beginning in late September. Kuniholm spent about four days among students at the school, including a field trip to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth.

The company has been embedding in schools frequently in the past year, Kuniholm said. Overall, PDT has been involved in projects at 60 schools throughout Maine. Kuniholm has personally attended classes in about a dozen schools.

The CBHS building is a "very solid building" and worth investing money in, Kuniholm said, but its needs are apparent. The school lacks a clear identity. It is compartmentalized and has a temporary feel. Its lunch room, for instance, is mobile – the lunch tables get rolled into corridors.

"It's somewhat of a labyrinth," he said. "The first day I showed up, I didn't know where the front door was. Our mission is to help them out with the flow and their identity, which we think every school should have."

Casco Bay students served as collaborators on the planning project, freely offering feedback and original ideas, Kuniholm said. Also, as part of the school's expeditionary-learning curriculum, several students spent two days at PDT Architects offices, gaining firsthand experience in the industry.

Kuniholm said today's students are more intellectually sophisticated than they were in his time.

"Their use of technology and their access to information is transformative," he said. "The students are quite comfortable. It's so much more casual than when I went to school. It's a lot of fun there."

Nonetheless, Kuniholm is not sure he fit in at the school, even though he gave particular thought to his clothing.

"I tried to dress down a little bit, but I ended up wearing my dress shoes," he said. "I think I should have worn my sneakers.

"I'm way old."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.