Portland school task force eyes middle school changes

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PORTLAND — A group charged with laying the foundation for a strategic plan for the city’s aging school facilities has given guidance to its consultants, who will prepare their report over the next month. 

One change being contemplated is reducing the number of middle schools from three to two, while adjusting the age groups that attend those schools. 

The facilities task force was formed last year as a concession to City Councilors who threatened to block state funding for a new elementary school on Ocean Avenue unless the district took a comprehensive look at its buildings.

For about a year, the group has been touring schools and meeting with consultants from the New England School Development Council about building capacities and demographics. 

The task force used its last meeting on Monday at King Middle School to define the depth and scope of the report to be presented to the public on April 27. 

School Committee member Jaimey Caron, who leads the task force, said the group’s report is only one leg on a “three-legged stool,” one that will establish programming needs, the physical limitations and potential of school buildings, and each building’s operating efficiency.

The School Committee, he said, will likely view the report within the context of both an energy audit of school and city buildings currently underway and a previous report by WBRC Architects, which studied the district’s elementary schools when drafting plans for the new Ocean Avenue school.

Caron said he hopes that once all three reports are compiled, it will be clear which buildings are worthy of investment and which are not.

“What I would hate to see is different schools appear at the top of those lists,” Caron said.

NESDEC consultant Donald Kennedy presented the group with a revised version of building capacities. Those figures were first presented last week, but the task force sent NESDEC back to the drawing board because the capacities did not account for the district’s diversity. 

Kennedy acknowledged that Portland’s diverse population, where 25 percent of its nearly 7,000 students are English Language Learners and a significant number have special needs, would make it difficult for the schools to operate at full capacity, which in some cases would put 25 students in a class. 

“The numbers we used were too high,” Kennedy said. “Really, you’re almost completely full” at the elementary school levels. 

Although the initial report said there are 430 seats available at the elementary level, Kennedy said that projection shrinks to between 75 and 95 open seats when two students are removed from each classroom. 

The task forced discussed whether to report specific numbers to the public, citing the need to provide a defensible projection.

School Committee member Robert O’Brien said the public’s attention will be fixated on building capacities, rather than programming needs at each school. 

Caron, however, argued that it is more important to present a range of numbers. 

“What we’re trying to get at is the flexibility (of the facilities),” Caron said. “It’s not so much the number, but the type of student. We can address that in a more meaningful way than a number.”

Kennedy said the East End Community School, Riverton Elementary School and the planned Ocean Avenue Elementary School are best positioned to offer students a 21st century education. Lyseth and Presumpscot elementary schools are significantly over-enrolled and must use portable classrooms to serve students, he said.

Caron, a structural engineer, said the district should be investing 1 percent to 2 percent of a building’s overall value in maintenance. In Portland, where the School Department owns $250 million worth of buildings, should be budgeting at least $2.5 million annually, he said, but only budgets a fraction of that amount. 

In addition to regular programming needs, the facilities report is expected to lay out the pros and cons of maintaining and moving some of the department’s other programs. Those programs and buildings include the adult education program currently housed at the former Baxter School, the day treatment facility at West School and the central kitchen at Reed School.

The report is also expected to contemplate future educational reuses of Clifford Elementary School, which will be closed when the Ocean Avenue school opens in 2011.

The report is expected to examine keeping all three middle schools by removing fifth-graders from the elementary schools and placing them in the middle schools. An alternative would be to close one of the middle schools, while the remaining two would either serve sixth- through eighth-graders or seventh- and eighth-graders.

Kennedy said if the district is looking for the biggest return on its investment into school facilities it would consider implementing preschool programs at two or three places in the city. Significant upgrades would be needed in existing buildings, he said. 

Citing a report on National Public Radio, Kennedy said that working-class children only hear about 13 million words before they enter kindergarten while professional-class children hear upwards of 45 million words.

“There’s not as much of a need to do remediation because it was done when they were much younger,” he said. “That’s the trump card to the elementary schools.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.