Portland seeks $11M grant for major changes at 2 high schools

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PORTLAND — The School Department is seeking a federal grant that could lead to significant changes at two of the city’s three high schools.

Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said the district is finalizing an application for a five-year, $11 million federal grant to make significant structural and instructional changes at Portland High School.

“This is a pretty brazen and bold application for the city of Portland,” Morse said.

Key proposals of the grant include placing more emphasis on experiential learning for juniors and seniors, and expanding the teaming of students, Morse said. Both of those initiatives have been successfully employed by Casco Bay High School, which will act as the model for PHS.

The grant application also proposes moving CBHS into PHS, an initiative Morse said he will pursue regardless of whether Portland gets the federal grant.

While the move would help PHS meet the requirements of the grant, Morse said it would also address deficiencies at CBHS, which currently has a waiting list and lacks library and gym facilities comparable to other schools.

If Portland receives the grant, CBHS would be moved for the 2011-2012 school year, he said, which would allow it to grow into a 400-student school, as originally envisioned. The current location at 196 Allen Ave. can only accommodate 270 students.

“As an expeditionary learning school, downtown has many more opportunities for Casco Bay to create expeditions,” Morse said. “You have a working waterfront, the Arts District and business district without incurring busing costs.”

Morse said the district has worked over the last three weeks to pull the grant application together. But School Committee member Sarah Thompson said at a May 5 business meeting that the relatively short time frame has caused a lot of anxiety among teachers and parents. 

Thompson said there should be more public outreach about the proposals – something Morse said couldn’t be done, given the time constraints. Thompson said that, while most people aren’t opposed to change, people have a lot of pride in their high schools and their traditions.

“This is a huge change,” Thompson said. “I think some people were blind-sided by this.”

While PHS has had many successes over the years, Morse said it has not made Adequate Yearly Progress in the last seven years, largely because of an influx of immigrants, large numbers of economically disadvantaged children and special-needs students.

The grant could lead to all PHS teachers becoming certified as English language instructors and usher in better technology to track student performance, he said.

Morse said the grant would allow the district to institute a Talent Development High Schools model developed by John Hopkins University that seeks to build on talents and interests of all students.

“(The grant) would provide us with a vehicle to look at how we can deliver programming differently,” Morse said. “You can put a new car body on an old engine, but it’s still an old engine.”

For gifted and talented students, that could mean taking more computer-based, college-level classes. For struggling students, it may mean longer school days and an extended school year.

“Each student has some talent to build on,” Morse said. “It does speak to the entire student population.”

Morse said the district, and its nonprofit partner LearningWorks, will likely hear back about the grant in June or July. He estimates that Portland has a 10 percent shot at receiving the grant, which is intended to help struggling schools.

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