Make it Happen students with program coordinator Danielle Wong, right, serve food at the Preble Street Resource Center soup kitchen. (Courtesy Portland Public Schools)
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For much of his early life, Salar Salim grew up in a warzone.

But after immigrating to Portland from Iraq in 2010, he encountered struggles of a different kind: racism and bigotry from fellow middle school students because of his Muslim faith.

Salim eventually found solace as a ninth-grader at Deering High School when he joined Make it Happen, a college readiness program designed to strengthen minority students and give them better chances at financial aid and college admission. Make it Happen is the reason Portland Public Schools was recently one of three grand prize winners in the National School Boards Association 2021 Magna Awards program; the others were Mashpee, Massachusetts, and Detroit, Michigan.

Tim Cronin, left, director of Portland Public Schools’ Make it Happen program, with a Casco Bay High School student. The program recently became the first in Maine to win an award from the National School Boards Association for its equity work. (Courtesy Portland Public Schools)

Portland’s win is the first time in the program’s 27-year history that a Maine school district has been recognized with a Magna Award for its equity work, and comes with a $5,000 grant. Portland schools will use the money to establish a college scholarship fund for Make it Happen students.

The Make it Happen program was initially funded with a grant, but proved to be so valuable that it is now fully funded in the School Department budget, according to Portland Public Schools communications coordinator Tess Nacelewicz.

Salim, now a sophomore sociology major at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, said in an interview last week he would not have been admitted to college without the program’s help.

He went to the Make it Happen program every day after school for four years on the advice of his older brother, also an alumnus of the program, who later graduated from Bowdoin College. Through Make it Happen Salim received Scholastic Aptitude Test tutoring, homework help, and was paired with a senior buddy to help him navigate the school experience.

He also received $12,000 in scholarships through the program, he said, and help with confusing parts of the college application process, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). He also got an opportunity to practice his English language skills at Make it Happen, and said staff members there encouraged him to become president of the student body. 

Salim said Tim Cronin, program director for Make it Happen, was especially instrumental in his positive experience. He called him “one of the most kind people” he’s ever met in his life, who is still helping him now: Salim recently ran into an issue with his scholarships at Holy Cross, and Cronin advocated with the college on his behalf. 

He also credits the program with making him more confident in himself as a Muslim.

“The Make it Happen program was something great for me because it was a place I went to a lot, (and) I saw other students of color and Muslims,” Salim said. “It really did make me feel a lot more confident with who I am as a Muslim and it truly did make me feel a lot safer.”

Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland, one of four city elementary schools OK’d for renovations by voters in 2017. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

3 Portland schools a step closer to being rebuilt

The Portland School Board on April 7 gave the go-ahead to solicit construction bids for the renovation of three city elementary schools.

Voters approved borrowing $64 million to renovate Lyseth, Presumpscot, Reiche, and Longfellow elementary schools nearly four years ago.

Renovation of Lyseth Elementary School began in June 2019. According to School Department documents, Longfellow will be the next project put out to bid, followed by Reiche and then Presumpscot. Construction is expected to start this summer.

Reiche Elementary School is the most expensive of the three remaining projects, with a cost of more than $16 million, followed by Longfellow at nearly $15 million, and Presumpscot at nearly $13 million.

The work has run into a variety of hurdles in the years since voters approved it, most recently last November when School Department staff questioned whether passage of Portland’s Green New Deal would require changes to the projects.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana spoke about the Presumpscot project in particular at the board’s meeting since it was the last of the four projects approved to go out to bid. He said the current plans are a “scaled-back” version of the original design.

“The scaling back allows the project to retain many of the key features in the original design while maintaining the financial viability of the four (bonded) school projects,” Botana said. 

— Elizabeth Clemente