The hope to modernize and consolidate two of Portland’s century-old high schools might be closer to reality now that officials see an opportunity to secure state funding for a new high school facility opening up in 2024.
While a new, consolidated facility is in the long-term plans for Portland Public Schools, the work to align the work of the district’s high schools as they currently exist is still underway.
The state of Maine is in the process of updating criteria for a school construction funding program. Changes to the program — called the Integrated, Consolidated 9-16 Educational Facility project — could be approved “any day,” according to interim superintendent Aaron Townsend, meaning Portland Public Schools could be eligible as soon as July 1 to apply for the funding project they sought last year.
That timeline isn’t definite, according to Department of Education (DOE) spokesperson Marcus Mrowka. But as it stands, the application would have a 2025 deadline, with work on the selected school district to begin in 2026.
This would be another opportunity for PPS to secure funding for a state-of-the-art high school facility after making an effort in early 2022 to get on the list. The DOE denied the district’s appeal to waive the prior deadline, which was back in 2017, but was receptive to Portland’s willingness to seek funding and told district officials that the opportunity would present itself in the future.
“We hope we’ll have the opportunity to apply, assuming that passes,” Townsend said. The interim superintendent said that next year’s design phase is “where we’ll start to lean in deeply on what that would look like, seeing other schools as examples, to get ready for submitting that application.”
Reconfiguring the district’s high schools is a long-term priority for PPS, marked by an official resolution in October 2022 to work to align programming and scheduling at both Portland and Deering, two of its three public schools.
In past discussions about the future of the aging buildings, officials determined a high cost of repairs — an estimated $130 million over the next 20 years, likely higher now due to inflation.
Most of the success in the alignment work so far has been in the ninth-grade workgroup, Townsend said, which is based on research that shows the first year of high school is the most critical in setting up students for success and graduation. “If they fall behind there, their likelihood of graduating drops tremendously,” he said.
So far, the Grade 9 workgroup has reviewed student achievement data to identify where they need further support, as well as a Grade 8 and 9 teacher collaboration meeting, bringing staff together across schools to discuss expectations of students going into the high school transition.
Pamela Otunnu, the district’s director of secondary academic access and outcomes, has been leading the district’s alignment work since the start of the school year. This includes the ‘Portrait of a Graduate,’ a shared vision process hoped to build a collective idea of what it means to have a diploma from Portland’s school district.
PPS has made a survey available to the school community to gauge their thoughts about what skills and traits graduates should have. Otunnu said drafts of the Portrait of a Graduate should be complete by the summer.
The first phase of the district’s alignment, which has been focused on understanding the needs and desires of the students, is on track so far, according to Otunnu, who added that the work has been “a ray of hope for folks,” allowing them to have a vision for what school in Portland could look like in the future.
Officials see this overarching vision as an informal step to guide curriculum, instruction, development for educators to create a collective set of expectations for students. Though it has no direct bearing on the consolidation plan or its potential funding, officials believe the shared vision would develop alongside the district’s application for the state construction project if Portland was chosen to receive the funding.
Townsend said a more in-depth look at the district’s high school alignment work is slated for the school board meeting on June 20.