SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The Skowhegan school system’s new consolidated elementary school is being designed to better serve its higher than state average population of students that have unique learning and behavioral needs.
Roughly 23 percent of students in School Administrative District 54 receive special education, compared to the state’s 20 percent, Superintendent Jonathan Moody said.
For a school district that serves an impoverished area and had five schools on Maine Department of Education’s priority list for state-funded school construction projects, the chance to build a new elementary is a big deal.
One of the schools, North Elementary, was ranked second out of 74 schools in Maine when the state released its list in August 2018. Designs for the new building include more Title I intervention areas for math and literacy coaching, expanded early childhood programming and quality spaces for teachers to collaborate.
“Kids right now are receiving services in spaces that are less than ideal,” Moody said. “You may have tutoring, speech and other things going on in the hallway. Sometimes we have kiddos working on a former stage or several of our schools have no bathrooms for staff.”
Roughly 115 educational technicians and paraprofessionals work at the district, and they leave their belongings in teachers’ classrooms because the old elementary schools don’t have space for them. The new building will provide dedicated areas for those employees and their things, and they’ll have more privacy to make important phone calls to parents, Moody said.
More than 73 percent of the district’s 2,259 students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, according to a report from the Maine Department of Education, based on data from fiscal year 2021. SAD 54 qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with predominantly low-income children to serve free meals through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.
In 2019 — before the COVID-19 pandemic — enrollment was 2,462 and nearly 87 percent of students were eligible for the meals, Moody said.
Compared to school districts in other parts of the state with similar enrollment, the percentage of SAD 54 students eligible for the program is significantly higher. For example, at Augusta Public Schools, more than 48 percent of the 2,160 students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, the report shows. At Brunswick Public Schools, just under 20 percent of 2,362 students were eligible.
Stephen Blatt Architects of Portland — which designed and built Skowhegan Area Middle School in 2003 and Mill Stream Elementary School in 2008 — created concept designs for the new building based on input collected from district employees and the public over the last year. It’s expected to cost nearly $75.4 million and projected to open in August 2025.
The new school will serve families with children from birth through fifth grade. The birth to toddler program is run through the district’s partnership with the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. SAD 54 enrolls students from Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.
The district received support for the school from the Maine State Board of Education earlier this month and nearly 70 community members during a straw poll held in late April. Margaret Chase Smith School is the site for the new elementary. The collaborative work of the district, area residents and architects will come before the community in a referendum vote on June 14.
The project cost totals $75,338,985, and state funding will account for 94 percent, Moody said. The locally funded portion is $4,440,572, or 5.9 percent, because specific features fall outside the state’s funding parameters.
That includes expanded early childhood classrooms and a multipurpose room; an expanded gymnasium and floor upgrade; an LED exterior message sign; additional playground equipment for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade; landscaping; among others.
The building will also incorporate requests from district employees and community members, such as separate bathrooms for staff on both floors and flexible space for after-school programming and functions. Rooms for volunteers, a clothing closet and foot pantry will be included, Moody said.
It’s important for the school — especially the cafeteria, gym and library — to be accessible to the community year-round, he said.
The district is anticipating about $2.5 million to $3 million will be covered by fundraising through its partnership with the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which would lower the local-only costs, Moody said.
High school students in an early childhood education program at the Somerset Career & Technical Center who travel to North Elementary to work with young kids will now have a full-size classroom to work from, he said.
When architects worked with the community to understand its hopes for the new building, the No. 1 piece of feedback was a school that fit nicely into the landscape, Moody said. The school shouldn’t be industrial or incredibly modern, but it needs to be thoughtfully designed for the young population learning there, architect Stephen Blatt said during a virtual public meeting last year.
“Every classroom has a view out into the woods,” Moody said. “It’s a neighborhood school, but you’re really immersed in nature.”
Architects, who are setting up times to meet with staff members again before summer break, are expected to finalize designs for the building in October. Now more detailed conversations about colors, materials and wall space in the building can happen.
Those involved with the building committee have talked about involving more people to weigh in on specifics important to parents and teachers, such as playground equipment, Moody said. He encouraged anyone with ideas or who wants to have a say in the project to attend meetings.
The project will come before the state board again in March 2023, he said.
“It has been a true blessing to have the opportunity to build a new school and go through this process for our community,” he said. “Had we not had this state program, I don’t think there’s any way the towns of MSAD 54 would be able to do this on their own.”