Skowhegan School’s new design provides more space for students who require additional services

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The Skowhegan School System’s new Consolidated Elementary School is designed to better serve its population of above-average students in the state who have unique learning and behavioral needs.

About 23% of students in School Administrative District 54 receive special education, compared to 20% statewide, Superintendent Jonathan Moody said.

For a school district that serves an impoverished area and had five schools on the Maine Department of Education’s priority list for state-funded school construction projects, the possibility of building a new elementary school is a big problem.

One of the schools, North Elementary, was ranked second out of 74 Maine schools when the state released its list in August 2018. New building designs include more Title I intervention areas for math coaching and in literacy, expanded early childhood and quality programming. spaces where teachers can collaborate.

“Children are currently receiving services in spaces that are not ideal,” Moody said. “You can have private lessons, speeches and other things happening in the hallway. Sometimes we have children working on an old stage or many of our schools do not have staff toilets.

About 115 education technicians and paraprofessionals work in the neighborhood, and they leave their belongings in teachers’ classrooms because the old elementary schools have no room for them. The new building will provide dedicated spaces for these employees and their belongings, and they will 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 Maine Department of Education report, based on fiscal year 2021 data. SAD 54 is eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with primarily low-income children to serve free meals through national school lunch and breakfast programs.

A rendering shows the front of the new Elementary Building for School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan. Credit: Courtesy of Stephen Blatt Architects

In 2019 — before the COVID-19 pandemic — enrollment was 2,462 and nearly 87% of students were eligible for 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, in Augusta Public Schools, more than 48 percent of the 2,160 students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, the report said. In public schools in Brunswick, just under 20% of the 2,362 students were eligible.

Portland’s Stephen Blatt Architects – who designed and built Skowhegan Area Middle School in 2003 and Mill Stream Elementary School in 2008 – created concepts for the new building based on feedback from staff at the district and the public over the past year. It is expected to cost nearly $75.4 million and is expected to open in August 2025.

The new school will serve families with children from birth to fifth grade. The Birth-to-Toddler program is run through the District’s partnership with the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. SAD 54 welcomes students from Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

The district received support from the Maine State Board of Education school earlier this month and nearly 70 community members in a mock poll held in late April. Margaret Chase Smith School is the site of the new primary. The collaborative work of the district, the inhabitants of the district and the architects will be presented to the community during a referendum vote on June 14.

The cost of the project is $75,338,985 and state funding will account for 94%, Moody’s said. The locally funded portion is $4,440,572, or 5.9%, as specific features fall outside of state funding parameters.

This includes expanded early childhood classrooms and a multi-purpose room; an expanded gymnasium and floor upgrade; an outdoor LED message board; 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 staff bathrooms on both floors and flexible space for after-school programs and functions. Bedrooms for volunteers, a clothes closet and a pantry will be included, Moody said.

A site concept plan for School Administrative District 54’s new elementary building, scheduled to open August 2025. Credit: Courtesy of Stephen Blatt Architects

It is important that the school – especially the cafeteria, gymnasium and library – be accessible to the community all year round, he said.

The district expects about $2.5 million to $3 million will be covered through fundraising through its partnership with the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which would reduce local costs alone, Moody said.

Secondary students in an early childhood education program at Somerset Career & Technical Center who travel to North Elementary to work with young children will now have a full-size classroom to work in, he said.

When the architects worked with the community to understand their hopes for the new building, the No. 1 comment was a school that fit well into the landscape, Moody said. The school shouldn’t be industrial or impossibly modern, but it should be carefully designed for the young population learning there, architect Stephen Blatt told a virtual town hall meeting last year.

“Every classroom has a view of the woods,” Moody said. “It’s a neighborhood school, but you really get immersed in nature.”

The architects, who are setting times to meet with staff members again before the summer holidays, are expected to finalize designs for the building in October. Now, more detailed conversations about colors, materials, and wall space in the building can take place.

Those involved with the building committee have talked about involving more people to weigh in on details important to parents and teachers, such as playground equipment, Moody said. He encouraged anyone with ideas or wanting to have a say in the project to attend the meetings.

The project will return to the state council in March 2023, he said.

“It was a real blessing to have the opportunity to build a new school and go through this process for our community,” he said. “If we hadn’t had this state program, I don’t think MSAD 54 cities would have been able to do this on their own.”

Abdul J. Gaspar