For the past several years, school superintendent Mike Felton and his facilities and programming working group have been wrestling with how to find enough space to serve the growing number of students attending the St. George School.
“We’ve felt increasing pressure each year and we felt it most last year,” Felton says. “We had 25 fourth graders last year and we’d already split the third grade, so we didn’t have the personnel or space to split the fourth grade. So part of the space problem is class size.”
But an even bigger aspect of the school’s space-crunch, Felton points out, is programs. He rapidly ticks off the list of curricula and services that now require space in the school building: world language, occupational therapy, physical therapy, the Makerspace, the school library, STEAM activities (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), Title 1 reading and math interventions, special ed, life skills (for students with developmental delays or autism) and a program for students with more severe behavioral and emotional needs. In addition, he says, three different social workers need spaces where they can work with students and there are occasions when needs testing (such as speech and hearing) has to be conducted, something that currently most often takes place in Felton’s own office.
Most other school administrations would view the issue of how best to solve their space problems as an internal problem. Guided by the long-term goal of providing students with an education that allows them to succeed and become productive citizens, they would determine what curricula, special programs, staffing and facilities are desirable for meeting that goal and then ask for the financial resources to make that plan a reality. But the St. George School is different than most other schools, Felton emphasizes.
“We are a community school. We have to make decisions about what is needed as a community. There is no other way. As a community we need to ask how is the school going to be part of the community as we move forward?”
This means, Felton explains, in addition to thinking about desirable educational and long-term goals for the students and what resources are needed to meet them, also thinking about the school’s facilities and its students as valuable resources for the community at large.
Already the school’s students are making valuable contributions to the community, Felton says, pointing to such examples as the recommendations about energy choices Jaime MacCaffray’s fourth grade class made to the School Board last year and the “citizen science” work Alison England’s classes have been doing on alewife restoration.
“And we really see the school building as a community building, because there are also a lot of after-school uses for a variety of groups and organizations from Parks and Recreation and an after-school program in coordination with Blueberry Cove to different meetings and community events. When we’re looking at the school space we really want to look at how can whatever we do benefit the entire community.”
Felton also flags that dealing with the school’s space issues is not only about better accommodating all the programs, services and uses currently in place. It is also about possible new opportunities to improve those offerings. For example, in terms of the school’s Makerspace, the Midcoast School of Technology has come forward with an interest in possibly working with the school’s middle-level students. So there is now the possibility that a vocational-technological component could be brought back to the curriculum, this time integrated with the work already being done with 3-D printers, laser cutters and robotics. Access, Felton says, could be for everybody, students and community members alike working to address questions, issues and challenges facing the community.
Another question is whether a public pre-K program would be desirable. “We have a working group right now looking at this and the state is moving in the direction that in the future public pre-K could be required. There are tremendous advantages to students when you get them started in education early, but that requires space.”
So decisions have to be made. Thanks to financial support from a community member, the school has been able to hire a firm of architects, Portland-based Oak Point Associates, to help with a building-use assessment, which the firm began conducting this past summer. “They are basically meeting with different stakeholders, community members, and students to get a sense of what people want and need from the school building. They’ll be at our regular open house for student families on October 10, so they’ll be connecting with those families and trying to get feedback from them,” Felton explains.
Then, on October 29 at 5:30pm in the school gym, Oak Point is going to hold a community meeting, trying to get as many community members together as possible to get their thoughts on the school, the space, historically how it has been used and what they want from the space moving forward.
“Right now everything is on the table,” Felton says. “But given the number of programs we have going on now, it is critical that we come up with options and solutions. For me, the most important part is really the community process. I think as a community we will come up with the right outcome. I look at it first as what programming do we need and want to offer and then what are the space requirements.”
—JW (All members of the St. George Community are invited to the “Community Meeting to Discuss the School Building” on Tuesday, October 29 at 5:30pm in the St. George School Gym.)
PHOTOS: Top and bottom, courtesy St. George School; Mike Felton, Julie Wortman