SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — There are big changes in the works coming to the South Portland School Department in fall 2023. One of them is a brand-new middle school for fifth- through eighth-grade students. The other is the new services that the middle school will provide.
South Portland's superintendent, Tim Matheney, said the department will be adopting a "community school" model for the new middle school to help address challenges for students and their families — especially those who may be learning English for the first time or who may not have stable housing.
"The 'community school' approach is a framework. It’s almost a way of doing business in a school. It provides a template for reaching out to families and students in a really holistic way," Matheney said, later adding, "[It] provides a template for us to serve our students as a whole child — not just serving kids as academic students."
Matheney said this model will provide resources like medical, dental, and behavioral health care; extended learning time and enrichment; and adult education and job placement services — right at school. The hope is that will help students be more successful overall and create a sort of community hub.
"Our kids come to us with really diverse needs. We need to have the tools — expanded tools — in order to serve those diverse kids," Matheney said.
"[School] really is the one part of society that we all mandatorily participate in. When you're 11, 12, 13 [years old], you have to come to school. That’s the law," Rebecca Stern, the principal of Memorial Middle School in South Portland, said.
It's why Stern said she thinks having these resources available near the classroom makes sense.
"I think, in particular, for middle school students, they’re sort of independent — [but] they’re still definitely dependent on their families. And their families sometimes need some support," Stern said.
Brian Cavanaugh is the McKinney-Vento liaison with the South Portland School Department. He said this model will serve a big need, as more than 500 of the department's students were McKinney-Vento-eligible last year. Essentially, that means they didn't have stable housing situations and were either sharing housing with another family, staying in a car, or living in inadequate housing without essentials like running water.
Cavanaugh said this year, the department has served almost 500 McKinney-Vento-eligible students. He said currently, they're helping around 350 kids.
"When you’re just trying to have your basic needs met of shelter, food, and clothing — oftentimes, other things we think about like schooling (in terms of going to college or entering the workforce) just kind of take a back-burner to some of the more pressing needs of the individual child or family," Cavanaugh said.
South Portland's adoption of the community school model is being made possible through a $664,000 grant of American Rescue Plan Act funds. The South Portland School Department worked with The Opportunity Alliance's Partners for Thriving Youth initiative to apply. Organizers said the help is meant to address challenges brought on by COVID.
"We’re also seeing a real increase in behavioral health needs among young people and adolescents in particular as a result of the COVID pandemic," Jean Cousins, a consultant with Partners for Thriving Youth, said.
Cousins said this grant will help fund two different positions: a community school director and family partnerships coordinator. Together, they will work to determine what local families' needs are and build relationships with them.
"I think that it just builds a sense of safety and belonging in schools. Those two positions, hopefully, over time, will really be sort of like an anchor for families," Cousins said.
Cousins added the goal is to look for other sources of funding for this model as money runs out.
An advisory board is forming soon to determine what the needs are of community members — and what they'd like to see in the community school model. Those interested can email Matheney at firstname.lastname@example.org to offer input.