LEWISTON – Lewiston elementary schools are full, “every one of them,” and projected enrollment is expected to add 20 percent more students in the next 10 years, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said Monday.
Webster said the trend of larger kindergarten classes is here to stay, which would mean that in 10 years, the Lewiston school population would grow from the current 5,109 to 6,192.
To make room for more, Webster recommends that the Multi-Purpose Center be converted into the new Lewiston Early Childhood Development Center. The move would mean that the Birch Street facility no longer would house senior citizen activities and that ownership of it be transferred from the city to the School Department.
The other half of the building would remain Longley Elementary School.
The early childhood center would open a year from now, and would house all of the city's pre-kindergarten students. Under the plan, Lewiston would become the first city in Maine to offer pre-K to all who want it, Webster told the Lewiston School Committee on Monday night. Creating one pre-K center would move existing pre-K classes to Birch Street and free up classroom space at elementary schools.
Overall, Shool Committee members liked Webster's recommendation, and gave it a green light Monday night.
The proposal now goes to the Lewiston City Council, which will decide if 4-year olds should replace senior citizens at the Multi-Purpose Center.
School Committee members did not discuss where senior citizen activities would be held.
Education officials said a growing student enrollment is a healthy sign that Lewiston is a vibrant community. Statewide, student enrollment has declined, with many communities forced to consolidate and even close schools.
“This is big stuff,” Webster said. “It's exciting to think that Lewiston is one of the few districts in Maine with a growing student population. As much as it presents challenges and problems, I'd rather deal with those than declining student enrollment and having to cut positions and programs for students.”
City Council Representative Larry Poulin said he too is encouraged. “It shows we have a vibrant, healthy, growing community.”
Some of the growing enrollment is from the Somali families which tend to have larger families. But it's not all that, Webster said.
“The immigrants are certainly contributing, but we have an increased number of families interested in Lewiston as a place to live,” he said. “We've got a good school system.”
Martel Elementary School Principal Steve Whitfield said his school on Lisbon Street is full, “and we do not have the immigrant population.” Martel's neighborhood has been “repopulated with younger families,” Whitfield said. “Also as parochial schools have increased tuition and consolidated, we have picked up a number of families.”
The projected cost to renovate the Multi-Purpose Center to a pre-K center would be about $200,000, Webster said. That would come from money in the municipal public improvement bonds, which would have to be approved by the council.
The School Committee also gave approval Monday night to other preliminary steps that would explore ways to create more room in schools. They include:
*An architectural and engineering review of the Lewiston Middle School for future expansion and improvements. The building will eventually hold more students, now in the early grades. The middle school improvements “would make it a keeper school,” Webster said. The School Department last year hoped to replace the middle school, but with the school placing so low on the state's needs list of new construction, Webster said that is not going to happen.
*A $40,000 energy audit at Lewiston High School. With more technology available electricity is inadequate at the high school. “We've blown circuits. We blew some today,” Webster said. Instead of adding more power, an audit would ensure improvements are made in the most cost effective way, Webster said.
*Eventually adding eight more classrooms to McMahon Elementary School, probably not until 2013.
All of the above improvements should buy enough time and space, until Lewiston's new elementary school is built to replace Martel, which is expected to get state funding and be built by 2015-16.
While School Committee members praised the plan, they had questions and concerns.
Paul Dumont pointed out that there's little room for buses and cars at the Multi-Purpose Center and adjacent Longley Elementary School.
“It's a great idea, but I'm thinking of the hassle you'll have to go through picking up kids in the morning from their homes, dropping them off" he said. "You've got a lot of young mothers and dads picking up and dropping off those kids. That could be a problem.”
Webster acknowledged that Dumont had a good point, and added that the pre-K center could have different start and end times to avoid parking lot problems.