Lewiston groups win grant to plan alternative high school

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LEWISTON — Lewiston may get a second new school in the fall of 2019, thanks to private foundation.

On Tuesday, the Boston-based Barr Foundation announced it is awarding a $150,000 grant to Tree Street Youth Center to work with Lewiston Public Schools and Wayfinder Schools to plan an alternative high school in the Longley school building to help students, who are not on track, to graduate.

If the Barr Foundation approves the plan the schools put together, it would award another $750,000 to get the project up and running. It’s part of the Barr Foundation’s  “Engage New England: Doing high school differently” initiative.

That kind of money will be a big boost to Lewiston Public Schools, said Superintendent Bill Webster, answering a great need for students.

“We have the largest public high school in Maine. A number of students are less successful in that large environment than they would be in a smaller environment,” Webster said.

High school guidance counselors said they’d have no trouble identifying 200 or more students “who would be more successful in the type of program that will come out of this grant,” Webster said. And, the high school is near capacity. “We’re expecting another 200 students” around 2019.    

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As planned, the alternative school would open when Lewiston’s new Connors Elementary School is complete, leaving the Longley school vacant.

The goal would be to give students not experiencing success in high school different ways of learning, such as more personal guidance, hands-on learning and more flexibility, said Tree Street President Julia Sleeper.

As planned, the alternative school would eventually house 200 students in grades 9-12, Sleeper said.

Sleeper said she’d use practices that she’s learned since opening Tree Street six years ago, a drop-in summer and after-school program considered wildly successful, to help students in the new, smaller high school environment.

“Because we’re an afterschool program we see kids in different ways than schools are able to,” Sleeper said. “It’s always been one of our goals to collaborate and help schools get creative.”

Ways to help students struggling socially or emotionally are not traditional methods, Sleeper said. “A lot of times classroom teachers don’t have benefit of knowing something that is going on.” When a student is struggling with something, “we can lend ourselves to help that student navigate that before they step into a classroom.”

Wayfinder Schools has worked with Tree Street to help at-risk students.

Executive Director Paul Andrews said they’re pleased to partner with Tree Street and Lewiston schools and “be part of this exciting new initiative to serve more Maine youth.”

The idea to establish a school for at-risk students started when someone sent Sleeper a Barr Foundation grant application.

“I started reading it. I got excited,” Sleeper said. “I sent it to my colleagues at Wayfinder and Lewiston Public Schools. It sounded like this dream we’ve always had. … We all put our heads together.”

Sleeper wrote the grant application.

Tree Street is one of two Maine organizations that won a Barr grant, and one of nine in New England, according to Leah Hamilton of the Barr Foundation. Fifty organizations applied for funding, she said. “It was competitive.”

Others chosen were Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine, and public and private schools from Massachusetts and Connecticut.

All of the organizations chosen “shared a few things,” Hamilton said. “A deep commitment to supporting the success of the students they’re serving, a commitment that reflected high expectations” to ensure students graduate from high school college as career ready.

The groups selected also demonstrated commitment to rigorous school program designs, “a deep understanding of who their students are,” as well as what help is available in their communities, Hamilton said.

Lewiston’s proposal that combines forces of Tree Street, Wayfinder and Lewiston Public Schools “we found very exciting,” Hamilton said. “It’s rare to see that kind of cross sector. It’s something we want to support.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

Julia Sleeper of Tree Street Youth has won a grant to work with Lewiston Public Schools and Wayfinder Schools to plan for an alternative high school in the Longley school building.

Tree Street history

LEWISTON — Seeing a need to help youngsters, Sleeper, a Bates College graduate, founded Tree Street with fellow Bates graduate Kim Sullivan.

In 2011, the two raised $6,000 to rent part of the 144 Howe St. building and started a summer youth drop-in program.

Today the center is open year-round. Hundreds of downtown youths attend free programs, from sports to dance to tutoring. High school students, called “Street Leaders,” mentor younger students.

Operating with donations and grants, Tree Street now not only owns the Howe Street building, it completed a $1.3 million campaign that doubled and modernized its space.

Since it opened, Tree Street started a program to help high school students apply to colleges. It also collaborates with the Lewiston School Department in offering  restorative justice and summer programs.

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