Kristen, left, a student at Margaret Murphy Center School in Lewiston, works on some flash cards with education technician Kelly Pomerleau in her dedicated student work space. Her space is tucked in between two doors, utilizing a tiny space, as is typical with all of the student space in the facility. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

LEWISTON — A new school to help special education students gain vocational skills — leading to jobs — is planned to open in the summer of 2020.

The Margaret Murphy Centers for Children, a private nonprofit, will combine two existing high schools and create one school for about 80 students in grades 7 through 12, according to spokeswoman Michelle Hathaway.

“We hope to break ground in June,” she said Monday. “Our project will take about a year to complete. We’re anticipating opening late spring or early next summer.”

The $4.8 million school is planned for 5 Memorial Ave., off Main Street and behind Marden’s.

The two existing Murphy schools are on Mt. Auburn Avenue in Auburn and Main Street in Lewiston. Some students taking vocational training and social skills and academics must now travel back and forth between the schools, Hathaway said.

Most of the students are on the autism spectrum. Others have developmental disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders. Some require one-on-one instruction and supervision, while others can be taught in small groups.

Consolidating will allow the Murphy staff to better meet the needs of students and provide enhanced job training, Hathaway said.

“If we provide good training to these young adults, they’ll be successfully employed,” Hathaway said, adding several local businesses have openings they are having trouble filling.

We have 12 businesses we’re partnering with,” Hathaway said. “There’s a whole host of positions that are hard to fill.”

The school will help students get jobs in food service, as entry-level clerks at stores or stocking shelves. Advanced students will be good fits for jobs that are predictable, have routines and are consistent, she said.

The existing two Murphy schools for middle and high school students have 50 students, which means a new school of 80 students will allow needed expansion.

The Murphy programs are full and have been unable to accept referrals in the last two years, Hathaway said.

“The incidence of autism is increasing in the general population,” said Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster, adding the city of Lewiston is one of Murphy’s larger clients.

The Murphy organization does a good job and works constructively and productively with special-needs students, Webster said.

The Lewiston School Department has created or expanded in-house autism programs in four schools over the past five years, in part to save money.

As we have expanded our programming, the need has grown as much,” Webster said, adding Lewiston has the same number of students placed out of district. “It’s a reflection of the times”

Hathaway agreed.

When John F. Murphy Homes opened a school 19 years ago, “our intention was to have 10 students,” she  said. Today, it has 202 students.

The need for special education programs has skyrocketed everywhere, Hathaway said. Lewiston schools have created new programs, “but every time they build a program for 20 students, they have 40.”

The situation is similar across the country, Hathaway said.

“There are needier and needier students,” she said.

Research shows over the past 20 years, autism has risen from one in 10,000 to one in 55, Hathaway said. The reason is unknown, she and Webster said.

Childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, meanwhile, have increased other kinds of behavior and mental health disorders, according to Hathaway.

When the new school is built, it will offer small and large classrooms, a gym and fitness area, vocational training spaces, a library and assessment centers. The kitchen and cafeteria will be designed to support students learning to cook and serve food for themselves and others, Hathaway said.

A public hearing before the Lewiston Planning Board is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall.