An image shows what the proposed addition to Lewiston High School might look like. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Math teacher Kathleen Knight is a three-year veteran of switching classrooms at Lewiston High School. In hallways filled with students, Knight battles for space between classes, pushing a cart covered with her books and supplies to teach a geometry or statistics course in a classroom that changes each period.

She moved up in the ranks this year — all classes are on one floor so no elevator required — that wasn’t the case the previous two years. Having classes throughout the building on different floors in different wings, Knight would ride the one freight elevator, while moving through congested hallways to reach her scheduled classroom.

The traveling teacher brigade has less time with their students between periods, can not decorate their classrooms and have minimal time to set up before class.

This year there are 17 traveling teachers.

What began a few years ago as building a long-awaited performing arts center has turned into a classroom wing expansion that meets the needs of Lewiston High School, which is nearly 50 years olds.

“It has metamorphosized quite a bit since then,” said Jay Dufour, assistant principal of Lewiston High School. “We’re really trying to look at all of the needs of the school. We’ve reached capacity where room usage is almost 100% capacity almost every period.

“It’s getting to the point where if we wanted to add additional classes or additional programs, we ask ourselves where are we going to put those things,” Dufour added.

The proposed $13.4 million expansion plan, if approved Nov. 5, would move special education students plus others studying the visual and performing arts out of the basement and into the new wing. It would also enable members of the traveling teachers brigade, like Knight, to finally get their own classroom.  The proposal would improve security at the main entrance and add an ADA-compliant elevator, which the building lacks.

“The classes downstairs are not as conducive to learning as they should be,” Dufour said. “We want to get our special education students, who have the highest needs, up here more in the mainstream which is where they should be.”

Officially opened 45 years ago, with the Class of 1974 as its first graduating class, the added wing could double the building’s lifespan past 100 years.

“This school was so well built and so well maintained, the city could easily get another 50 years out of it,” School Committee member Francis Gagnon said.

Into the basement

In the early 1970s, ground was broken along East Avenue for a new Lewiston High School. Construction was expected to take roughly two years to complete. To cut costs, city officials eliminated an indoor swimming pool and the auditorium, which included space and classes for band, chorus and other arts.

As teachers, students and other volunteers began moving books, boxes and other supplies to the new school during the summer of 1973, they discovered something was missing.

Where was the band room?

No one realized that the location of the band room was supposed to be in the auditorium — the same auditorium that was cut from the project before construction. Moving it into the main section of the building was never considered.

With little time remaining before the first day of school, officials scrambled and found space in the basement. The 60-plus member band settled into a crowded storage room, with no chairs for the first few months and poor acoustics.

That was the start of Lewiston holding classes in the building’s basement.

The practice has only grown over the years. With much of special education classes held there, as well as all the visual and performing art classes such as music, ceramics, piano and photography, Dufour estimates that an average of 375 to 400 students are taught every period in the basement.

Times have certainly changed since the building opened in 1973. The high school had no special education classes and it would be a few more years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. School safety is an ongoing concern.

The expansion addresses all of that.

“If you think of anything that is truly born of need, there is a promise that is attached to that more so than bricks, mortar and windows,” Superintendent Todd Finn said. “This is a promise that this community is embracing that promise. We know we can do better, we know our kids deserve better, our teachers deserve better. And when we get this, if we are so blessed on Nov. 5,  to be able to break ground on it. We will have earned that.”

Three-part plan

A group of educators and residents began meeting a couple of years ago on a proposal to build a performing arts center at the high school.

Other needs soon became more apparent, and the proposal soon became part of a three-part plan.

“The performance arts are just one piece of the expansion,” Dufour said. “We’re really trying to look at all of the needs of the school.”

The first part was more parking. A new parking lot was built last summer near the main entrance with about 50 spaces added.

More parking was planned, but School Committee member Gagnon saw a problem when he looked at the drawings.The parking lot and the classroom wing overlapped.

“It didn’t seem to make much sense to build a parking lot and then tear it up for the new wing,” Gagnon said.

The second stage is the proposed classroom wing that will be voted on in November. The two-story wing will host art, music, drama and special education classes that are now held in the basement.

The third stage would be the performing arts center, likely several years down the road.

With no state money available, the project will get funded by taxpayers. Bonded over 20 years, the $13.4 million expansion will cost the average Lewiston taxpayer with a $150,000 home a net tax increase of $72 per year, according to the expansion committee.

Another important feature of the expansion is the increased security at the main entrance. Like the middle school, the main office could screen visitors in an area separate from students before they are allowed in the school.

If approved, the next question will be what to do with all the open space in the basement. Dufour had some thoughts about repurposing the space for new programs and projects, such as IT (there was no IT when the school was built), storage, maintenance, and rooms for coaches.

He would also like to find appropriate space somewhere for coding and digital media.

Finn believes the new classroom wing, including the performing and visual arts class space on the first floor, will only help his initiative to improve graduation rates, absenteeism and student morale.

“I look at some things that we’re very good at in Lewiston as far as our arts education goes,” Finn said. “We do really well in the arts. Our kids are really amazing, and yet we have no arts coordinator and no arts wing here per se, but this will provide some more space for the kids to do even more.”

“We do great things in there,” said ceramics teacher Jody Dube. “I can’t imagine how much better we’re going to be.”

“Can you imagine if John Mayer never got a guitar,” Finn said. “He’s probably the best guitar player in the world right now. What if he never picked one up when he was in sixth grade. What about our kids here who will never understand how talented they truly are because they are so limited with what they’ve  got.”

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