PORTLAND, Maine — Portland Adult Education moved its academic classes into a former elementary school building on Douglass Circle in what was intended to be a temporary home. That was nearly 27 years ago.
Now the public program, which annually serves approximately 2,500 students who are seeking to finish high school or refresh job skills, needs a permanent home. And fast.
The nearly 50-year-old West School, where adult education officials have toiled for nearly three decades, is falling apart and can’t continue to be used for the program next year, Director Rob Wood said.
The only current alternative for the program is to split classes between Portland High School and the vacant Cathedral School in the fall, another temporary solution that would reduce classroom space and squeeze a group that already has a waiting list in the hundreds.
Program academic adviser Anja Hanson said it’s important to stabilize the adult education program for students because many consider these classes their path to a better life.
Around 200 will receive high school diplomas or equivalent certifications in a graduation ceremony Thursday night at Merrill Auditorium.
“[Many of the students are] in poverty, they’re refugees, they’re already homeless — the uncertainty surrounding what has become an important part of their daily routines has really been disruptive,” she said. “It’s been a revelation how much people count on this program. It’s really very sad how this has affected them, because out of many worries in their lives, this wasn’t something they had to worry about until now.”
Wood said the West School “was the best space we could find” for a long time.
“Unfortunately, maintenance has been deferred over the years and the building is not in good shape presently,” he said.
When the furnace broke in February, a portable furnace had to be trucked in to heat the facility through the remainder of the winter, said Wood. Exacerbating matters, the roof began leaking “extensively” in March.
“We don’t have a price tag [to repair the current school], but both the School Department and the city are convinced it’s not worth it,” Woods said. “It’s in the millions of dollars.”
Portland Public Schools officials are trying to build public support for an ambitious $71.7 million facilities renovation plan that would upgrade or replace five schools. The project would need to be funded partially by a $39.9 million voter-approved bond. That plan doesn’t include repairs to the West School, which no longer houses traditional elementary-level classes.
Wood said Portland Adult Education leaders weren’t expecting to be included in the districtwide facilities upgrade plan and acknowledged that a large, state-of-the-art building like what’s being proposed to replace the deteriorating Fred P. Hall School would likely be more than his program needs.
“Our needs are more basic, but we do need a dry, safe, accessible building,” he said.
Unless another option emerges this summer, the group will relocate to five available classrooms at Portland High School and four in the now-closed Cathedral School, still owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine. Currently, the adult education program uses 12 classrooms for its academic courses and has a waiting list of 150 prospective students.
“With the possibility of using Portland High and Cathedral, I don’t know whether the waiting list could get longer with less space,” Wood said.
A plan to house the entire Portland Adult Education operation in the Cathedral School fell apart about a month ago, said Hanson. The annual lease payments to occupy so much of the property would likely have been prohibitive for the Cathedral School to have been a long-term solution, Wood said.
Now adult education officials are back to square one, and are seeking suggestions — or offers of space — from the public.
“It was really only a month ago that we got word that plans had shifted, so we are feeling a sense of urgency and panic,” Hanson said. “The students have never once complained about the leaking classrooms or the leaking bathrooms — they’ve only expressed concerns about where will we be.”