School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan had five schools placed on the state's Major Capital School Construction Program priority list. North Elementary School, pictured here, was second on the list, released in August 2018. Credit: Courtesy of School Administrative District 54

Classic with a splash of modern is the direction School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan is heading as it works on the concept design for a multimillion-dollar facility that will consolidate four elementary schools and a preschool program.

The consolidated elementary school, projected to open in August 2025, may feature a library that caters to different age groups, a flexible physical education facility and design details such as lighting, ventilation, plenty of storage space and good acoustics in the cafeteria, which is where a stage would be built for presentations and performances.

The state recognized the need for a new school in August 2018, when the Maine Department of Education’s Major Capital School Construction Program priority list was released, but the conversation has been under way for years, Superintendent Jonathan Moody said. The district is moving into a pivotal phase, where educational specifications will be fused with the ideas of staff and community members to create concept designs for the building.

Five of the district’s schools — North Elementary, Bloomfield Elementary, Canaan Elementary, Skowhegan Area High School and Somerset Career & Technical Center and Margaret Chase Smith School — were placed on the priority list. North Elementary, which was built in 1950 and will be demolished, was in second place on a list of 74 schools across the state.

SAD 54 enrolls students from Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

Stephen Blatt Architects of Portland — which designed and built Skowhegan Area Middle School and Mill Stream Elementary School — has held three public meetings to answer questions and collect input from district employees and the public.

In July, the state board approved Margaret Chase Smith School as the site for the new elementary. Other locations and costs were considered, architect Stephen Blatt said during the most recent public meeting, which was held in late October.

The concept plan for School Administrative District 54’s new elementary school, which is set to open in August 2025. The new school will be built at the site of Margaret Chase Smith School. Credit: Courtesy of School Administrative District 54

The state will fully fund the elementary school if the district and architects follow its parameters. Additional spaces and features would need to be locally funded, Moody said.

“What they [the state] said initially is likely in the neighborhood of $50 [million] to $60 million,” he said. “There has actually been no cost associated with it, but that’s a ballpark figure for a school of this size.”

The new school will serve families with children from birth through fifth grade. Students from Bloomfield Elementary, first through third grades; Canaan Elementary, third through fifth grades;

Margaret Chase Smith School, fourth and fifth grades; and North Elementary, prekindergarten through kindergarten will attend school in the new building.

The school will also include a birth to toddler program for children, which is run through the district’s partnership with the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program.

“The state has agreed to fund a portion of that but we’re going to have to raise private dollars to fund those additional spaces in the school because it’s not in the state formula. … It’s really neat because those kids come to school at SAD 54 as infants and they’ll be here 18 years if they graduate,” Moody said.

Canaan Elementary School will instruct students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Mill Stream Elementary School will still offer pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

A newly constructed elementary will make students’ transitions through the district more seamless, the superintendent said. Some students have moved between three elementary schools depending on their grade level.

“When you think about it that way, some of our in-town Skowhegan kiddos had four different transitions before they got to middle school,” Moody said. “This new building would take those three elementary schools and make one elementary school out of it.”

Requests and wishes for the new elementary vary among district employees, but most teachers have highlighted the need for flexible classroom space that allows for dynamic instruction, Moody said. For example, spaces that can be used for small group instruction and intervention programming both in and outside of classrooms.

Blatt and another key architect on the project, Doug Breer, said during the last public meeting they are considering everything from window lighting and LED lighting that can be regulated in classrooms to whether bathrooms should be placed in classrooms or in communal spaces.

The elementary needs to be tailored to the young population learning there. Tables and chairs, for example, should be appropriate to grade levels. For some students, this is their first experience leaving home during the day, Blatt said.

“We want to make sure the school is pretty small in scale,” he said. “Not industrial. Not terribly, terribly, terribly modern in any way. That’s not what Skowhegan and all your towns around it — that’s not what’s there. It’s important that our buildings work. We also want to make sure our building fits and feels good in that really nice Heselton neighbourhood.”

The state board, fire marshal’s office and Maine Department of Transportation will review concept designs, according to the project timeline.

Sara Everett, a behavior specialist who works at four of the schools, asked whether the design will keep students with disabilities in mind.

Behavioral classrooms can be noisy, so they will likely be built on the perimeter of the school, Blatt said. It would be beneficial to have them near activity spaces such as the gymnasium and the art room, he noted.

Sarah Young, who teaches third grade at Bloomfield Elementary, said she would like to see staff-only bathrooms, conference rooms where staff members and parents can meet and a dedicated space for after-school programs with a potential kitchen and storage.

“The other thing, in recent light of things, are student gender-neutral bathrooms and making sure we have that in mind,” she said.

SAD 54 is also making progress on its $3.17 million Skowhegan Area Middle School project, which includes the expansion of five classrooms and the cafeteria and will be funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. All of the district’s sixth-graders will attend the revamped school. Voters approved the expansion in August.

A secondary benefit of the change allows Canaan and Mill Stream elementary schools to expand pre-kindergarten programming, Moody said.

The district plans to break ground this spring and complete the expansion in early winter of next year. Sixth-graders will likely move into the middle school at the start of the 2023-24 school year.