PORTLAND – School officials are planning to move Clifford Elementary School students into Portland’s new Ocean Avenue Elementary School in January — eight months ahead of schedule.

The $14.2 million school is expected to be completed and furnished by Thanksgiving, so Clifford students could start attending classes in the new building when they return from Christmas break.

“We’re planning for that contingency,” Superintendent Jim Morse said Wednesday. “It becomes more and more realistic as the project nears completion.”

Morse said Clifford Principal Beverly Coursey and her staff have indicated that they would like to move as soon as possible. He plans to meet with Clifford students’ parents after school starts in September to make sure they support a move in January.

The school for 440 students was scheduled to be built and ready to furnish by May 2011, and open to students in September 2011.

The school is on track to be completed early because of favorable weather and good planning, according to contractors on the state-funded project. It’s also $5.4 million under budget because the recession increased competition among contractors and reduced the cost of some materials.

At the construction site on Wednesday, workers were paving driveways, hanging doors in classrooms and installing heating and cooling ducts in the cafeteria. The interior design has a subtle nature theme, with building materials reflecting the colors and shapes of the ocean, mountains, forest and agriculture.

The new school has many features that the 103-year-old Clifford School on Falmouth Street doesn’t have, including a cafeteria and a gym.

Clifford’s students eat in their classrooms or in basement space shared with an art teacher. They attend gym classes in another basement room, which has massive columns wrapped with carpet to prevent injury.

“It will be a big change,” said Mike Johanning, project manager for WBRC Architects-Engineers of Portland. “When Clifford students came here last spring and saw the new gym, one of them asked where the columns were.”

In addition to 300 Clifford students, the new school will serve about 90 families in the neighborhood that once used the Baxter Elementary School, which was torn down to make way for the Ocean Avenue School. Students in those families now attend the Presumpscot, Longfellow, Riverton and Lyseth elementary schools.

Morse said he plans to meet with parents of those students before developing guidelines to bring them to the Ocean Avenue Elementary School, likely starting in September 2011.

Fifth-graders likely won’t be forced to move to the new school, he said, but each of the other schools has crowding issues that make a timely transition necessary.

“We need to be humane and thoughtful in how we bring the Baxter neighborhood students back to the Ocean Avenue school,” Morse said. “We’ll have to play it by ear.”

If the transition goes smoothly, it will bode well for future building projects, school officials said. They’re working on plans to replace or renovate several of Portland’s 10 elementary schools, depending on availability of state funding.

They’re also preparing to tackle the controversial subject of redistricting within the next few years, which could force residents to reconsider their definition of neighborhood schools.

“We need to communicate with parents and students to make sure this transition goes well,” said Jaimey Caron, chairman of the School Committee’s facilities subcommittee.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]