PORTLAND – Parents of students in the Many Rivers program at Hall Elementary School can no longer raise money separately from the school’s parent-teacher organization.

Superintendent Jim Morse has stopped the longstanding practice and established a task force to help parents in both groups blend future fundraising efforts for field trips, artist visits and classroom supplies.

The move is the latest by Morse, at the direction of the School Committee, to increase equality among the city’s 10 elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools.

Many Rivers is a 25-year-old program within Hall School that features multi-age classrooms and project-based learning for students in grades one through five. It is funded by the school district within the Hall School budget and overseen by Principal Kelly Hasson.

Students are selected in a districtwide lottery, though Hall School students and siblings of Many Rivers students are given preference in the selection process.

Despite the exclusive aspects of Many Rivers, Morse said he has no plans to discontinue or expand the program. The goal, he said, is to end competitive fundraising between the Hall School PTO and the Friends of Many Rivers.

“We’re trying to fix a disequalizer within the school,” Morse said. “There is no intent on my part to disrupt a successful program.”

Morse, who became Portland’s superintendent a year ago, has made promoting equality a priority, especially related to budgeting, staffing, building maintenance and curriculum development. The goal isn’t to make all schools the same, he says, but to ensure that all students have access to the same financial resources and educational opportunities.

Last year, the Hall School PTO raised $30,000 through auctions, bake sales and other events, Hasson said. The money is used for programs that benefit the entire school. That works out to about $1,154 for each of Hall School’s 26 classrooms, including the five Many Rivers classrooms. Many parents of Many Rivers students are active in the PTO.

The Many Rivers group raised $10,000 last year through similar events. That provides an additional $2,000 for learning projects in each Many Rivers classroom. The projects often benefit other students in the school.

Daphne Howland, a leader of the Many Rivers group and a member of the task force, said most Many Rivers parents support doing away with separate fundraising.

“The majority of Many Rivers parents want things to be fair,” Howland said. “Everyone wants the money piece to be corrected.”

Amy Abbott, a task force member whose children attend regular classes at Hall School, said ending separate fundraising is a positive step toward ensuring equal opportunity in funding for all students.

“I think we can make this change without impacting academic programming for Many Rivers students,” Abbott said. “I think having more learning options for students is great. Many Rivers is one of many wonderful programs at Hall School, including those for special education students and (students who are learning to speak English).”

Started by Hall School parents, Many Rivers serves 100 of 475 students who attend the elementary school on Orono Road off outer Brighton Avenue, Hasson said. The program is staffed by four full-time teachers and two part-time teachers. Two classes serve students in grades one and two; three classes serve students in grades three through five.

Eighteen first-graders are selected by lottery each year to enter the program, Hasson said. Nine slots are earmarked for students from the Hall School neighborhood; nine slots are open to students from other Portland neighborhoods.

However, siblings of Many Rivers students are guaranteed slots, which reduces the number of openings for other families. Siblings are taking nine slots in the coming year, Hasson said.

The program and the annual spring lottery are featured on the Many Rivers page on the school’s website, but they’re not widely publicized. Still, there’s a list of first-graders waiting to get into the program each year, Hasson said.

When Many Rivers started in the mid-1980s, its experiential, hands-on approach offered a unique alternative to traditional classrooms, Hasson said. Today, project-based, multi-age classrooms are more common, especially in schools that practice the Expeditionary Learning model promoted by Outward Bound.

In Portland, Casco Bay High School, King Middle School and East End and Presumpscot elementary schools follow the Expeditionary Learning model.

“There isn’t a huge distinction anymore between what happens in a Many Rivers classroom and what happens in other classrooms,” Hasson said. “But we realized there were some vast inequities in resources.”

The Many Rivers group can use the money it raised last year as it sees fit this coming year, Hasson said. The task force set up to address future fundraising will meet for the first time in late August. It includes a cross section of parents, teachers and administrators.

The task force will focus exclusively on combining fundraising efforts of the two parent groups. Going beyond that could get “dicey,” Abbott said, considering how many different groups raise money in Portland schools, from individual classrooms to sports booster groups.

“How far do you go to ensure equality in schools?” Abbott asked rhetorically.

The long-term impact of the fundraising change on Many Rivers remains to be seen. Abbott and Howland agree that it could lead to future conversations about opening the program to more students.

“I think it’s good to offer more choices based on a variety of students’ learning needs,” Abbott said.

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

kbouchard@pressherald.com