A Portland-based nonprofit has won a five-year, $20 million U.S. Department of Education grant to expand a program that helps high school freshmen, officials announced Thursday.

Spurwink, which provides mental health and educational services for children, adults and families, has already raised the $1 million in private matching funds needed to receive the grant.

The grant is the biggest ever received by the organization, said Susan Savelle, director of the Spurwink Center for Positive Youth Development.

The grant is part of a nationwide project to test a team-teaching approach designed more than 15 years ago by a Minnesota high school counselor to improve student achievement.

Spurwink will use the money to expand the Building Assets – Reducing Risks program to four additional schools in Maine, and more than 40 schools in four other states, reaching almost 150,000 students and 11,600 teachers.

The BARR program already exists in 17 Maine schools. At one rural school, the graduation rate went from 73 percent to 91 percent after adopting the program, Savelle said.

“This is really a huge national project that Spurwink is heading,” Savelle said. “The results we got from the first grant really showed this made a difference and that evidence is driving our desire to make this model available to more schools in Maine and around the country.”

Spurwink previously received $17 million in two rounds of federal funding, in 2010 and 2013, to launch and expand the BARR program.

The Investing in Innovation grants announced by the Department of Education total $103 million. If all the grantees secure their matching private sector funds, the federal government will have funded 172 innovation grants at more than $1.4 billion, in addition to more than $260 million in private sector funding.

The Department of Education describes the BARR program as a “structured, tag-team approach” targeting ninth-graders. Under the BARR program, teams of ninth-grade teachers, counselors, social workers and others are assigned “blocks” of freshmen. They meet regularly to discuss individual students’ progress and the entire group is responsible for the overall progress of all students in the block.

At the Minnesota school where it first was implemented, the program cut ninth-grade failure rates in half and more than doubled the number of students choosing to take rigorous advanced placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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