ARPA funding for an initiative of The Opportunity Alliance will make the new South Portland middle school, now under construction on Wescott Road, a Community School. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

When the new South Portland Middle School opens next year it will be the city’s first designated Community School.

The Community School model of education relies on a coordinated approach by families, educators and social service organizations to provide resources to overcome obstacles, such as homelessness, food insecurity and a lack of health care, that stand in the way of success for students. Partners for Thriving Youth, an initiative of The Opportunity Alliance’s public health program, will use $664,000 in city American Rescue Plan Act funding to implement the model at the middle school over a four-year period.

“It’s not a program add-on,” said Jean Cousins, a consultant for the Partners for Thriving Youth initiative. “It’s an approach to schooling in response to just an urgent level of needs that we’re sort of seeing across the board.”

The offerings of Community Schools include after-school programs, in-school health services and extra academic support. The programs evolve as students’ needs change.

The model, endorsed by the National Education Association, has become increasingly popular nationwide, according to the NEA. Cousins helped implement Community Schools in New York City, securing funding and developing new school partnerships.

“Community Schools are for everyone,” she said. “It’s also a really important equity strategy. We really put those young people and families who are furthest from the opportunity at the center of our focus.”


South Portland schools have seen a spike in housing-vulnerable students, those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

Roughly 10% of South Portland’s 3,099 students are eligible for services under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, according to the school department. South Portland schools serve roughly 20% of the state’s McKinney-Vento eligible students but serve just 1.6% of the state’s overall student population.

“We have had a huge rise in McKinney-Vento students,” said Rebecca Stern, principal of Memorial Middle School in South Portland. “We’re really looking broadly at what the barriers are for students doing well in school and reducing those barriers.”

The ARPA funds, awarded in June, will cover the four-year project period and pay for a full-time community school director and a full-time family partnerships coordinator, along with other costs.

“The director’s role is to support the implementation of a four-pillared model, and lead an initial needs assessment,” said Bridget O’Connor, director of the public health program at The Opportunity Alliance. “The family partnerships coordinator is really that boots-on-the-ground level of staff who directly supports families, and also has the ability to identify ways to systematically support families through either town or school policies.”

The four “pillars” of a Community School are integrated student support; expanded and enriched learning opportunities; active family and community engagement; and collaborative leadership and practices. The aim is to give students substantial, long-lasting resources and services, and collaboration is key to making a Community School successful.


“It’s tapping into the vast network of organizations that are within the community, to buoy the school community,” O’Connor said.

“There’s a lot of really great stuff happening in the city of South Portland that supports youth and families,” Cousins added. “It’s really about bringing all those people together – aligned goals, sharing resources, sharing ideas.”

The model has been implemented in other municipalities in Maine, including Biddeford and Portland. The Maine Department of Education hopes to provide start-up funding for 10 additional schools in the latter half of the decade.

The Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland is in its second year of implementing the model and has seen measured success in providing after-school programs for 150, or one-third, of its students in grades 2-5, according to its community school coordinator.

“Pre and post-survey data from one of the programs showed that students involved reported greater connection to peers and adults, an increased sense of belonging at the school, and improved confidence,” Kristin Rogers said in an email to The Forecaster. “This year, we will continue to build on this success by expanding these offerings and will also shift our focus slightly to another goal: promoting family and community involvement.”

Talbot Community School, formerly Riverton Elementary, will host a series of events throughout the school year, including resource fairs and “homework diners,” with each focused on a different academic theme, Rogers said.


“These events are designed to bring students, families, and staff together to promote student learning outside of school,” she said. “Each event is a great opportunity to build family-school relationships, offer a free, healthy meal, and provide academic support and connection.”

An advisory board will be formed at the new South Portland school, made up of parents, students, educators, and social workers, among others.

“That really ensures that all people impacted by schools are at the table in terms of decision-making,” O’Connor said.

The new middle school, to be located on Wescott Road, will replace the Mahoney and Memorial middle schools and combine grades 5-8 in one building. It is expected to be ready for students by next school year.

Stern believes the Community School Model will help create equal opportunity for all South Portland students.

“When we partner together, the goal is to ensure that all students can reach their highest potential in whatever they want to do with their lives,” she said. “They can dream big when they have the resources they need.”

An architect’s rendering of the South Portland Middle School now under construction. Contributed / WBRC Architects-Engineers

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