A struggling Maine elementary school is considering an innovative idea to keep its doors open and serve its community’s youngest and oldest residents: turn half of its classrooms into assisted living apartments.
St. Francis Elementary School, in St. Francis, Maine, has struggled with falling enrollment over the years, currently serving 31 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
Faced with School Administrative District 27’s (SAD 27) decision to close the elementary school, announced more than five years ago, community members and school staff teamed up to think of ways to keep its doors open, Colleen McBreairty, a St. Francis Elementary School teacher, tells SHN.
The district was to vote on the possible closing last year, but agreed to table the vote to allow community members more time to come up with ideas.
“We needed to find a way to keep costs down and keep the school open,” she says. “We turned over every stone, even considering converting some of the space into a trucking school.”
But Jonathan “JJ” Roy, an owner of two existing assisted living communities in Maine —Fort Kent-based CrossWinds Residential Care and Madawaska-based Ridewood Estates — took a look at the one level, 10-classroom building and expressed interest in operating an assisted living community there.
“Half of the classrooms would be turned into apartments for assisted living,” McBreairty says, noting the school would then serve about 26 students pre-kindergarten through second grade.
“This is such an exciting opportunity,” she says, noting that if St. Francis Elementary closes its doors students will need to travel 72 miles round-trip to attend the nearest school.
“The kids could read to the elderly, and the elderly have so many great skills that they can share with the kids,” she says about the prospect of students and seniors under one roof.
Partnerships between senior communities and school systems are not uncommon in senior living. One project fosters relationships between Pennsylvania-based senior housing residents and inner-city students, with residents tutoring students in a myriad of subjects. In another project, residents of an Illinois-based continuing care retirement community (CCRC) speak to non-native English speakers in Brazil using video chat technology. The program aims to help students learn English.
In Kentucky, $3 million in funding supported the conversion of a school into 24-units of senior housing.
The plan for St. Francis Elementary School was presented during a recent school district board meeting, and the proposal would have the school district hand over ownership of the building to the town of St. Francis in exchange for part of the structure to be used to educate students from the surrounding area. The town would lease part of the space to the school district and other space to the senior living operator.
The St. Francis community has applied for a $500,000 grant that would be used for renovations to create assisted living apartments, and an engineer is scheduled to visit the site in the coming weeks to determine next steps, McBreairty says.
SAD 27 board chairman Barry Ouellette said he supported the idea during the recent school board meeting, media report.
And SAD 27 board member and Rep. John Martin told the board he has introduced legislation to pave the way for the town of St. Francis to take over the school building without the board first voting to close the school.
“The law clearly does not envision that kind of set-up,” Martin said following the meeting, according to Bangor Daily News. “Clearly there has to be some changes in the law.”
Roy confirmed his interest in the proposal to SHN, but said “it’s too early to tell” whether the plan will come to fruition.
Written by Cassandra Dowell