March 27 is Maine Maple Sunday, an annual event when the state’s sugarhouses offer maple syrup samples and demonstrations on how Maine maple syrup is made. This year, the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS) will be among the farms and other maple producers showcasing the sweet stuff, as PATHS holds a grand opening of its new student-built Maple House.
The PATHS’ maple syrup event will take place this Sunday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on the grounds of the school, located at 196 Allen Avenue. The new sugarhouse won’t have enough maple syrup to sell, but visitors can get a taste of the sweet stuff and see how it’s made. They also can enjoy live music from students in the PATHS music program and buy a children’s book titled “How to Tap a Maple” by Maine author Stephanie Mulligan.
Visitors also can appreciate the new sugarhouse, which was able to move from concept to reality over several years due to the perseverance of staff and students and the help of a variety of community partners. The project has provided valuable learning experiences for PATHS students in programs as varied as masonry, carpentry, welding, marine sciences and landscapes and gardening – and will continue to be a catalyst for learning into the future.
The sugarhouse will allow the school to hold its own PATHS Maine Maple Sunday celebration every year and be a focal point for other learning, said Kathleen Tarpo, instructor for the school’s Landscapes & Gardens program.
“The Maple Sunday celebration will be an annual event that gives students an opportunity to plan and engage in an agritourism event,” Tarpo said. “As this project has progressed, the vision and excitement for how it will be used has grown. The Landscapes & Gardens class will be using the sugarhouse every year to process sap that they collect on campus as part of a real agriculture project that involves learning about trees. The maple syrup will be used in culinary programs, and to offer tastes for now. We don’t make enough maple syrup to sell but will use it for educational purposes.”
Tarpo said the assistance of community partners was key to making the PATHS sugarhouse become a reality. The idea for the Maple House came about as the result of a School Ground Greening Grant from Portland Trails in 2017, she said. Portland Trails organized a design charrette with many stakeholders to decide how to best use an overgrown space behind the PATHS building, next to the greenhouse. A sugarhouse was decided upon as the central feature of the space, one that could serve as a place for farm-to-table learning experiences for students, Tarpo said.
Next, in the summer of 2018, the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association chose the PATHS campus as its annual volunteer work project. That organization generously donated machines, people, plants and hardscape materials to clear, rework and replant the whole space, Tarpo said. “Rosemont Market donated food for this event,” she said, “and Lyle Merrifield, of Merrifield Farm in Gorham donated his time, drew up the plans for our sugarhouse and helped us determine what evaporator was appropriate for our small operation.” Also, Jason Lilley, a sustainable agriculture and maple professional with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, recently helped students run lines from multiple trees to a single container to collect sap.
After the school secured a building permit in February 2020, “the foundation work started in March right after we had to shut down for COVID,” Tarpo said. “The carpentry students started building in fall of 2020 and finished this spring. The marine systems students helped set up the evaporator. There are quite a few additional student projects that can be considered in the future to finish this project.”
For example, Tarpo said, carpentry students will add inside details to the sugarhouse, such as a countertop and shelves. Students in the Landscapes & Gardens program will use the sugarhouse for PATHS harvest celebrations in the fall, which include a cider-pressing demonstration. That program also can use the structure for its retail sales, including its spring plant sale. PATHS students will also be completing landscaping and hardscaping projects at the site.
The PATHS sugarhouse also will provide a learning opportunity for younger students. For example, the STEM and Wabanaki Studies teacher-leaders are creating a Wabanaki Studies and Science unit for kindergarten students in the Portland Public Schools. Students will experience storytelling and oral traditions, as well as notice and wonder about the natural world using their five senses. Students will go on nature walks to see what changes happen to the schoolyard throughout the seasons. In the late winter, they will give thanks to the maple trees for sharing their sweetness, an idea explained by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Classes will go to PATHS to tour the sugarhouse and celebrate Maple Thanksgiving the week leading up to Maine Maple Sunday.
“This unique project serves as a showcase for the variety and breadth of the nearly 20 learning programs that PATHS offers to students in Portland and from surrounding communities, and highlights the importance of career and technical education learning,” said Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana. “I commend PATHS students and staff for all their hard work in making this sugarhouse a success. The Portland Public Schools also is very grateful to the varied community partners for all their help in making the PATHS Maple House become a reality.”
The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 60 languages. 52 percent of the district’s students are white and 48 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.