Uneven enrollment at Portland’s two largest high schools leads to staffing and programming issues that lead the district to discuss a three-school lottery as an option to replace the current school choice system.
The enrollment gap between Portland and Deering high schools is around 200 students following a change that began in the fall of 2019, when Portland High’s freshman class of 266 students exceeded by far Deering’s freshman class of 138 for the first time in recent history.
Portland High now has 906 students compared to Deering’s 719. The third high school in the district, Casco Bay, has a ceiling of 400 students and 398 enrollments. Admission to Casco Bay is by lottery, while there is an unlimited choice between the other two schools.
“The current practice is driving these wild fluctuations which are causing programmatic challenges for schools,” Superintendent Xavier Botana told the school board on Tuesday. “I am concerned about this and I want the board to be aware of it. “
In fall 2019, Botana said a handful of incidents in Deering, including an unfounded rumor that a student was threatening to bring a gun to school and a lack of communication about the incidents, helped reduce the number of families choosing Deering that year. Another factor was a facility survey that proposed a change in use for Deering which ultimately was not followed up.
At the time, students rushed to defend their school, with some claiming Deering was the target of rumors and misconceptions due to its higher number of economically disadvantaged students and students of color.
Botana was not available for an interview on Wednesday, but said in an email that he believed current data showed that after a huge change in 2019, the numbers have stabilized at a level where Deering is still significantly. smaller than Portland. “I don’t believe the concerns that precipitated this change persist,” he said.
However, during a presentation to the school board on Tuesday, school officials said the gap in enrollment was having an impact on staff, the courses the two schools are able to offer and the abilities of the students. students to take the courses they want, as well as athletics and co-study programs. In Deering, the school was challenged to try to maintain the same range of offerings for a smaller number of students. In Portland, some students cannot access electives and other courses due to the number of people trying to access them.
And while the teaching staff has been adjusted to match the change in enrollment, the number of other staff such as guidance counselors, social workers, and office staff has not, which has resulted in an increase in the number of cases in Portland. In Deering, there are fewer students supporting the same variety of sports and clubs, while in Portland, it is more difficult for students to secure a limited number of spots on sports teams.
In addition to the overall enrollment gap, there are disparities in the number of students of color and students entitled to a free and reduced lunch at the two schools. While Casco Bay’s demographics mirror that of the district as a whole, Deering tends to enroll students of color and students who qualify for a free and discounted lunch at above-average rates for the district, while the reverse is true in Portland.
Across the district, about 53 percent of students in Portland public schools are white and about 47 percent are students of color. In Deering, about 46 percent of students are white and about 54 percent are students of color. In Portland, about 59 percent of students are white and 41 percent are students of color.
School lunch data was skewed this year by a federal program to make meals free for all students, but last year around 60% of Deering students qualified for free and discounted meals. , compared to about 39% in Portland.
“As a Deering student, it is rather disheartening to see our school population decline over time,” said Emily Cheung, a student representative at the school board, at Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t necessarily think it’s something inherent in the (school’s choice) policy that creates this very subtle or very small segregation where over time we have more students of color and more students getting free and reduced breakfast than other schools… but I think that makes the experiences in high schools more inequitable.
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Sarah Kalonji, a senior who arrived in the city in May from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said she chose Deering because of its diversity and felt better equipped to meet the needs of immigrants and students of color. “I live five minutes from high school in Portland, but wanted to see more people like me,” Kalonji said. “Portland has people of different races, but I feel like Deering has more variation and that’s why I chose Deering High School.”
Kalonji heard from Portland High School students that they chose this school because of concerns that Deering had a reputation for fighting or having a dangerous environment, but it was not his experience. “I feel like it’s safe,” Kalonji said. “I don’t know exactly what they mean by Deering not being safe. I have the impression that they are taking that past reputation and dragging it along.
Estrela Joao, a freshman at Deering, knew from grade six that she wanted to attend school, but said many of her friends decided by grade eight that Portland was “enlightened.” Many students decide which school to go to based simply on where their friends are, she said.
“I never really felt like I belonged to Portland,” Joao said. “There are already so many children there. It’s packed and you should see people with whom you have problems. There is too much going on in Portland and Deering is just enough. Not everyone can stand to see so many people every day.
Grace Anderson, a sophomore from Portland, considered both schools during the high school selection process two years ago and ultimately opted for Portland because it’s closer to where she lives and because her brother went there and had a good experience. She said she had heard some students express their concerns about the social environment at Deering being more cliquey.
“I think it’s developed a bad reputation, but I think it’s sad because I think it’s a good school, definitely,” Anderson said.
She said choosing high school is part of what makes life in Portland special. “You can choose a more artistic school,” Anderson said. “You can go here or you can go to Deering, which seems more sports-oriented. Each school has its own unique character.
No formal action was taken or recommendations made regarding the enrollment gap on Tuesday, but school officials presented the board with some possible next steps, including a managed school selection process. more centrally, moving the selection schedule to the spring of seventh grade, determining high school placement by geographic districts and a three-school lottery.
These options were presented to the board in 2019, and since then the district has sought more support through things such as creating a centralized website and coordinating the stages of the selection process between the three schools.
Some board members, including President Emily Figdor, said on Tuesday they supported the idea of a three-school lottery.
“I appreciate the choice,” Figdor said. “I think I understand why the community values this, but I just don’t think the current system is sustainable. … It doesn’t make sense from a management perspective, whether it’s a last minute staff change, budget implications, or the possibility of having two comprehensive high schools. I am interested in considering a three school lottery where we have a choice but have some safeguards.
Portland is one of a small number of school districts in Maine with several high schools. Prior to 1979, Deering and Portland were neighborhood schools where students attended based on where they lived. The transition to choice is believed to have occurred around the time when the district established middle schools and decided to send ninth graders to both high schools. In 2005, the district founded Casco Bay and adopted its current high school selection policy, which has continued since then and was last revised in 2016.
Overall school enrollment in Portland, like much of Maine, has declined slightly in recent years, from 6,826 students in 2016 to 6,580 this year. Since at least the 2011-12 school year, Deering had tended to enroll slightly larger classes than Portland, but that suddenly changed in the fall of 2019. The first grade class at Deering had 169 students last year. against 202 in Portland. This year, Deering enrolled 167 freshmen compared to Portland’s 220.
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