PORTLAND – In what could become a hot topic this fall, the Portland school district has quietly begun re-examining its out-of-neighborhood placement program, which allows parents to choose their children’s elementary and middle schools.

By October, the administration hopes to present a new set of policies for the program to the school board, said David Galin, the district’s chief academic officer.

The district can’t legally end the program and doesn’t want to, but it has already begun restricting movement between schools.

In the past, as many as 20 percent of students in kindergarten through eighth grade used out-of-neighborhood placement, Galin said. For 2010-11, that number fell to 6.1 percent, according to figures provided by the district.

The administration caused the decline by largely blocking out-of-neighborhood placement into the Longfellow, Ocean Avenue and Presumpscot elementary schools.

Longfellow and Presumpscot — oft-requested schools — have reached capacity based on their current staffing levels, Galin said.

In the past, the district has added teachers and other staffing to the more popular schools to accommodate extra out-of-neighborhood placement requests. But school officials no longer want to do that, Galin said, because it takes staffing and resources away from the less requested schools.

“We want all of our schools to be excellent,” he said.

Because of guidelines established by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the district can’t end out-of-neighborhood placement.

Under those guidelines, schools deemed “Continuous Improvement Priority Schools” because of low test scores — including Portland’s Riverton and East End elementary schools and Lincoln Middle School — must give students the option of out-of-neighborhood placement.

Also, placement is important for students who are interested in unique programs, Galin said.

Programs like Many Rivers at Hall Elementary or the functional life skills classes at East End might benefit a child who doesn’t live in those schools’ neighborhoods.

Beyond those exceptions, the district would like to provide a similar educational and social experience across all 10 elementary schools, Galin said. Officials believe that will deter many out-of-neighborhood requests.

The schools have very different socioeconomic environments.

At East End Elementary, for example, about 80 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. That’s nearly quadruple the 22 percent of children at Longfellow Elementary who are eligible for that program.

“We’d like to have the same demographics across each school,” Galin said. “We want all our schools to look like the city of Portland.”

Part of the program’s flaws may be logistical.

No written policies exist to govern out-of-neighborhood placement and determine which requests are approved by Galin’s office and which aren’t.

Also, the school doesn’t advertise that out-of-neighborhood placement is available, and some parents may not know they have the option, said Sarah Thompson, a school board member.

If that’s the case, only children with engaged parents can take advantage of the system, which means others are less likely to end up at the more desired schools, said Nancy Jennings, an education policy expert from Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Thompson said written policies and more advertisement could help work out some flaws in the program and help determine who should be approved. But on the whole, she thinks it works and shouldn’t be curtailed.

“A child doesn’t thrive in every environment,” said Thompson, who used out-of-neighborhood placement to send one of her children to Longfellow Elementary. “The choice allows the parents to find the school where the children will thrive best, which should be our most important concern.”

The process to discuss any changes to the system just began, Thompson said. The school board held its first workshop in May and it will likely resume discussions when it reconvenes in August.

In the interim, the district will try to offer new programs at the less requested schools — like free preschool for 4-year-olds at Riverton — to try to entice parents to keep their kids in their neighborhood schools.

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at:

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