Students arrive at Ocean Avenue Elementary for their first day of school last September, greeted by education technician Jill Marshall. The appeal of a new school apparently prompted many families to move into the Ocean Avenue district in recent months.
By Tom Bell
PORTLAND - School officials are trying to decide what to do about projected overcrowding at the city's newest elementary school, a problem that has led officials to contemplate redrawing elementary district lines by the fall of 2013.
Ocean Avenue Elementary School, which was near capacity in the school year that ended last week, could get an additional 30 to 50 students in September, according to the district's analysis of enrollment trends.
"It is a wake-up call that the redistricting that has been pending for quite some time needs to happen," said Peter Eglinton, the school system's chief operations officer. "We should not be in this position in any given year."
Redistricting the city's eight elementary schools on the mainland would be contentious because many parents move to specific neighborhoods for their schools. Officials haven't redrawn district lines since the 1990s.
Changing school boundaries would require an elaborate public process and take months. In the meantime, officials are addressing overcrowding at the Ocean Avenue school for the coming school year.
They are asking parents of incoming kindergarten students to consider applying for out-of-neighborhood placement at Longfellow Elementary School or East End Community School.
Officials are also notifying parents of children who live outside the Ocean Avenue school's district that their children won't be allowed to attend the school in September. Twenty to 30 students came to the school from outside the district in the last year. Parents have the right to appeal the decision.
Officials are also considering increasing the number of children in each classroom and converting the school's music and art rooms into two classrooms.
Installing temporary modular classrooms -- parents' preferred choice -- would be costly, Eglinton said in letter Tuesday to the Board of Public Education. And redrawing district lines to target certain elementary schools would complicate transportation logistics, he said.
The best long-term solution is redistricting citywide, he told the school board, although it won't help the situation at Ocean Avenue this fall.
Built in 2010 to replace the Nathan Clifford School, the Ocean Avenue school has a capacity of 440 students. It had 427 students in the fall of 2011, according to data provided by the district.
Enrollments are difficult to project, Eglinton said, but officials estimate there could be 470 to 490 students in the school in September. He said the appeal of a new school apparently prompted many families to move into the district. Also, there has been an increase in immigrant families in the district's Bayside neighborhoods.
When the Ocean Avenue school was built, the enrollment projection model wasn't sophisticated enough to anticipate the movement of immigrant families and the appeal of a new school, Eglinton said.
Many parents are furious about the proposal to convert the music and art rooms into classrooms. Many who sent their children to the Nathan Clifford School opposed the decision to close it. Parents were told that their children would have art and music classrooms in the new school, said Stephanie Lull, who has a son who will be a 4th-grader at the Ocean Avenue school.
"There is a lot of pent-up anger," she said. "If they have had their experts working on this, how can these enrollments possibly be a surprise?"
More than 60 parents gathered at the school Tuesday to discuss the issue. Parents are particularly upset that school officials waited until June to notify them about the enrollment projections, said John Gordon, who has two children in the school.
"They waited until the very end of the school year to drop the news on us," he said. "It was either incompetence, or somebody planned to do this, which is terrible."
The city's total school enrollment has been flat in recent years, and several elementary schools are far below capacity.
The city has plenty of classroom space, and the problem is poor planning by school officials, said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who opposed the closure of Nathan Clifford School. He said the school board should have redrawn district lines before the Ocean Avenue school opened.
Suslovic said he believes school officials have been reluctant to move district lines because it will be unpopular.
"It's the third rail of school community policies," he said. "You generally make more people unhappy than happy."
School board member Sarah Thompson said the board didn't learn about the problem until Tuesday. She said she doesn't want to see the art and music classrooms eliminated.
"We have to first look at all the alternatives before we say this is the one solution," she said.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: