Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Tom Bell firstname.lastname@example.org
For the first time in two decades, Portland school officials are taking on the controversial task of re-drawing district boundaries for the city's eight mainland elementary schools.
The Portland Board of Public Education will kick off the discussion this September when it holds a workshop meeting with staff to talk about the process and to create a task force.
Taken together, the city's elementary schools are now at capacity, but some individual schools are overcrowded and others have room for more students, said Peter Eglinton, chief operating officer for the district.
Although overall K-12 enrollment is holding steady, elementary grade enrollment is increasing, he said.
The issue of overcrowding emerged in June when school officials realized that this fall's projected enrollment at the recently built Ocean Avenue School would likely surpass its capacity of 441 students.
District officials have since told the families of 20 out-of-district students that the students will not be allowed to return to the school this September.
The enrollment surge at Ocean Avenue took both parents and school officials by surprise, and convinced district officials that they must take on the difficult task of re-examining the boundaries of the city's elementary school districts, Eglinton said Thursday at a Parent Teachers Organization meeting in the Ocean Avenue school cafeteria.
"The situation here was a wake-up call, and that is what got some of us to see the need to get out of our comfort zone," he said.
The $14.2 million school opened in February 2011. It took in more than 300 students who relocated from the 104-year-old Clifford Elementary School, which was closed despite parent opposition, and students from other elementary schools who live nearby.
The talk of redistricting is particularly upsetting to many parents of former Clifford Elementary School students because their children could be transferred for a second time in three years.
Jennifer Hutchins, who lives in the Oakdale neighborhood, said her daughter attended kindergarten at Nathan Clifford Elementary and first grade at Ocean Avenue School.
"And now again she could go someplace else and meet a whole new group of people," she said.
Portland last redistricted its elementary schools in the early 1990s and its middle schools in the mid-1990s, said City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who served on the school committee at the time. He said school committee members faced a "constant barrage" of input from parents.
"It was probably the most controversial issue we dealt with," he said.
More than 60 parents attended Thursday's meeting to hear about possible solutions to the overcrowding at Ocean Avenue Elementary.
School officials in June had discussed converting an art room and music room into classrooms, but that plan has been rejected. It appears that their worst fears about overcrowding won't materialize, and instead they expect to need only one additional classroom, Eglinton said.
District officials now prefer using the music room as a classroom, and using the cafeteria and performance stage for music classes if enrollment capacity is exceeded.
Eglinton told parents that the district will find a way through some form of redistricting to ease overcrowding at the school to free up the music classroom for its intended purpose by the 2013-2014 school year.
Englinton said the district could also undertake a more comprehensive redistricting plan, such as moving 5th grade into middle schools, or having some schools house kindergarten to eighth-grade classes.
School board Chair Kate Synder, who put the issue on the board's agenda for September, said it's crucial that the board develop a process that involves significant public engagement.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: