More students in Portland Public Schools are choosing to go to Portland High School rather than Deering High School this year, a shift some in the city’s school community are attributing to feelings the climate at Deering is unsafe and there is a lack of student discipline.

The projected freshman enrollment for Deering this year is 127 students, while 272 freshmen are expected to enter Portland High School.

In recent years, freshman enrollment at Deering has mostly hovered around 220 students, while Portland has typically enrolled around 180 or 190 freshmen.

The shift is significant enough that Superintendent Xavier Botana said Portland will have to add three new teachers at a cost of around $250,000 due to differences in class structure between the schools, and he plans to start a conversation with the school board about capping the number of students that can attend each school.

Students currently have unrestricted choice between the two schools, while there is a cap of 100 students per class at Casco Bay High School.

Botana attributed the enrollment shift to “a number of high-profile incidents” at Deering that included two fights in the cafeteria last November followed the same day by a rumor a student had made a threat to bring a weapon to school, which turned out to be unfounded.

When the school called an assembly to address the incidents, a student had a medical event and a “hold in place” was called, where students can continue learning but are not allowed to move into common spaces.

Portland’s school Superintendent Xavier Botana attributed the enrollment shift away from Deering High School to “a number of high-profile incidents” there that included two fights in the cafeteria last November followed the same day by a rumor a student had made a threat to bring a weapon to school, which turned out to be unfounded. Press Herald file photo

A few days later another fight broke out around dismissal time as parents were picking up students. An administrator was pushed and thrown to the ground while trying to break it up.

Botana said a general lack of communication around the incidents has contributed to feelings the school is not safe.

Superintendent Xavier Botana Botana said a general lack of communication around several incidents at Deering High School has contributed to feelings the school is not safe.

“As a school we did not do a very good job of clarifying those incidents,” Botana said. “Then when we went through the school selection process people were not inspired and they did not feel Deering was as good of a choice as Portland High School and Casco Bay. I think you can see the outcome of that in the selection process.”

In addition, the district recently completed a facilities and enrollment study that proposes a change in use for Deering in future years. Botana said the results of the study are another reason students, particularly those who want to stay in one building for all four years of high school, might have not chosen Deering.

Some parents of current Deering students said they had no concerns about the school and hadn’t heard anything negative about the climate there, but one teacher said he left the school in January because of ongoing problems with student discipline.

“There’s a weird lack of discipline inside the building,” said Tim Eisenhart, who has returned to a career in engineering after teaching math at Deering for more than six years. “(The administration) is too soft and what ends up happening is kids do whatever they want.”

He described frequent fights in his classroom and the hallways of the school, and said when he sent students to administrators to be disciplined, not enough was done.

Disciplinary data from the district from 2018-2019 show roughly the same number of incidents reported at the two schools. There were 123 incidents at Deering compared to 108 at Portland High.

“I think you will find there’s a lot of shoveling it under the carpet, because they didn’t do anything,” Eisenhart said. “They send kids back (to class) less than 15 minutes later with a cupcake without doing anything.”

Deering Principal Gregg Palmer declined to answer specific questions about the administration’s approach to discipline and instead deferred to Botana, who said no one individual is responsible for the problems.

“This is a climate issue at Deering and I’m ultimately responsible for that,” Botana said. “This is one of the goals the school board will be measuring my performance by: our ability to improve the climate at Deering specifically and make it a viable choice for families again. I’m very cognizant of it and feel accountable for leading us to make that happen.”

The school board is aware of the issues, Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said, noting that the board will consider them during Botana’s next annual evaluation.

“It’s difficult to change the expectations of what discipline truly means,” Rodriguez said. “If we have an old-school expectation of what discipline is, something like zero-tolerance, then yes, you’re not going to see that today. That’s not how we want to discipline our students.”

Palmer, in an email, agreed with the superintendent that the incidents at Deering and the facilities study were possible reasons for this year’s low enrollment.

He said the administration is “focused on ensuring an orderly, safe and positive learning environment by establishing consistent expectations and the systems to reinforce them.”

Some parents of current Deering students said they are happy with the school as it is and they have no concerns about the environment. They had no explanation for what’s behind the enrollment drop.

“They’re both great schools,” said Jennifer Wriggins, who has children at both schools and is communications coordinator for the Deering PTO. “Both are wonderful communities that have really devoted teachers and strong principals. They are both wonderful institutions that lots of different kids benefit from.”

In 2017-2018, 52 percent of Deering students were at or above state expectations on English language arts assessments, compared to 60 percent at Portland High and 50 percent of students statewide, according to the Maine Department of Education.

On math assessments, 31 percent of Deering students were at or above expectations compared to 38 percent at Portland and 37 percent statewide.

Madhi Abdulle has a son who is a rising junior at Deering and a daughter who will be a freshman, as well as six other children who have graduated in recent years.

As a Somali immigrant, he said one of the school’s strengths is its ability to accommodate students for whom English is a second language.

“I cannot answer for other people,” Abdulle said. “To me there is nothing that has changed. I believe Deering High School is the way it used to be and I don’t know why those numbers are changing.”

However, one student at Portland High said the November incidents paired with a lack of communication from the administration contributed to rumors in both schools and left some students feeling scared.

Meg Baltes, president of the rising junior class, also said that student ambassadors at Deering did not help the situation when they joked about the issues and presented a poor picture of the school while giving tours to eighth-graders last year.

“I think they were trying to be casual and lighthearted, but a lot of students didn’t take it that way,” she said. “They made jokes about fights and drugs that made students feel uneasy. That’s why a lot of students decided to go to Portland over Deering – that lack of safety and a feeling there’s no real rules and drugs are a problem there.”

Baltes’ mother, Kathy Baltes, said despite some of the incidents, her older daughter, who graduated from Deering a few months ago, had an overall positive experience and her younger son, who is currently in middle school, will probably go there in a few years.

Both mother and daughter said maybe it was just a bad year for Deering, but the schools do have different atmospheres.

“I think things are handled very swiftly and very aggressively at Portland,” Meg Baltes said. “Any kids who get into trouble are dealt with pretty immediately. It’s a very no-nonsense policy.

“I know students see that and that helps a lot with problems being diverted. A lot of students at Deering feel the administration is chill and relaxed. They feel they can talk to them and have a more honest relationship, but it also means there’s less discipline and a feeling they can get away with stuff.”

 

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