The principal of Deering High School has accepted a position elsewhere and will not return when school starts next month, the superintendent said in a letter to families Wednesday.

Gregg Palmer

Gregg Palmer’s departure comes amid a Portland Public Schools inquiry into a significant enrollment drop at Deering High that many in the school community have attributed to rumors around a handful of fights and other incidents last fall.

“I am writing to let you know that Principal Palmer has notified me that he intends to accept a position elsewhere,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said in the letter.

“A formal announcement is forthcoming next week. As a result, he will not be returning as principal of Deering High School and will not be leading school year opening activities. His departure will be a loss to the Deering High community, but we wish him the best in taking on a new challenge.”

Palmer has been principal at Deering since the 2017-2018 school year. He did not respond to an email or phone messages left at the high school Thursday.

Palmer’s departure comes as the district investigates the reasons for an enrollment drop in Deering’s freshman class.

This year’s incoming class is about 127 students, compared to 272 at Portland High. In recent years, Deering has typically enrolled about 220 ninth-graders while Portland has enrolled 180 or 190.

Botana earlier this month said the shift was likely due to a handful of incidents last November that led to rumors the school was unsafe, which he said is untrue. He said another factor was a facilities study, released while students were considering which high school to attend, that proposed a change in use at Deering.

In an email Thursday, Botana said he could not comment on Palmer’s future employment plans, but said he does not believe the enrollment drop was responsible for his decision to leave.

After the Press Herald reported the shift, more than 120 students at Deering responded with a letter saying they felt their school was safe and Deering’s high numbers of minority and economically disadvantaged students contributed to the rumors that spread.

In addition, some parents and teachers have expressed concerns about a lack of discipline at the school as a possible reason for the enrollment shift. Those concerns from teachers were the subject of a meeting the Portland Education Association, the district’s teachers union, had with the superintendent in January.

Beth Arsenault, vice president of the PEA, said in an email Thursday that she has not heard from any Deering teachers since the January meeting.

“I think there are many reasons for the enrollment shift and past incidents at Deering/discipline concerns are really only one of them,” Arsenault said.

“Another factor to consider could be that students are choosing PHS,” she said, citing rising test scores and the school’s approach to proficiency-based learning.

PEA President Caroline Foster also said in an email Thursday that she did not want to speculate on teacher concerns or the enrollment drop.

“That being said, one thing that really sticks out to me is that we have smart, caring, dedicated staff in every building, Deering very much included,” she said. “I’ve spoken to close to two dozen people there to date, and the teachers keep bringing up how much good work is going on with their colleagues and with students, even if there are problems to be addressed.”

In an interview Thursday night, Botana said about 45 of the 85 teachers at Deering attended the January meeting.

He said the concerns were not all were discipline-related and ranged from things like the way teachers hear back from administrators after students are referred for discipline, to the schedule Deering uses.

Around the same time, Botana said Palmer held a daylong workshop with teachers to listen to concerns and came up with a plan to address them.

“To some extent some of those concerns are going to always be concerns,” Botana said by phone Thursday night. “I’ve been in schools for over 30 years and didn’t hear anything at that meeting that I haven’t heard before or that isn’t frequently heard at high schools across the country. I think some of them have been addressed and some are concerns that will always be there.”

Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez declined to comment on Palmer’s resignation, said he is still in conversations with other board members about it and directed questions to the superintendent.

In his letter to families Wednesday, Botana said he is confident in a school success plan for the coming year developed by teachers and administrators at Deering, and he said the district is working on securing a more permanent leadership structure.

In the immediate future, Vice Principals Abdullahi Ahmed and Alyson Dame will be acting co-principals. Jim Moses, former vice principal at Deering, will serve as an acting vice principal.

The district plans to launch a search for a new principal in January with a target date of early April for a Board of Education appointment, Botana said.

Botana sent a slightly different letter to the faculty and staff Wednesday, in which he talked about the implementation of deans of students, new positions that will be filled by teachers.

Four teachers in the building will fill the roles, each for an assigned period during the day.

The deans will be responsible for responding to issues, staying on top of concerns that arise and addressing them in a way that is consistent with the school’s approach to discipline, Botana said.

Their duties might include things like ensuring students clear the hallways and get to class in the morning or checking in with students with attendance or behavior problems and communicating with their teachers.

“I’m very excited about the work that is happening at Deering,” Botana said. “I think they’ve worked hard to develop a plan that is focused on making sure the great work that’s happened over the years continues and becomes continuously better.”

Jennifer Wriggins, communications coordinator for the Deering PTO, said Thursday she could not speculate on the reason for Palmer’s departure.

“He’s a strong leader for Deering and cares a lot about education, the kids, teachers and staff,” she said. “I’m sorry to see him go.”

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