Academics and personal preference were the top factors parents and incoming high school freshmen used this year to decide which Portland high school to attend, according to results of a survey spurred by a shift in enrollment at two of the city’s three high schools.

Other top reasons parents considered were school reputation and high school visits. Students cited school schedules and safety and security as other top reasons. About 300 students and over 100 parents completed the school district survey that Superintendent Xavier Botana presented at a meeting of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education on Tuesday night.

The enrollment shift between Portland High School and Deering High School prompted the school district to take the survey and its results will be used as a launching point for a discussion about high school choice, which is currently unrestricted between the two schools.

Botana said the district should look at whether to move to a centralized high school fair rather than open houses at each school and whether to change the time frame of school selection to the fall rather than the spring.

Other options discussed Tuesday included the possibility of creating geographic districts that would dictate where students go to school or implementing a universal lottery system with enrollment caps in place at individual schools.

No action was taken on any of the suggestions.

“I’m feeling a general sense of support for some of the lower-impact change opportunities so I think for us the next step is to continue that conversation internally with our staff,” Botana said.

Portland High School enrolled 266 freshmen this fall and Deering High School enrolled 138. In recent years, freshman enrollment at Deering has mostly hovered around 220 students, while Portland has typically enrolled around 180 or 190 freshmen.

There are about 500 freshmen in Portland Public Schools this year, spread among three high schools including Portland, Deering and Casco Bay High School, where enrollment is by lottery and capped at 100 students per class.

Demand for enrollment at Casco Bay, which opened in 2005 and reached capacity in 2015-2016, has ranged from a low of 128 freshmen applicants in the 2018-2019 school year to a high this year of 198 applicants.

The last time the district looked at the high school choice process was around 2005, when the district adopted an educational options policy.

It’s unclear when or why school choice started, Botana said, though the district estimates school choice originated in the 1970’s when the district decided to create middle schools and send ninth-graders to the two high schools.

The survey, administered to last year’s eighth-grade class and their parents, asked respondents to rank items as not important, somewhat important, important and very important.

Parents did not have the choice to select “safety and security,” and Botana said Tuesday he did not remember why that option was not included on the parent survey.

On the parent survey, which was not broken down by school, the top-rated factors in school choice were academics followed by the preference of their child.

The least important factors in the decision making process were input from middle school staff and where family members went to school.

For students, personal preference and academics were the top reasons behind school choice at each of the three high schools. School schedule and safety and security ranked either third or fourth at each school.

Like with parents, the least important factors in school choice were the input of middle school staff and whether family members were current students or alums of the schools.

Other factors that were considered included school location, open houses, where friends were going to school, parent preference and the school’s reputation.

In addition, the survey found about half of responding parents were aware of an enrollment and facilities study that was underway at the time of the school choice process that proposed a change in use for the Deering High School building. Nine percent said it influenced their decision to select a different school.

The drop in enrollment at Deering this year already has had implications for the district, including $250,000 in additional costs incurred in order to preserve the “team” model for freshmen at Portland High School, where small groups of students are kept with a team of teachers to help ease their transition to high school.

The district also moved 2.5 positions from Deering to Portland to accommodate the shift.

Board members Tuesday night said they supported discussing the concept of school choice and whether it is the best way to serve students.

Many said they support school choice, but would be open to making some of the smaller changes suggested by Botana, such as having a centralized high school fair and developing centralized school choice materials to eliminate the perception of a competition between the schools for students.

“I’m happy to explore it but to make a student go to a high school they potentially don’t want to go to because they live at X address, I don’t think that is a proper way for us to have them choose a high school,” board member Sarah Thompson said. She also said the discussion should involve the larger community, not just the board.

Jondall Norris, a student board member from Portland High School, said to do away with school choice would be a “betrayal of what students have come to expect.”

He said choice has allowed him to make friends in parts of the city he might not otherwise have had access to and has brought the city together.

“I think the centralization and timing changes are no-brainers,” Norris said. “Going through the school choice process I felt like it was a competition and the schools were competing to get me. They were rivaled against each other. I don’t think that’s the way we want to promote these schools to our students.”

In other news Tuesday, the board also approved a 3-year contract with the Portland Education Association, the union representing the district’s teachers. The contract includes a 1 percent salary increase in the first year and a 2.5 percent increase in both the second and third year of the new agreement.

PEA President Carrie Foster said the contract was approved by 97.5 percent of union members and will “provide a fair and stable environment from which our educators can work to fulfill our Portland Promise.”

The board also approved a list of six school renovation projects totaling about $2 million for which the district will apply for loan funding from the state.

The projects would address Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues at all three high schools, King and Moore middle schools, and Riverton Elementary School.

 

 

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