On Sept. 9 chalked words sharing positive attributes of Deering High School appeared on the main walkway into the school. This action follows late summer controversy over an enrollment shift with incoming freshmen preferring Portland High over Deering. Courtesy / Deering High School

PORTLAND — With a dramatic enrollment shift by freshmen, the School Department is considering whether to end the decades-old school choice option and return to geographic boundaries for Portland and Deering high schools.

The School Board was set to discuss the issue Tuesday.

Other possibilities, Superintendent Xavier Botana said, could include capping enrollment at all three high schools and holding a district-wide lottery. Botana also suggested that students should choose which school to attend in the fall, before the annual budget process begins, to give the district a better idea of where funds should be allocated.

The School Department is weighing the high school choice option because for the first time in years a larger share of incoming freshmen chose Portland High over Deering. The total freshmen enrollment at Deering this fall is 138, compared to 266 at Portland. Administrators at both the school and district level are still trying to figure out why.

In a series of articles in August, the Portland Press Herald reported that part of the enrollment shift could be related to rumors of fights on school grounds and concerns about an overall lack of discipline.

But this week, some students at Deering rejected that characterization.

Freshman Ella Griffius chose Deering because “I’d heard good things about the school.”

Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, left, and Alyson Dame are the co-principals at Deering High School this academic year. Their goal is to better share the story of what makes Deering such a great school. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

Senior Khalid Shati said he’s had a good experience at Deering and has always felt safe. When he heard more incoming freshmen favored Portland over Deering he said, “I was shocked, to be honest.”

Senior Max Morrione, the son of School Board member Marnie Morrione, said what he most appreciates about Deering is that it puts “such a high value on diversity and inclusivity.” That view is shared by sophomore Balgiesa Mohamed, who said students at Deering “share a strong sense of community.”

This positive view of Deering was not apparent this past spring, however, when eighth graders in the city were choosing which of three public high schools to attend – Portland, Deering or Casco Bay.

The School Board is still concerned enough about the implications of the enrollment shift to make addressing it a priority.

The shift is important, Botana said, because it affects public perception and because such a marked change “is making it difficult for the district to equitably allocate resources between the two schools.”

For example, in August Botana told the Portland Press Herald that Portland High hired three additional teachers at a cost of around $250,000.

This chart shows the number of students from each of the city’s middle schools and their high school of choice. There’s a significant uptick in the number of students from Lyman Moore choosing Portland High. Courtesy / Portland Public Schools

In information provided to the School Board on Tuesday, Botana said originally, high school enrollment at either Deering or Portland was based on geography, but beginning around 1979 students began to choose freely between the two high schools no matter where they lived in the city.

Free choice was codified in 2005 when Casco Bay High School, an experiential school that shares space with Portland Arts & Technology High School on Allen Avenue, first opened.

It’s unclear whether the enrollment shift from Deering to Portland is a one-year anomaly or part of a broader trend, but reviewing and possibly implementing new procedures around high school choice is one of Botana’s goals this school year.

The enrollment shift came as a shock to Deering’s acting co-principals, Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed and Alyson Dame. Both said this week that their focus going forward will be on better communication.

“We’re making a concerted effort to be more transparent about pulling back the curtain and showing all the positive things that are happening here,” Dame said. She also said the school plans to ramp up efforts to make its annual open house “more dynamic, compelling and engaging.”

“I believe in Deering,” Ahmed said. “We have a challenging curriculum where students are supported and the outcomes are very good.”

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