Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana updates the Board of Education last week about a proposed reconfiguration of eight elementary schools to reduce costs. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Some parents and educators said plans to reconfigure eight of the city’s elementary schools have more drawbacks than benefits.

Under the reconfiguration proposal, K-2 students would attend Rowe, Lyseth, Ocean Avenue and East End schools, and students in grades 3-5 would transfer to Longfellow, Riverton, Presumpscot and Reiche. The grade configurations at Cliff Island and Peaks Island Elementary Schools, the city’s three middle school and three high schools wouldn’t be impacted.

The configuration could eliminate 13 classrooms and save $780,000 by having students go to Rowe before transitioning to Longfellow; Lyseth transitioning to Riverton; Ocean Avenue to Presumpscot, and East End to Reiche.

Another option, which would cut 11 classrooms and save $660,000, would have students at Rowe transition to Reiche, Lyseth to Riverton, Ocean Avenue to Longfellow, and East End to Presumpscot.

Other cost-saving measures the board may consider for the upcoming budget include relocating the central office, eliminating the world language program at Lyseth Elementary School, retirement incentives, reducing the size of the school board’s contingency fund, cutting the level of administrative staffing, and trimming the costs of athletic programs and school operations on Peaks and Cliff islands.

“I am not pretending this is the best thing we have ever done,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said at a Jan. 21 school board meeting. “That’s not the way it was conceived. With anything we do, it is going to have its pros and cons.”

Board members Adam Burk and Emily Figdor opposed the plan, which Botana says could save between $660,000 and $780,000.

The district is preparing its fiscal year 2021 budget, which is projected to increase by $5.4 million in the face of an expected $1 million decrease in state aid.

“It is a lot of upheaval for a relatively little amount of savings,” Figdor said.

Longfellow PTO co-president Eva Huneniuk agreed, calling the plan “too big, too complex and too short-sighted for too little savings.”

“After careful consideration of all the data presented, I think something this disruptive should be the result of carefully considered three- to five-year plan that includes documented research on educational outcomes, community input and has a strong focus on the Portland Promise,” she told The Forecaster.

Rather than an immediate restructuring of elementary schools, Humeniuk said the school board, city officials and others should “put pressure on the state to improve its funding formula” so Portland taxpayers don’t have to pick up so much of school costs.  Of this year’s $117.4 million budget, taxpayers foot 80%, or $93 million, of the bill.

PROS AND CONS

Advantages of reworking grade levels, Botana said, include opening space in the schools up for the expansion of a pre-K program and allowing for more focused curriculum development, special education and English language instruction and more specialized professional development. It would also change the schools’ demographics to make them more reflective of the Portland community.

On the downside, the switch would change the existing relationships between staff and administration, depart from the neighborhood elementary school “identity” and add another school transition for elementary school children.

The structure of elementary schools in the greater Portland area differs. Like Portland, South Portland and Gorham elementary schools are K-5, but in Westbrook, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, elementary students head to the middle school for fifth grade. Scarborough has the configuration Portland is contemplating, and Yarmouth operates a K-1 school and a school for students in grades 2-4.

Westbrook School Superintendent Peter Lancia said Westbrook operated under the model of two K-2 schools and two 3-5 schools for 30 years before making the switch to K-4 in 2012. It was a decision made, he said, only after a thorough vetting and public outreach.

“It was a very deliberate decision looking at the cost savings, facility issues, as well as research on best educational practices,” he said.

The current arrangement in Westbrook, he said is working well.

“It was the right thing at the right time,” he said.

Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of Yarmouth Schools said short of a K-8 school, which he said limits transitions for students and allows for greater relationship in the school, grade configurations have little impact on students academic performance. Finding the right configuration for a community, he said is based on “existing facilities, geographic location, population shifts, and other local factors.”

Dolloff, who has worked in the Regional School Unit 21 and Scarborough school systems, said: “In each community in which I have worked, there has been overall satisfaction with existing configurations, but that may be more a sign of our change-averse human nature than any belief that the structure produces the best student results.”

Larger schools with more grade levels can provide an opportunity for older students to mentor younger students, Dolloff said, but “in the end, there isn’t much evidence that changing grade configurations impacts student learning a great deal – and if you do find such evidence, there’s another report to refute it.”

Issues that would need to be worked out with a Portland reconfiguration include school start time, busing, placement of district-wide special education programs and the construction plans of Longfellow, Reiche and Presumpscot schools, Botana said.

Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, the Portland Public Schools teachers union, said the association agrees with Botana’s assessment of the proposal’s strengths and weaknesses.  Foster has reached out to schools in other communities that use the type of model Portland is debating and, along with members of Portland Public Schools, Portland Education Association and the Maine Education Association, has been talking with state legislators about school funding and how to provide the best education possible for students across the state.

“Once those pieces fall into place, it’ll help us figure out which configuration best serves our students here in Portland.  That’s really the ultimate question,” she said.

The Portland Board of Education is looking into a grade level restructuring plan that would make Longfellow, Presumpscot and Reiche grade 3-5 intermediate schools. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

 

 

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