Uneven enrollment at Portland’s two largest high schools is leading to staffing and programming challenges that have the district discussing a three-school lottery as one option to replace the current system of school choice.

The enrollment gap between Portland and Deering high schools is around 200 students following a shift that began in the fall of 2019, when Portland High’s freshman class of 266 students far-outnumbered Deering’s freshman class of 138 for the first time in recent history.

Portland High now has 906 students compared with Deering’s 719. The district’s third high school, Casco Bay, has a cap of 400 students and enrolls 398. Admission to Casco Bay is held by lottery, while there is unrestricted choice between the other two schools.

“The current practice is resulting in these wild fluctuations that bring with them programmatic challenges for the schools,” Superintendent Xavier Botana told the school board Tuesday. “I am concerned about that and want to keep that in the board’s awareness.”

In the fall of 2019, Botana said a handful of incidents at Deering, including an unfounded rumor about a student threatening to bring a weapon to school, and a lack of communication about the incidents, contributed to fewer families choosing Deering that year. Another factor was a facilities study that proposed a change of use for Deering that ultimately was not acted upon.

At the time, students rushed to defend their school, with some saying Deering was a target for rumors and misperceptions because of its higher enrollment of economically disadvantaged students and students of color.

Botana was not available for an interview Wednesday but said in an email he believes that the current data show that after a huge shift in 2019, the numbers have stabilized at a level that still has Deering significantly smaller than Portland. “I don’t believe the concerns that precipitated that shift persist,” he said.

However, during a presentation to the school board Tuesday, school officials said that the gap in enrollments is impacting staffing, the courses the two schools are able to offer and students’ abilities to get into the courses they want, as well as athletics and co-curriculars. At Deering, the school has been challenged with trying to maintain the same breadth of offerings for a smaller student body. At Portland, some students can’t access electives and other courses due to the volume of people trying to access them.

DISPARITIES EMERGE

And while the teaching staffs have been adjusted to match the enrollment shift, the numbers of other staff such as guidance counselors, social workers and office staff have not, which has resulted in higher case loads at Portland. At Deering, there are fewer students to support the same variety of sports and clubs, while at Portland it’s harder for students to secure a limited number of spots on athletic teams.

In addition to the overall enrollment gap, there are disparities in the number of students of color and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch at the two schools. While Casco Bay’s demographics mirror those of the district overall, Deering tends to enroll students of color and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch at rates higher than the district average, while the opposite is true at Portland.

Districtwide, about 53 percent of Portland Public Schools students are white and about 47 percent are students of color. At Deering, about 46 percent of students are white and about 54 percent are students of color. At Portland, about 59 percent of students are white and 41 percent are students of color.

School meal data has been skewed this year by a federal program to make meals free for all students, but last year about 60 percent of Deering students qualified for free and reduced-price meals compared to about 39 percent at Portland.

Freshman Rylee Knight stands at the entrance to Portland High School, where she is enrolled. Knight said her decision to attend the school was based on the amenities downtown and the letter grading system, among other factors. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“As a Deering student it is kind of disheartening to see the population of our school has decreased over time,” Emily Cheung, a student representative to the school board, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t necessarily think it’s something inherent in the (school choice) policy that creates this very subtle or very small segregation where over time we have more students of color and more free-and-reduced-lunch students than the other schools … but I think it is causing the experiences in the high schools to be more inequitable.”

FINDING A GOOD FIT

Sarah Kalonji, a senior who came to the city in May from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said she chose Deering because of its diversity and she felt it was better equipped to cater to the needs of immigrants and students of color. “I live like five minutes away from Portland High School, but I wanted to see more people like me,” Kalonji said. “Portland has some people of different races, but I feel like Deering has a greater variation and that’s why I chose Deering High School.”

Kalonji has heard some Portland High students say they chose that school because of concerns Deering has a reputation for fights or having an unsafe environment, but that hasn’t been her experience. “I feel like it’s safe,” Kalonji said. “I don’t know exactly what they mean by Deering not being safe. I feel like they take that past reputation and drag it along.”

Estrela Joao, a freshman at Deering, knew since sixth grade she wanted to attend the school but she said many of her friends decided in eighth grade that Portland was “lit.” Many students decide which school to go to based simply on where their friends are, she said.

“I never really felt like I belonged in Portland,” Joao said. “There are already so many kids there. It’s packed and you would have to see people you have problems with. There’s too much going on at Portland and Deering is just enough. Not everyone can take seeing that many people every day.”

Sophomore Grace Anderson talks to a reporter Wednesday about her decision to attend Portland High School.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Grace Anderson, a sophomore at Portland, considered both schools when going through the high school choice process two years ago and ultimately decided on Portland because it’s closer to where she lives and because her brother went there and had a good experience. She said she has heard some students express concerns about the social environment at Deering being more cliquey.

“I think it’s developed a little bit of a bad reputation, but I think it’s sad because I think it’s a good school, definitely,” Anderson said.

She said high school choice is part of what it makes it special to live in Portland. “You can pick a more artsier school,” Anderson said. “You can go here or you can go to Deering, which seems more sports-oriented. Each school has its own uniqueness.”

NEXT STEPS

No formal action was taken or recommendations made related to the enrollment gap Tuesday, but school officials did present the board with some possible next steps including a more centrally managed school choice process, shifting the selection timeline to the spring of seventh grade, determining high school placement by geographic districts and a three-school lottery.

Those options were presented to the board in 2019, and since then the district has pursued more support through things like creating a centralized website and coordinating the steps in the selection process between the three schools.

Some board members, including Chair Emily Figdor, said Tuesday they support the idea of a three-school lottery.

“I appreciate the choice,” Figdor said. “I think I understand why the community values that, but I just don’t think the current system is sustainable. … It doesn’t make sense from a management perspective whether it’s a last-minute shift of staff, budget implications or the ability to have two comprehensive high schools. I’m interested in considering a three-school lottery where we have choice but have some guardrails on it.”

Portland is among just a small number of school districts in Maine with multiple high schools. Before 1979, Deering and Portland were neighborhood schools where students attended based on where they lived. The transition to choice is believed to have happened around the time the district established middle schools and moved to send ninth-graders to the two high schools. In 2005, the district founded Casco Bay and adopted its current high school choice policy, which has continued since that time and was last reviewed in 2016.

Overall school enrollment in Portland, like much of Maine, has declined slightly in recent years from 6,826 students in 2016 to 6,580 this year. Since at least the 2011-12 school year, Deering had tended to enroll slightly larger classes than Portland, but that suddenly shifted in the fall of 2019. Last year’s freshman class at Deering was 169 students compared to Portland’s 202. This year Deering enrolled 167 freshmen compared to Portland’s 220.


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