The era of unrestricted school choice in Portland may soon come to an end.

In an effort to balance enrollment numbers and diversity at Portland’s two largest high schools, the district is floating a plan that preserves most students’ ability to choose a school but allows administrators to reassign students to even out student population and demographics.

The hybrid system is scheduled to be discussed in a workshop following Tuesday night’s school board meeting. The proposal is outlined in materials presented to the board.

Portland High School, left, and Deering High School Press Herald staff file photos

School choice has been the law of the land in Portland for 43 years. As it stands, city eighth-graders headed to high school can choose between Portland High School and Deering High School, each of which enrolls about 800 students in grades 9-12. Portland students also can enter a lottery to attend Casco Bay High School, an expeditionary learning-based school that enrolls 400 students.

But over the past few years, fluctuations in student interest in Portland High and Deering High have made it difficult for the district to anticipate staffing needs and allocate resources in a way that provides each school with equal class sizes and programming opportunities. At the same time, Portland has remained consistently wealthier and whiter compared to Deering, which enrolls more English-language learners, homeless students, students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, students with individualized education plans and students of color.

For years the district has grappled with how to ensure its two largest high schools are equally diverse and have consistent student populations year to year. In the past, the district has considered consolidating the two schools, a lottery system for all three schools and assigning students to schools based on their home addresses. All those plans were abandoned but the problems they aimed to solve haven’t gone away.


In a presentation on the matter this month, district officials said they would like to see no greater than a 30-person difference in class size between Portland and Deering. Last year, Portland’s freshman class was 69 students greater than Deering’s class.

Over the past five years, Portland student school preference switched from Deering to Portland.

During the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, slightly more students attended Deering compared to Portland. But during the 2019-20 school year, 265 students chose to attend Portland and only 135 Deering. The district said these oscillations have created a sense of competition between the schools, instability for staff who have had to move between Deering and Portland and discrepancies in opportunities for students.

Because of changes in the student population, Deering has lost 20 percent of its full-time teaching staff since 2020, which led to a smaller breadth of opportunities for its students. Over the same time period, Portland gained around 20 percent in full-time teaching staff. Counselor, social worker and administrator caseloads are 30 percent larger at Portland High School than at Deering, meaning Portland students have less access to those resources compared to their Deering counterparts.

The district said the hybrid solution would maintain school choice for many students while simultaneously supporting equal opportunity and diversity at the two schools.

In the proposed plan, which if enacted would be first used by the class of 2027, or this year’s rising eighth-graders, students who choose to do so could enter the lottery to attend Casco Bay. Then those who do not win a spot at Casco and the rest of the district’s eighth-graders would choose between Portland and Deering and be assigned to their first choice.


If the class sizes are not balanced, the district would reassign students from the larger school to the smaller school. The district would choose which students to reassign by entering certain students into a lottery.

Students with “diversity factors,” would not be entered into the lottery. That includes students experiencing homelessness, students with individualized education plans, students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and English language or multilingual learners. Over the past five years, 80 percent of students who have one or more diversity factor identify as a student of color, according to the district.

The district said it chose to only put students without diversity factors in the lottery because it is consistent with its goals of centering the needs of diverse students. “Ensuring (diverse students) get their first choice school is consistent with that goal,” the district said in an email.

Equity in Portland Schools, a grassroots organization working to improve city schools by addressing race and class inequity, did not respond to a request for comment about the district’s proposal to change its school choice process.

As it stands now, with Deering being smaller and more diverse, the plan would balance out student population and demographics. If the reverse were true, and the smaller school was less diverse, students with diversity factors would be moved through the lottery.

Although if implemented this process would almost surely mean some students would end up at their second- or third-choice school, the district said it would aim to have 90 percent of students who listed Deering or Portland as their preference to get their first-choice school by limiting the number of students they move to 10 percent of the class. The district did not respond to a query about what it would do if class sizes at the school significantly diverged like they did in the 2019-20 school year.

In the resolution, as it is currently written students unhappy with their school would be able to appeal their placement and if the appeal was granted, transfer schools. How that process would work is unclear.

The district and school board have scheduled a first read of and public hearing about the proposed plan on Sept. 6 and a vote on Sept. 20.

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