Almost a dozen parents and teachers attended a Portland school board meeting Tuesday night to voice their opposition to a plan to limit students’ ability to attend the high school of their choice.

One parent who spoke up during the public comment period of the Portland Public Schools Board of Education meeting said that high school choice is part of why her family moved to Portland, another said limiting high school choice would take away agency from families, another urged the school board to not deny students, who already have lost so much during the pandemic, the opportunity to choose a school and go somewhere with their friends.

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

“It would be a hard pill to swallow for kids who have lost a lot in the past few years,” parent Jessica Kane said. 

Portland’s school district has had high school choice for 43 years, allowing students to choose between its two larger schools, Deering High and Portland High and enter a lottery to attend its smaller one, Casco Bay. But student preference for Deering versus Portland has oscillated over the years, leading to shifting enrollment numbers and diversity levels that have made it difficult for the district to anticipate resource and staffing needs.

Now the district is considering limiting school choice – allowing students to choose but also letting the administration move students around to even enrollment out if need be. Some are less than fond of that idea.

Those who spoke up Tuesday night said they felt the decision to change high school choice was being rushed and that the district should spend more time speaking to students about why they chose the schools they do and parents about how they feel about school choice.


“Please take the time to engage your most meaningful stakeholders, families,” parent Kimberlee Elder said.

Another parent said they want to learn more about why this issue is being discussed now and what other options the school board has looked into. 

“Please provide more context on what drove this to be a critical need right now and what other options have been looked into to solve the root cause of this issue,” Amber Schertz said. 

This isn’t the first time the Portland school district has tried to alter school choice.

The district has for years wrestled with how to balance student populations and diversity levels between Portland and Deering and manage the changing preferences of students.

Five years ago, Deering was the more popular school in the city. During the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, slightly more students attended Deering. But starting in the 2019-20 school year, that changed and Portland became the place to be. That year 265 students chose to attend Portland and only 135 Deering.


Students choose the schools they want to attend based on a variety of factors: the school schedules, where their friends go, what classes and extracurricular activities are offered, what they’ve heard about each school, the teachers and where they think they can best succeed, among other things.

And it’s been challenging for the district to predict which school students will choose in a given year.  The district said these fluctuations have been bad for the schools – creating unequal opportunities and competition and instability for staff who have been moved between the schools.


Because of changes in the student population, 20 percent of Deering’s full-time teaching staff has been moved to Portland in the past two years, leading to a smaller breadth of opportunities for Deering students and greater variety of opportunities for Portland’s. Meanwhile, with more students, counselor, social worker and administrator caseloads are 30 percent larger at Portland than Deering, meaning Portland students have less access to those resources.

To remedy some of these issues, the district has floated consolidating the two schools, instituting a lottery system or assigning kids based on where they live. None of those plans was ever implemented and today the question of how to create consistency and equity between the two schools remains stubborn and contentious.

The district continues to say it needs the tools to provide consistent enrollment year to year and that the solution they put forward would maintain school choice for many students while simultaneously supporting equal opportunity and diversity at the two schools.


But parents are frustrated at the idea of the district moving their kids at will and teachers who have seen the anxiety and stress students face over getting into Casco Bay through the lottery system don’t want to see more students disappointed.

A district teacher who said he’s watched students burst into tears after realizing they weren’t going to get into Casco Bay said school board members, not teachers, should be the ones to have to tell students they don’t get to go to their first choice school.

In the proposed plan, if enacted, this year’s eighth-graders could choose to enter the lottery to attend Casco Bay. Students who did not win a spot in the lottery and the rest of the eighth-graders would then choose between Portland and Deering and be assigned to their first choice.

If the class sizes were not somewhat even, the district would move students from the school with a greater enrollment to the school with a smaller one, choosing who to move by entering 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 the decision to only put students without diversity factors in the lottery is consistent with its goals of centering the needs of diverse students, but multiple parents who spoke Tuesday night took issue with that choice.

“I’m not sure why diverse students get their first choice, and my student does not,” Ann-Marie Gribbin-Bouchard said. “We should leave things well enough alone and let parents and children choose which school is best for them.”

The board discussed the plan and alternative options during both a board meeting and a workshop in August. It was scheduled for a first reading late Tuesday and a vote on Sept. 20.

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