The era of unchecked school choice in Portland may soon come to an end.  The Board of Education is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a plan that would allow students to choose a preferred high school but also permit administrators to shuffle students between schools in order to balance enrollment and diversity levels.

The district says that fluctuating interest in Portland and Deering high schools has made it difficult to anticipate resource and staffing needs. But the plan to make student populations more consistent is proving controversial, with some saying more community discussion is needed and that taking school choice away from families could push people out of the district.

For 43 years eighth graders have been able to choose between attending Portland High School and Deering High School, each of which has the capacity to enroll about 800 ninth through 12th graders. Students can also enter a lottery to attend Casco Bay High School, which opened in 2004 and enrolls 400 students.

Over the years student preference for Deering versus Portland has shifted, leading to fluctuating enrollment numbers and diverging demographics. Currently, Deering’s enrollment is smaller and more diverse than Portland’s.

This is a problem, the district says, because it creates competition between the schools, hinders collaboration and leads to resources being spent on student recruitment instead of on other things.

Under the district’s plan, students would first go through the school choice process like they have for years: eighth graders interested in Casco Bay enter the lottery, then those who don’t get in decide between Portland or Deering with the rest of their class. But then, if class sizes aren’t balanced, administrators would reassign students from the larger school to the smaller one by entering students without “diversity factors” into a lottery.


Students with diversity factors include those experiencing homelessness, students with individualized education plans, students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and English language or multilingual learners.

The district said only students without these factors would be in the lottery because that is consistent with its goal of centering the needs of diverse students.

Not everyone is in favor of the board’s proposal.

At the board’s meeting earlier this month around a dozen parents spoke out against the plan. Some parents questioned why diverse students would be ensured attendance at the school of their choice and non-diverse students would not. Some said they were worried about their children being separated from friends and some asked the board to take more time considering the move and speaking to community members about it.

This isn’t the first time the district has tried to nix or alter school choice. For years it has grappled with how to manage changing preferences of students in order to balance school populations and diversity levels at Deering and Portland.

Five years ago, Deering had the highest attendance in the city. But that changed starting in the 2019-20 school year, when 265 students chose Portland and only 135 picked Deering.

This year, 176 ninth graders chose Deering and 216 chose Portland. And the total student population at Portland is significantly higher than that of Deering, with 958 students at Portland and only 723 at Deering.

In addition to considering limiting school choice, the district is working to make Deering and Portland more similar in terms of daily schedules and course offerings, with the stated goal of addressing some of the root causes leading to enrollment disparity. Surveys of students by the district show that academics and school schedules, along with personal preference, safety and security are the top factors considered when choosing a school.

A resolution for the superintendent to present a report to the board on these efforts by June is scheduled for a first read Tuesday.

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