A relatively equal number of Portland’s eighth graders chose to attend each of the city’s two largest high schools, eliminating the need for the school district to reassign students to achieve balanced enrollment under a new policy.

“We are pleased we are able to honor all students’ first preference and achieved our goals of balanced ninth grade cohorts in terms of overall enrollment numbers and in terms of demographics,” co-interim Superintendent Aaron Townsend said about high school choice during a Portland Public Schools Board of Education meeting Tuesday night.

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

The district sent out high school assignments Friday, an annual exercise notable because it was the first round of high school admissions since the school board changed its 43-year-old policy of unrestricted high school choice.

The September policy decision allows students to pick the high school of their choice, as has been the case for 43 years, but also allows the district to move students between its two largest high schools – Deering and Portland – in order to balance population size and diversity.

However, the district didn’t need to reassign students because a relatively equal number indicated a preference for Deering or Portland, or said they did not have a preference at all, and the practice of high school choice remained the same as it has for decades for this year’s eighth-graders. All students who put either Portland or Deering as their preference got their first choice, and all students who chose Casco Bay as their first choice but did not win in the lottery got their second choice school.

For decades, Portland students heading to high school have been able to choose between attending Portland or Deering, each of which has the capacity to enroll around 200 students per grade. Eighth-graders also can enter a lottery to attend Casco Bay High School, which opened in 2004 and enrolls around 100 students per grade.


But in recent years student interest in Portland and Deering has oscillated, leading to fluctuating enrollment and diverging demographics. The district says this has made it challenging to figure out how to allocate resources and has created unhealthy competition and hampered collaboration between the schools. As it stands, Deering has a smaller and more diverse student body than Portland.

“We had a really challenging situation and we ended up with the best possible outcome,” board member Emily Figdor said of every student getting to attend their first- and second-choice school.

Though the discussion of school choice was quiet at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, the decision to change the policy stirred controversy when it was being considered in September.

At the time, community members said that it would remove agency from families and took issue with the fact that only students without “diversity factors,” including special education students, homeless students, students receiving free or reduced lunch and English language learners, could be reassigned.

The district said moving students with diversity factors would only increase demographic imbalances the district has been trying to level.

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