Kathy Mills is a parent and a member of the steering committee creating a redistricting plan to improve the diversity and equity in South Portland’s elementary schools. “We’re doing everything we can to include as many people as possible in conversations,” she said, pointing to the group’s decisions to make the meetings accessible by choosing virtual options, and by offering childcare, dinner and having translators on site at in-person meetings. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

South Portland is considering how to reconfigure its elementary schools to hedge against segregation and increase equity.

The school district has five elementary schools serving about 1,100 kindergarten through fourth grade students. They are assigned to a school based on where they live. As a result, more students of color, those whose first language is not English and those who are economically disadvantaged attend two schools on the west side of the city – Skillin and Kaler.

Students who attend the schools in the center and on the east side of the city – Brown, Dyer and Small – are whiter, wealthier and include more primary English speakers. They also generally perform better academically.

Many parents, educators and district leaders say they are concerned about the racial, socioeconomic and educational achievement disparities and say something needs to change.

But while many welcome the process, they say it has been fraught with controversy over what those changes might look like, whether they will be effective, who should be involved in making those decisions and how any changes might impact students’ educational and social experiences.

The district started the redistricting process in earnest last winter. In February, it established a steering committee made up of parents, teachers, school board members, and the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion director.


Since then, the committee has been researching and discussing different options.

After months of meetings, they haven’t chosen a final plan. The group has two more meetings, one on Thursday night and a final meeting on Jan. 3, before it is scheduled to present its proposal to the school board on Jan. 8. The board has until March to vote on it.

Some options under consideration include assigning students to a school based on a lottery system, creating magnet schools with themes like STEM and world languages, and creating four kindergarten through second grade schools and one third through fifth grade school so that all South Portland students are grouped together sooner.

South Portland Superintendent Timothy Matheney said these conversations are long overdue. The last time the city redrew its elementary school attendance boundaries was 15 years ago, he said. In that time, the city has grown by around 3,000 residents and become drastically more diverse.

Ten years ago, students of color made up 20% of the district’s student population. Today, that’s risen to 40%, Matheney said.



Eleni Richardson agrees that change is needed. Richardson, who has two children ages 5 and 7 in the school district, said the disparities between the elementary schools are concerning.

She said South Portland has the potential to make significant and positive changes. She’s not sure, however, that the district is ready to make a decision and wants the district to slow down the process.

“I’m worried the solution proposed won’t address the underlying issues,” she said.

Richardson’s main concerns are that there aren’t enough people of color on the steering committee and that it hasn’t done enough to consult with experts about how to reduce segregation. Two members of the 17-person steering committee are people of color.

Jennifer Ryan, the chair of the South Portland Board of Education and a steering committee member, admitted the process has been less than perfect. She noted that the racial makeup of the committee is not representative of the greater community and said that it has been challenging to get parents involved.

But the committee and the board are committed to altering the way South Portland students are assigned to elementary schools in a way that will increase equity for all, she said.


“We’re never going to get to a place where everything is perfectly equal, but we can make things better and work to make sure kids can attend classes with kids who have different backgrounds then them, and (kids) who look like them,” Ryan said.


Some parents are worried their children will have to take long bus rides across the city to get to school rather than attending the one closest to where they live. Others feel there hasn’t been enough of an opportunity to participate in the process and that the committee hasn’t done enough to solicit feedback.

But members say that they have done adequate research, are listening to community concerns and are working earnestly to come up with solutions that will benefit South Portland students.

Mohammed Albehadli, the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator and a member of the steering committee, said the group has done sufficient research including consulting with experts.

“We are working diligently,” Albehadli said.


Kathy Mills, a parent and committee member, said it’s frustrating to hear criticisms of the committee’s efforts.

“We’re doing everything we can to include as many people as possible in conversations,” she said.

She pointed to the group’s decisions to make the meetings accessible by choosing virtual options, and by offering childcare, dinner and having translators on site at in-person meetings.

Mills said she personally reads every message she receives from community members.


School districts across the United States have long looked for ways to create equitable and integrated schools in communities that are often divided along economic, ethnic, racial and political lines.


But the challenges to doing so are numerous.

Because students are almost always assigned to public schools based on their ZIP code, schools are often divided along those same lines. Breaking down those barriers and educating students in diverse schools takes some creativity and often involves at least some amount of strife.

But experts say the effort is worth it, and that educating students in economically and racially diverse schools encourages academic success and creates social mobility and cohesion.

Communities that have successfully integrated their schools have closed achievement gaps, increased graduation rates and generally seen students perform better academically than the nation’s average student.

Albehadli believes this process is fundamental to the district’s work.

“Our job as district, staff and teachers and community members is to create a generation that can work together and create a thriving community,” he said. “The way to do that is for that generation to be educated together.”

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