Portland families deserve more school choice, not less


Last Tuesday, the Portland school board held a workshop to discuss a proposal from Portland Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent, Xavier Botana, which would give the district greater control in managing enrollment across the city’s three high schools, Portland High School (PHS), Deering High School (DHS), and Casco Bay High School (CBHS). Today, students graduating from middle school in the city can pick among the three schools. Since CBHS can only accept about 100 students per class, the remaining applicants are enrolled based on their next choice.

Botana’s proposal would allow the district greater leeway in altering the enrollment counts of the district’s two biggest schools, PHS and DHS, so as to more evenly distribute the student populations based on available space and staff, as well student diversity factors such as those who are English language learners (ELL), qualify for free or reduced lunch, or have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

The school board agenda contained a draft resolution from PPS which would allow, “the Superintendent [to] implement enrollment controls that balance enrollment at both high schools” so as “to maintain equivalent programming at both schools in the most efficient manner possible.” The proposal would allow the district to move students in between the two schools in order to balance out enrollment to achieve as close to a goal of 850 students at Portland but only 750 at Deering, since it is a smaller building.

This conversation is not new, as the district has considered changes in the past which would have all-but-eliminated choice in the district, such as outlining geographical districts, entering all students into the lottery, and consolidating the two larger schools. Although Botana made the case for consolidation, citing long-term maintenance costs, these proposals have thus far been abandoned in favor of changes that would bring the least amount of friction to the current system. So, why revisit this now? 

In addition to intending for the demographics of each school to be balanced, Botana advocated for this expanded power in order to maintain equivalent programming at the two schools. He noted that, since 2020, “DHS has lost nearly 20% of its regular teaching staff,” while PHS teaching staff grew about 17%. He also mentioned that the guidance counselors at Deering have 30% smaller caseloads on average, and are thus able to more adequately serve their students than can PHS staff. 

Highlighting the urgency of the request, Botana provided the 9th grade enrollment data for school board members which showed a dramatic difference in the year 2020 between PHS and DHS. In 2020, this spike in entry enrollment meant that for the first time in many years, PHS had more students than DHS. The district continued to see the enrollment disparity grow between the two schools over the last two years.

Source: Portland Public Schools
Source: Portland Public Schools

Botana argued that this shows he needs more tools to efficiently balance enrollment between the two schools, But, since PHS is bigger, wouldn’t the district’s job be easier as long as the physical capacity of the buildings are balanced out? Basing a policy shift on trajectory from 2020 data also seems premature given that year was an anomaly for most school districts around the country.

Councilors Briden and Bondo brought up salient questions as to why students might be choosing one school over another, given that the district’s internal survey showed students have similar reasons for choosing their school. The most prominent preferences were academics and scheduling. DHS and PHS have distinctly different schedules, an explanation for which Superintendent Botana could not provide other than tradition, so presumably this difference is an important factor for students. 

Source: Portland Public Schools

Casco Bay High School, a school which describes itself as “part of a national cohort of 160 high-achieving, progressive and urban high schools in the Expeditionary Learning network” can only serve 400 students total per year, so only about 55% of students who request it are accepted. Shouldn’t a main question stemming from this arrangement be, how can PPS accommodate more students’ primary choice? Maybe there is something to the programming offered at CBHS which is attractive and beneficial to students and families. While the student-to-staff ratio is highest at CBHS out of the three schools, it strives for a faculty that is “interdependent,” which may be a reason why it provides a learning experience that many families see as optimal.

What if, instead of looking to consolidate the high school system, PPS looked to decentralize it, with a primary goal of getting every student their top choice regardless of demographics? Why doesn’t the district commission a local charter school to serve students with similar preferences as Casco Bay?

First and foremost, archaic state laws push away educational entrepreneurs from starting a charter school in Maine. Charter schools in Maine are currently capped at the existing 10 schools. Total enrollment at the state’s two virtual charter schools, which operate independently of one another, is also capped at 1,000 students. Ironically, it was Michael Brennan, a former mayor of Portland who, as a state representative, sponsored bills in the 2019 Maine Legislature to institute these stifling policies. 

While in-person schooling was closed in 2020, traditional district schools were forced to administer virtual learning with little-to-no preparation, while experienced virtual schools were severely limited. Rep. Brennan’s constituents in Portland could have gained so many more options during that difficult period, but the Education Committee under his leadership refused to move forward on bills to repeal the unnecessary barrier put in place during the previous Legislature.

Even though a locally-authorized charter school’s enrollment would count toward a district’s enrollment and state funding allotment, district leadership at PPS would likely oppose authorization. In addition to the fact that the charter would be competing for the same district budget, the staff at the charter would be hired separately from other staff in the district. State law outlines that, in these situations, “bargaining units at the public charter school must be separate from other bargaining units, such as a district bargaining unit.” This means that the power of the district’s current teachers’ union would be diluted as parents are offered schools with operations that might differ from the district’s status quo.

The future of high school choice for Portland students remains an open conversation. On September 6, the district and school board will offer the public a “first read” of the proposal and conduct a public hearing. The school board is likely to vote on it two weeks later at its meeting on September 20. 

Whatever the board decides, here’s hoping they look to parents and students to show them what could be improved about the process instead of deferring to the preferences of school administrators.