A decision by Portland’s Board of Education to limit college choices drew sharp criticism from some parents who watched Tuesday night’s meeting online.
“The removal of the school board election will continue to fracture the city!!!” wrote Patty Skerrit, commenting while the meeting was live streamed on Facebook. “Listen to the local residents.”
The reaction from middle school parents and King Middle School students on Wednesday was more muted, although some also expressed disappointment or concern at the new policy.
An eighth-grader, who learned about the move from a teacher, said it was unfair that students before him could choose which high school to attend without fear of being promoted, while he wasn’t guaranteed the same choice . Other students, however, said they hadn’t made up their minds about which high school they wanted to go to or that high school wasn’t even on their radar yet.
After 43 years of unrestricted school choice in Portland, the school board voted Tuesday to change the district’s high school admissions policy. In the new system, which will be used starting with this year’s eighth graders, students will still be able to choose between Portland and Deering high schools, as Portland students have been doing for decades. However, the district is now allowed to transfer some randomly selected ninth graders from one school to another to balance the population size and demographic composition between the two schools.
The district has stated that the administration needs this authority so that it can ensure consistent staffing at its two largest high schools from year to year and better anticipate resource and staffing needs.
In a presentation on the subject this month, county officials said they’d like to see no more than a 30-person difference in class size between Portland and Deering. In the past five years, students’ school preference has changed from Deering to Portland. Last year, Portland’s freshman class had 69 more students than Deering’s. This year, Portland’s freshman class has 40 more students than Deering’s, 216 to 176. Overall, Portland has 958 students this year and Deering has 723, a difference of 235.
The board passed the resolution by a vote of 5-2, with Sarah Brydon and Abusana “Micky” Bondo voting against.
At King Wednesday, most parents and students surveyed said they were unaware of the policy change, and those who did did not appear to have very strong feelings about it.
One parent, Ifrah Mosamud, knew about the change and said she was concerned that if their children did not end up in the same high school, it would be difficult for them to get them to and from school. The board addressed those concerns in the final resolution it passed on Tuesday. The board resolution states that students who apply to be in the same school as a sibling will not be entered into the lottery to select the reassigned students.
In cases where the student populations in Deering and Portland are not equal and the district decides to transfer students to balance them, only students with no “diversity factors” are included in the pool of students who could be transferred. Students with diversity factors include those affected by homelessness, students on individual educational plans, students who qualify for free and discounted lunches, and English-speaking or multilingual learners.
The moderate response from parents and students at King was in stark contrast to the heated response from parents, who spoke at the board meeting and commented on the plan online during the live stream.
“No one wants this but the board,” Megan McCarthy Chason wrote in a Facebook chat.
“Forcing kids to go to a school they don’t prefer doesn’t solve the problem,” wrote another commenter, Stephanie Albert. “Make both excellent schools that inspire families.”
The district said only students with no diversity factors would be accepted into the lottery because the district aims to prioritize the needs of diverse students. However, the exclusion of students with diversity factors drew some criticism.
“Like I said before, it really doesn’t make sense to me that if you’re homeless, have free and reduced lunches, have an IEP, or are studying English, you have your first choice,” said Ann Marie Gribbin-Bouchard during the public Comment period before voting. “Let us all remember the definition of discrimination: the unfair or unfavorable treatment of different categories of people or things, particularly on the basis of race, age or sex; this will be discrimination against the population that does not meet these criteria.”
DIVERSITY FACTORS GENERATE THEMSELVES
“This is beyond annoying and frustrating,” wrote Patty Skerritt in the chat. “There are a lot of wonderful kids who don’t meet the diversity criteria and you throw them out.”
Other parents who commented on the chat said they felt the district wasn’t taking enough time to think about this decision, wasn’t listening to the community, and wasn’t making the best decision for Portland students.
Board members, including some of those who voted in favor of the resolution, also had their concerns. Sarah Brydon offered an alternative to the resolution and Ben Grant suggested an amendment.
Brydon’s amendment centered on the idea that the resolution fails to address the fundamental issue and why one school is more popular than the other.
She suggested that the district work to align school schedules and curriculum, allow students to indicate that they have no preference between Deering and Portland, and work to expand the program similar to what offered at Casco Bay, the district’s third high school. which enrolls 100 students per class and often cannot accommodate all students who wish to attend. She hoped these changes could help avoid imbalanced school populations and transferring students against their will altogether.
Grant’s amendment would have raised the issue of returning students to the board annually upon the completion of student selection, rather than giving district administrators sole authority to move students within the guard rails outlined by the resolution. Then the Board would work with the Superintendent to determine if and how students could be persuaded to maintain an equivalent program and efficiency at both schools and ensure that the largest possible number of students could attend their chosen school.
Both amendments failed.
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