Students tend to flee Portland's most diverse schools
PORTLAND — As city schools work to streamline and centralize student placements, the number of parents asking to have their children placed in schools outside their local districts has continued to increase.
A breakdown of these out-of-district requests, and demographics provided by the Maine Department of Education, shows that for the Portland Public Schools' eight elementary schools and three middle schools, parents most often want their children out of schools with the highest black, Asian and Hispanic populations.
Although a few of the district's most diverse schools are also some of the most popular, the information suggests students most often ask to leave city schools with the most ethnically diverse populations.
A Freedom of Access Act request by The Forecaster for out-of-district parent requests from the last four years revealed that some schools have a high number of parents requesting their children leave the school in their district, while other schools have a high number of parents requesting that their children move to that school from outside the local district.
For instance, Lyseth Elementary School on Auburn Street in the North Deering neighborhood, had the highest number of elementary school requests, with 61 students asking to attend from outside the district. Just over 81 percent of Lyseth students are white, 11 percent are black, 5 percent are Asian and nearly 3 percent are Hispanic.
The second most requested elementary school, Longfellow on Stevens Avenue, had 46 requests in last year and the most requests into the school in 2009. Longfellow has the highest percentage of white students of any mainland public school, 92 percent. The school has nearly 4 percent black and 3 percent Asian students; Hispanic populations were too small to report.
Riverton Elementary – one of the district's "failing schools," according to student test scores required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act – had the highest number of requests for elementary students to leave the school last year, with 76 requests.
Riverton's population is 43 percent white, 41 percent black, almost 12 percent Asian and nearly 4 percent Hispanic.
The next closest was Presumpscot Elementary, with 29 requests by in-district students to attend elsewhere last year. Presumpscot is 56 percent white, 28 percent black and 13 percent Asian.
"We have to balance the needs of families with the needs of the district," said Superintendent of Schools James Morse Sr. said.
Some requests are granted, others are denied, depending on the circumstances of the application, the reasons for the request and the space available at the school the student wishes to attend. In documents, the district cites student attendance as a frequent reason to deny a request.
Some parents request schools closer to where they work, or close to grandparents or day care, Morse said. According to the documents, parents also request out-of-district placements because they have moved, students are having difficulty with peers, or because parents are not satisfied with the education their children are receiving.
Morse said Presumpscot Elementary School is 25 percent over-enrolled, and Hall Elementary is 20 percent over-enrolled, partially due to the number of out-of-district requests.
Influence on demographics
As part of the No Child Left Behind law, city schools are required to notify families of the status of a school if it has been designated a "Continuing Improvement Priority School" and inform them they have the option of attending a school outside their district.
Parent requests to leave a failing school must be granted and transportation to the out-of-district school must be provided by the School Department.
Riverton and East End schools have been designated CIPS schools for the past three years. Lyman Moore and Lincoln middle schools, and Deering, Casco Bay and Portland high schools are also CIPS schools.
According to school documents, some parents cited Riverton's inability to meet Adequate Yearly Progress under the NCLB law and the high number of English language learners as reasons they wanted their children to attend another school.
However, for Reiche and East End Community schools, whose demographics are similar to Riverton, the number of requests to transfer out are significantly lower. East End had 12 requests last year, and that number has trended down each year since 2007.
Reiche Elementary School on Brackett Street in the West End, which will become a teacher-led school this year, had 18 requests for students to go elsewhere last year, a slight increase over the previous two years. However, Reiche had almost the same number of requests for out-of-district students to attend the school.
Reiche has 42 percent white, 42.5 percent black, nearly 7 percent Asian and nearly 7 percent Hispanic students. East End has 48 percent white, 39 percent black, 6 percent Asian and nearly 7 percent Hispanic students.
Morse cited the teachers and parents in the Reiche neighborhood as part of the reason the school is succeeding.
"They didn't run away," he said. "Their population is almost identical (to Riverton), but the neighborhood and teachers banded together and made Reiche a special place."
When asked if he was worried if the "failing school" label would have an impact on the demographics of the district's schools, Morse said he didn't think Portland is large enough for that to happen.
"We only have eight elementary schools," he said. "There's just not a whole lot of places people can go."
Bucking the trend
At the middle school level, the preference is clear: Many parents want their children to attend King Middle School, an experiential learning school next to Deering Oaks Park.
Last year, the school had 131 out-of-district requests to attend, up from 115 requests the year before.
However, unlike its elementary school counterpart with the most placement requests, King has a more diverse demographic: 58 percent white, 24 percent black, 11 percent Asian and nearly 6 percent Hispanic.
Lincoln Middle School, on Stevens Avenue, was the next closest with 24 requests to attend. However, the school had 93 requests for children to leave the school.
Lincoln's demographics very closely resemble Deering High School. Lincoln has 65.5 percent white, 16.5 percent black, 13 percent Asian and 5 percent Hispanic students.
Lyman Moore Middle School, in North Deering, had 58 requests to leave the school, with only 13 requests to attend from outside the local district. Lyman Moore has 70 percent white, 21 percent black, 6 percent Asian and 2.5 percent Hispanic students.