Researcher: Portland schools' changing demographics present diversity challenge

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PORTLAND — A recent report says the city’s public schools are going through a “rapid” racial change that requires more emphasis on diversity.

Jennifer Ayscue, author of the September 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Project report,”Diversity in the Distance: The Onset of Racial Change in Northern New England Schools,” presented both state and city findings during an April 2 panel discussion sponsored by the White Barn Center for Research at the Portland Historical Society.

Ayscue said in 2000, African Americans made up less than 3 percent of the Portland community population. Their numbers grew to just over 7 percent in 2010, growth surpassed only in Lewiston, she said, where blacks represented just over 1 percent of the population in 2000 and nearly 9 percent in 2010.

“It’s important to recognize change is occurring … and to have a comprehensive plan to maintain (increasing diversity),” Ayscue said.

She said Maine is unique in that unlike most of New England, school enrollment is declining throughout the state.

“There are some areas where (enrollment) is growing, but it’s decreasing as a whole (in Maine),” she said.

In 1990, Ayscue said student enrollment in Maine was 98 percent white. She said that number has decreased to 93 percent as of 2010. She said a typical white student in Maine attends a school that is 98 percent white, while a typical black student goes to a school that is 77 percent white.

She said this means the two groups are not having the same experiences.

In the Portland metropolitan area, Ayscue said, student enrollment breaks down to about 91 percent white, just over 3 percent black, and nearly 2 percent each for Asian and Latino. The rest is categorized as “other,” which she said is American Indian or a combination.

However, in the Portland Public Schools, Ayscue said there has been much more rapid racial change. In the 2012-2013 school year, she said, white students made up 63 percent of enrollment, while black students made up about 23 percent. Nearly 7 percent were classified as Asian, 6 percent as Latino, and almost 4 percent as “other.”

While Ayscue said city schools are “substantially” more diverse than the metro area and the rest of Maine, she said there are several elementary schools where enrollment is at least 75 percent white.

“Students within the district are not all being distributed evenly,” she said, adding that at least in the elementary schools, this could be the result of smaller enrollments or neighborhood trends.

She said in order to ensure increased diversity in the schools, there has to be greater effort all around. She said the schools have to include diversity goals within student assignments, work with housing agencies, and address the composition of teaching staffs.

She said there should be greater effort to recruit, train and hire a diversity of teachers, and to provide teacher training about diversity.

“The nation’s teaching staff is 85 percent white,” Ayscue  noted.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or