The South Portland Board of Education is considering ways to improve “diversity” and reduce racial and socioeconomic “segregation” across the City’s five elementary schools.
During a Board meeting earlier this month, the Elementary Boundaries and Configurations Steering Committee presented several suggestions aimed at achieving this goal, most of which would involve a significant restructuring of the City’s elementary school system.
At the beginning of this year, the Committee was tasked by the School Board with conducting “a transparent, collaborative community process to review current school grade-level configurations, school catchment areas, and the possibility of Pre-K expansion.”
Meeting for the first time in February 2023, the Committee has held multiple public forums and has provided several progress updates to the Board of Education over the past several months.
Although the Committee was originally expected to make formal recommendations to the Board by May of 2023, they have since extended their timeline.
The Committee now plans to present its recommendations and proposals to the Board on January 8th of next year and continue to receive community input until March, at which the Board tentatively plans to vote on any proposed changes.
Currently, the Committee has scheduled a Virtual Community Forum for January 16th at 6pm.
On December 11th, Committee members Mindy Aloes, Kathy Mills, Lynne McKeown, and Mohammed Albehadli presented their work thus far to the Board.
Their presentation focused primarily on the potential ways they could reduce the “uncomfortable differences between” the elementary schools throughout the City in terms of their racial and socioeconomic “diversity,” or lack thereof.
Members also shared with the Board some feedback they have received from stakeholders about the work they are doing and the suggestions that are currently on the table.
“Back in February, the Committee jumped right into learning detailed demographics of all five elementary schools based on race, socioeconomic status, multi-language learners, and specialized programing — such as special education and Pre-K,” Aloes said. “We learned past, present, and predicted future enrollment data, the number of classrooms and capacity at each school. We learned current class sizes and board policy on recommended classroom sizes.”
“We faced challenges such as enrollment unknowns due to temporary housing, and the fact that diversity is not geographically distributed throughout our city,” Aloes continued.
For the 2023-24 academic year, 55.37 percent of students at Skillin School are non-white, compared to just 24.27 percent at Small School, according to data collected by the Committee. Their data also shows that 27.67 percent of Dyer School, 37.22 percent of Brown School, and 49.71 percent of Kaler School are non-white as well.
The Committee also collected data on the percentage of “economically disadvantaged” students in each elementary school this academic year. While only 22 percent of students at Small School and 24 percent of those at Dyer School fall into this category, this figure rises to 27 percent, 46 percent and 51 percent at Brown School Kaler School, and Skillin School respectively.
Following Aloes’ introduction to the Committee’s work, Mills came forward to discuss “potential solutions” to the differences that exist between the City’s elementary schools that are currently under consideration by the Committee.
Some of the possible changes discussed in their presentation included altering attendance zoning, switching up school configurations, introducing magnet programming, and implementing a form of citywide open enrollment with “equity thresholds in mind.”
The first suggestion Mills made in the presentation was to “redraw the boundary lines with equity in mind” in order to reduce “segregation” in the South Portland school system.
“Segregation doesn’t have to include just race — socioeconomic and academic segregation also happen. Those are things,” Mills said. “And if we’re considering the diversity of our elementary schools and how they differ from one another, then its important that South Portland schools reflect the full diversity of the South Portland community.”
Mills also proposed potentially re-configuring the elementary schools to consist of four Pre-K through Grade 2 schools and one school for all of the City’s 3rd and 4th Grade students.
Another configuration for South Portland elementary schools that was suggested during the presentation was having one school for all Pre-K students, three Kindergarten through 2nd Grade schools, and one 3rd and 4th Grade school.
Adopting a Norwegian school model — which was explained during the meeting as a system in which students are sorted into grades based on birth year and remain with the same teacher for several years of their education — was also put forward as a possible path forward for the district.
Mills also presented suggestions from the Committee that South Portland elementary schools may benefit from the introduction of a magnet program — where different schools specialize in various subtopics of instructions alongside basic subjects — or a form of open enrollment designed around “equity thresholds.”
“That’s the uncomfortable part, right,” Mills said at the close of her remarks during the presentation. “The change.”
McKeown then shared a handful of takeaways from the input that has been offered from South Portland residents concerning the work that is being done by the Committee and the changes they have proposed thus far.
According to McKeown, many residents noted that “data is showing our schools are racially and economically segregated, and that an achievement gap exists between low income and minority students and their higher income and white peers.”
“We have heard many express that they value walkability and neighborhood schools and are concerned that will be disrupted,” McKeown continued.
McKeown also explained that there were a number of those who expressed a desire for the process to be slowed down and requested that a “needs assessment” be conducted before going forward with any changes.
It was also noted that some wanted the Committee to take into consideration “equity for who has bus rides and how long they are” should any of these changes be implemented.
Additionally, McKeown noted that there was “some worry that implicit bias and privilege is holding the community back from moving forward to create more equitable schools.”
McKeown also said that there were residents who expressed a desire for the Committee to conduct more research on impact of transitioning between schools for students before officially recommending any plans to make structural changes to the City’s elementary school system.
South Portland Superintendent Tim Matheney then added that Skillin School and Kaler School look different from Small School and Dyer School — and Brown “to some degree otherwise” — in terms of the percentage they each have of “students of color,” “multilingual learners,” students who are “meeting learning expectations,” are “economically disadvantaged,” “affected by mobility,” and “live in close proximity to their schools.”
“We shouldn’t have a district in 2023,” Committee member Albehadli added, “where economically students are concentrated in just one group and then you have four other schools that are not dealing with that issue. That’s one thing.”
“And of course the racial diversity. I don’t want to have districts where there’s one school that is greatly diverse, has great racial diversity, and then there’s another school lacking that,” Albehadli continued. “We’d be depriving other students of that opportunity to go to class with a classmate who’s from Congo or from Iraq or from somewhere else.”
“That’s a learning opportunity that would be missing for someone to go to a school that is not as diverse as another school,” Albehadli said.
The U.S. News and World Report rankings for South Portland’s five elementary schools are wide ranging.
While Small School ranks 8th in the state, the second-highest placing elementary school — Dyer School — ranks 87th.
Brown School ranked 129th, and Kaler School placed 158th. Skillin School came in so low on the list that it earned an unranked position between 164th and 219th.
Neither the Committee nor district administration has any decision-making authority with regard to changing boundaries or grade level configurations. Any recommendations made by the Committee must be approved by the City’s Board of Education before they can take effect.
If the Board decides to pursue any significant changes to the elementary school system, they will likely not take effect until the 2025-26 academic year.