June 25, 2018
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A year after opening, new Portland elementary school faces overcrowding problems

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Less than one year after its grand opening, Portland’s Ocean Avenue Elementary School is facing overcrowding problems that may force the conversion of a music space into an additional classroom, among other steps.

Portland Public Schools officials also are bracing for the drawn-out public process of redrawing the district lines that determine which city neighborhoods are served by which elementary schools.

With an expected incoming fall class of about 95 kindergartners replacing an outgoing fifth-grade class of 53, school officials at one point expected the new $14.1 million school to exceed its 441-student capacity by at least 30.

Enrollment numbers updated Wednesday showed a fall school population of between 419 and 424 students, but during an informational meeting held at the school Thursday night, parents and school officials girded for another enrollment uptick over the final month of summer. Last year, 77 students enrolled at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in the months of August and September.

The potential overcrowding means parents of other neighborhoods who had hoped to send their children to Ocean Avenue may no longer be allowed and a room intended to host the music program must be repurposed as traditional classrooms.

Under those scenarios, the school’s music teacher will use the cafeteria stage space for that program and about 20 out-of-neighborhood requests must be declined.

Parents who spoke to a panel of school officials Thursday night, however, said that taking away a dedicated music room will hurt the program and that neighborhood parents weren’t brought into the discussion of how to alleviate the overcrowding.

“When I heard [about the idea of] taking away art or music spaces in the fall, I couldn’t believe that was getting [discussed as late in the year as] June,” said Lisa Hicks, parent of an Ocean Avenue student and dance teacher at Portland Arts & Technology High School, echoing the comments of at least two others. “It’s just not acceptable to take that space from 440 kids for the sake of 40.”

Kristin Sims-Kastelein, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, said her group was left out of the loop as system officials cycled through different ways to accommodate more students in the building.

“We do have a parent advocacy group,” she said. “At some point, the decision was made to use the stage [for the music program], and we were not approached about that.”

One option that seems to be off the table is the installation of external temporary modular classrooms. Doug Sherwood, facilities director for the system, said costs to install, maintain and eventually remove modular units — which add up to about $35,000 over a year — to serve as extra temporary classrooms on the site make them undesirable. He added that the modulars also would have to invade outdoor recreational space on the school campus that was part of the strategic design of the lot.

The City Council’s proposed five-year capital improvement plan includes $48 million for school projects, including design work on a new Fred P. Hall School and improvements to or expansions of Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot, Reiche, West and Ocean Avenue schools. Those projects likely would add citywide student capacity.

Another longer term solution to overcrowding at the new school could be the redrawing of district lines determining which areas of the city are served by which schools — a move that could shift families on the fringe of Ocean Avenue Elementary School’s area into the territories of other nearby schools.

Handouts delivered to attendees at Thursday night’s forum described redistricting as an option for fiscal year 2014, 2015 or beyond, but Chief Operations Officer Peter Eglinton said the process could be launched with hopes of developing new district lines in time for September 2013.

Eglinton said redistricting efforts could be time-consuming and wide-ranging, noting that redistricting conversations could include designating different grade ranges for different elementary schools in addition to just looking at borders on a map.

While redistricting could be lengthy and controversial, some believe it should have been done during the planning stages for the new Ocean Avenue school to avoid the problems being faced.

“My sense is what parents are most upset about is what they feel has been poor communication between the school district and impacted parents,” City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who represents the council’s District 3, home to many Ocean Avenue Elementary School parents, told the BDN recently. “And their perception is that this is the result of poor planning by the School Department.”

Sims-Kastelein agreed with that sentiment Thursday, saying an earlier redistricting was promised but not followed through on.

Kate Snyder, school board chairwoman, said Thursday night that as recently as 2008, system officials were grappling with enrollment projections so low they were contemplating closing schools, so the overcrowding problem of today would have been difficult to foresee.

According to information posted on the Ocean Avenue Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization website, some believed at the time the new school was being designed that it was too large because of the smaller school populations at Nathan Clifford Elementary School and the former Baxter Elementary School, the two facilities the new building was slated in part to replace.

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