Deering High School in Portland, Maine. Credit: Seth Koenig | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Gregg Palmer, the principal of Deering High School, is expected to step down before the coming school year.

The announcement comes two weeks after reports of an enrollment drop there. Deering High, which has typically enrolled about 220 freshmen, will see just 127 entering students this fall.

A letter from Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said that Palmer had accepted a position elsewhere, and that there would be a formal announcement next week. Vice principals Abdullahi Ahmed and Alyson Dame would be appointed acting co-principals, Botana said.

Botana said he didn’t see a correlation between the resignation and a recent report by the Portland Press Herald that described a systemic behavioral problem at Deering High School.

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Among other schools in the system, Deering High School teachers had implemented a pedagogy that prioritized restorative justice and racial equity in an effort to reduce detention and out-of-school suspension rates that often correlate to higher dropout rates, which disproportionately affect minority students and those of color. Some teachers said the implementation of this program fueled a perception among some that Deering had a discipline problem.

“Our equity work is about identifying and reducing some of the systemic barriers facing students in education and in our system,” said Barrett Wilkinson, equity coordinator for the Portland Public School system. “That’s happening on many levels, and one piece of that is the staff training around equity.”

Wilkinson cited the Portland Promise, a strategic package that the system advanced in the fall of 2017. The initiative helps teachers identify and work to correct areas of “bias and privilege, opportunity gaps and achievement gaps” in the system.

Over the past two school years, Deering made distinct steps toward that initiative, putting less emphasis on detentions and suspensions and more emphasis on profiency-based learning and peer accountability.

But some teachers were vocally critical of the initiative, saying that its implementation caused, or contributed to, a lack of discipline and unsafe environment at the school.

“The students were taking advantage of the administration, which was not using a zero-tolerance policy,” said Tim Eisenhart, a long-time teacher of math at Deering High School who left midway through last school year. “Kids need those distinct lines in the sand and the administration wasn’t giving it to them.”

Eisenhart told the BDN that he told “anyone who asked” about his perspective of Deering’s discipline issues over the last year, a development which other teachers in the system have speculated has contributed to the enrollment dropoff.

Two weeks ago, more than 120 Deering High School students circulated a petition challenging that narrative, asserting that Deering students felt safe in the school.

“When you talk about the most diverse school in Maine that way without contextualizing, you’re mentioning race without actually mentioning it,” said student Selam Desta.

“There are no tensions at Deering itself. Portland is becoming a little bit more divided racially, kids of color or economically disadvantaged kids are going to Deering,” said Desta, a 16-year-old student whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Uganda and Ethiopia.

Desta said that she believes Deering “does a good job of recognizing an issue of having a mostly white staff,” and that the disparity of diversity between faculty and students is an issue that “belongs to our state and our country.”

“Faculty care about our safety and our education. They recognize that diversity is a problem and are trying to address it in a responsible way,” Desta said.

Eisenhart said he doesn’t believe the issue has anything to do with race. “The big focus is the change in policy and the more forgiving policies in education,” he said.

“Kids are kids, teenagers are teenagers, no matter where you go,” Eisenhart said, adding that he doesn’t necessarily think Deering is an unsafe place. “It’s our job as educators to put definitive lines on what is acceptable inside those walls. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is or what your background is, it’s important to hold them to the letter of the law.”

The racial make-up at Deering has fluctuated over the years. In the 2009-10 school year, Deering High School’s student population was 73 percent white. In the 2019-20 school year, white students comprised 53 percent of the body as a whole.