The Universal Notebook: Be true to your school

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As the city of Portland toys with the idea of consolidating its high schools, I find myself of two minds about the possible merger.

Having graduated from Westbrook High School, I don’t have a dog in the fight, but the futures, if any, of Portland and Deering high schools are nonetheless a matter of some consequence to me.

Edgar Allen BeemIn many ways, I’m a Deering Ram guy. My paternal grandparents lived directly across Ludlow Street from Deering for close to 40 years. Both my parents graduated from Deering as did my aunt and uncle and several cousins. I’ve followed Deering sports heroes since I was a kid: pitcher Eddie Phillips, hoopster Nik Caner-Medley, infielder Ryan Flaherty.

On the other hand, my lovely wife Carolyn and her two brothers and sister are all Portland High Bulldogs. Because Portland and Deering are equidistant from where she grew up, Carolyn got to choose which school to attend. She chose Portland High because her siblings went there, because she liked being in the city, and because she valued the greater diversity that PHS offered.

Deering, surrounded by acres of playing fields, has long been Portland’s suburban high school, while Portland High, jammed into a tight urban space between a parking garage and City Hall, has been the city’s downtown high school. In terms of diversity and reputation, the two schools have flip-flopped in the 21st century. 

Today, the Deering student body is 54 percent students of color, while Portland High is 41 percent. Students all over the city now get to choose which high school to attend and the majority these days seem to prefer Portland. We have friends who live one block from Deering and their child elected Portland. In the fall of 2019, 266 incoming freshmen selected Portland and 138 selected Deering.

A consulting firm that studied Portland’s schools that same year pronounced them relatively “empty:” Portland with an occupancy rate of 42 percent of capacity, Deering at 63 percent.

This year, Portland houses 874 students and Deering 816. In 1969, Portland public school enrollment peaked at more than 14,000 students. Today, enrollment is less than half that at some 6,500. That is the obvious argument for closing one high school and consolidating.

As with most things municipal in Portland (City Council, Charter Commission, Planning Board), the School Board hasn’t really gotten its act together when it comes to consolidation. Yes? No? How? How much? Where? And there will be a lot of history and tradition to contend with no matter how consolidation occurs. 

Portland High School (founded in 1821) is the 24th oldest public high school in America. Its distinguished alumni tend to be historic figures like Mayor James Phinney Baxter III, film director John Ford, and Admiral Robert Peary.

Deering (1874, rebuilt 1922) is more known for athletes (see above) and actors – Linda Lavin, Andrea Martin, and Anna Kendrick.

If the decision is ultimately made to close one of Portland’s high schools, it probably should be dear old Portland High. That downtown site would be worth a small fortune and growth there is constrained by density. There’s lots more room to play out on Ludlow Street or maybe even the Allen Avenue campus of Portland Arts and Technology High School.

In addition to declining demographics, when you factor in the existence of PATHS, the Baxter Academy of Technology and Science charter school, and the Casco Bay High School expeditionary learning alternative, as well as two private schools – Cheverus and Waynflete – you can begin to understand why the days of the ‘Dogs and the Rams may be numbered.

Too many schools, not enough students.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.