(from top left:) Abyssinian Church that housed Portland's "colored
school," students in a Thanksgiving pageant at North School (circa
1920), Americanization class, Deering High School (circa 1900)
Neck,” as Portland was called in the early 1700s, hired a blacksmith
named Robert Bayley as its first schoolmaster in 1733. Bayley taught
six months of the year in The Neck, then moved on to surrounding
Portland’s first full-time teacher, Stephen
Longfellow, began 11 years later. A Harvard graduate and
great-grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he was paid by the town
and student’s parents. Longfellow’s school was a private one, though
the city had public schools then, too.
The Massachusetts Bay
Colony, which included Maine, passed a law in 1789 requiring that all
children receive instruction. (The law apparently did not apply to
girls or African American children.) That spurred Portland to expand
its school system. The new law also required that all schoolmasters
have a college or university education.
By 1832, the city had a
high school for boys, four schools in which honor pupils assisted the
teacher as instructors, six primary schools, one school for “colored
children,” two island schools and one “infant charity school.” The city
appropriated $150 per year to educate 1,074 students.
was one of the first cities in the country that spent public money
educating African-Americans. A few African-American children attended
classes with whites at North School in the early 1800s. As the
population grew, a separate “colored” school was created in a room at
the rear of the building. Later, the “colored” school moved to the
nearby Abyssinian Church on Newbury Street, the only African-American
church in the city. The church’s minister, Rev. Amos Freeman, served as
teacher and principal. The school existed for about 30 years, until
shortly before the Civil War.
Portland’s first high school for
girls opened in 1851. That school merged with the all-boys English
high school in 1863 to become Portland High School. The school
building on Cumberland Avenue originally had a wall separating the
sexes. Calling it the “wall of prejudice,” the principal had doors
installed on each floor a year later to connect the two sides of the
building. Today, Portland High is believed to be the second-oldest
continuously operating secondary school in the country.
Portland was providing evening classes for adults; many had missed out
on attending school as children. The surge in immigration from Ireland,
Armenia, Germany, Russia and Italy in the late 1800s and early 1900s
resulted in growing demand for adult instruction in English and
Portland’s population growth led to major expansion
of the school district in the first half of the 1900s. By 1938, there
were 12,537 students attending 41 public schools, and $4.5 million
invested in school buildings.
The schools played a big role in
health screening and health education. They offered classes in
sight-saving, lip reading and something called “Open Window Room.”
Special teachers instructed children at home if their health wouldn’t
allow them to attend school. Parent Teacher Associations worked to
support the schools, and they helped run a program that provided milk
and clothes to children in need.
The baby boom of the 1950s and
1960s spurred the building of new schools and consolidation of small
ones. A vocational-technical school opened in 1976. The district’s
enrollment peaked in 1969, at 14,188 students.
district has about 7,000 children attending 10 elementary schools (two
located on islands), three middle schools, four high schools and the
West program. Portland Adult Education serves an additional 4,600
students, providing English language instruction, job skills classes,
academics and enrichment courses.
In recent years, the district
has built two energy efficient, state-of-the-art elementary schools
designed for 21st century learning - Ocean Avenue Elementary School and
East End Community School. Plans are underway to rebuild or renovate
the remaining mainland elementary buildings.
The Portland Public
Schools’ ethnic make-up has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. A
major reason is the influx of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers
to Portland from countries around the world.
white, the district now has 24 percent of students who are black or
African, 7 percent who are Asian, 6 percent who are Hispanic/Latino and 4
percent who identify themselves as multiracial. About 32 percent of
students speak a primary language other than English at home. Of the 57
languages spoken, the largest language groups, in order, are Somali,
Arabic, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Khmer, Acholi, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi
The district is known in Maine and nationally
for being a leader in sustainability programs, Expeditionary Learning
and instruction for English language learners. The highly trained staff
includes Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.
Written in August 2014.
“Portland City Guide,” by Writers’ Program, Forest City Printing Co.,
1940; “Greater Portland Celebration 350,” Compiled and edited by Albert
F. Barnes, Guy Gannett Publishing Company, 1984;”Segregated Schools:
Separate, Unequal,” by Shoshana Hoose, “Maine Sunday Telegram,” February
7, 1993. Photos courtesy of the Maine Memory Network.