With two weeks left before Portland Public Schools opens for the first day, students across the city are receiving envelopes with their teachers’ names. But for some of their parents, that excitement is tempered with concern, as the state’s largest district has acknowledged a number of classrooms are likely to be more crowded than even the district’s relatively high enrollment caps would allow.

Abernethy Elementary School, Southeast Portland.

Abernethy Elementary School, Southeast Portland.

Rob Manning

Last spring, as part of its school-level budget, PPS set limits for class sizes in elementary school. Kindergarten classes were capped at 28 students, and first-through-third grades capped at 30. Those numbers are higher than limits set in the contract with the Portland Association of Teachers, which are intended to trigger staffing adjustments.

Earlier this summer, parents at Abernethy Elementary School suspected at least their third grade would go over enrollment caps. The district had planned for three sections of third-graders, but parents’ research suggested there would be 96 students in third grade.

They dug into the numbers in part because they’d learned no students entering that grade were planning to leave for the ACCESS Academy. That’s the PPS program for talented and gifted students that district officials struggled to relocate last school year, until finally the district split it into two new locations for the upcoming school year. 

On Aug. 2, PPS wrote back to parents and acknowledged that Abernethy and seven other schools — Alameda, Astor, Bridger, Grout, Llewelyn, Maplewood and Skyline — were likely to go above the enrollment caps.

In a message to OPB, the district said that enrollment at ACCESS appeared to be down by about 14 students, confirming that part of the reason for the higher enrollments at schools such as Abernethy might be tied to ACCESS.

PPS officials told OPB and parents that the district was in the process of hiring seven additional teachers to help address enrollment spikes. But officials weren’t planning to assign those teachers straightaway to classrooms because they were hedging against further shifts in enrollment in the coming weeks.

“Keep in mind, the number may still change before school starts,” wrote Harry Esteve to OPB last week.

Parents received a similar message via email from district officials, such as Scott Whitbeck, a senior director in the Office of School Performance.

“We are monitoring a number of schools and situations at this time, but the prudent thing for us to do is wait for students to show up at schools for a more accurate count as projections do not necessarily translate into actual students in seats,” Whitbeck said.

The decision is frustrating to parents. They wonder why PPS bothered to re-analyze enrollment figures this summer, if the district wasn’t going to use them to address problems.

Abernethy parent Bethany Cavanaugh said there is a cost to bringing in teachers after the school year has started.

“To know now and not do anything about it, when they have the opportunity to make sure those kids are walking in on the first day with some stability and not losing instructional time and everything else,” said Cavanaugh, who used to be a teacher. “That’s really the heart of this issue for me.” 

OPB asked PPS to provide information on how close summertime projections have historically been to fall enrollments, but the district was unable to come up with those figures right away.