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Our History

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Photos (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)

“The 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 communities.

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.

Portland 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.

By 1851, 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 citizenship.

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.

Today, the 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. 

Once overwhelmingly 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 and Portuguese.

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. 

Sources: “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.