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The Fundamentals

This page covers:

  • Neighborhood schools
  • Charter schools
  • Focus Options in Portland Public
  • Private Schools

Welcome to yet another crucial decision in parenting – finding the right school for your kid. The process is overwhelming at best, and angst-ridden at worst. And you thought choosing your kid’s name was a challenge! We're guessing you're a thorough-minded parent and you want to have a sense of what your options are.  But when and where to begin?

 More: Tips for the Preschool search

Let’s start with the basics of WHEN to begin:  If your child is of school age (5 years old by Sept. 1st) you can register at your neighborhood school at any time and literally start the next day, although it can be to your benefit (and the school’s) if you register sooner rather than later.  If you’re looking for a spot at a public school outside your neighborhood school, you enter the School Choice Lottery (or individual charter school lotteries - more on that later) in the spring for the following fall.  Know up front that “lotterying in” to a school is generally competitive, and your best odds of getting a spot are at kindergarten or at sixth grade if the school goes through eighth grade.  At these “intake years” more spaces are widely available.

Now let’s see WHAT the basic kinds of schools are out there:

Standard Public Neighborhood Schools:

In Portland, every child is guaranteed a spot at their local neighborhood public school, as determined by your address: Find your neighborhood school here.  Some never look further than their neighborhood school; others feel compelled to unpack the full range of options before deciding. But no matter what, you’re always guaranteed a spot at your neighborhood school, which theoretically is within walking distance to your house.

More: The über scoop on Neighborhood Schools

Most neighborhood schools provide children with a balanced and comprehensive program in the three Rs (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic) and differ slightly in their offerings of various “specials”– perhaps music once a week, some foreign language, an art lesson here or there, and usually PE (all this dependent on fluctuating budgets).  Some have gardens or other bells and whistles added by motivated parents, but nearly all have similar approaches and curriculum sanctioned by the district and state office of education.

Note: While whole subjects like Geography might be overlooked, there's new hope for Arts in the schools (like this program) thanks to a ballot that passed in November 2012.

Specialized Public Neighborhood Schools:

Some neighborhood schools take on a particular focus or philosophy. Their focus, be it art or science,  provides a lens through which to teach the usual subjects. The International Baccalaureate Program is also offered at a few schools. Should you live within the boundaries of these schools and elect to go to your assigned school, you get a specialty school as your default option.  Once these schools have filled their rosters with neighborhood kids, they may, depending on the school, offer the remaining spots to the general public through the Focus Option and Language Immersion Lottery.  

The idea is that kids who have an interest or propensity for whatever the focus theme is will be more engaged in learning, and thus will learn more deeply. Some feel that these schools neglect the basics in pursuit of a particular academic lens.  We suggest that you get out there and judge for yourself - there is no substitute for checking it out first hand. 

Public Specialized Schools - Lottery Only:

Some focus schools fill their roster entirely through the lottery, which usually means that they’re commuter schools with kids coming from all over Portland. Unlike the schools mentioned above, no priority is given to students in those neighborhoods.

Just to make this more confusing, there are other school sites that house two programs within their walls. Typically, one of these is the neighborhood program and the second is a specialized program whose students are placed there only by “lotterying in.”

More: Charter Schools - Who Should Get In? 

Charter schools are one step more independent.  Charter schools manage their own money, hiring, lottery, and curriculum with public school funds, and have the freedom to explore learning in less traditional ways.  Most have a driving philosophy or pedagogy, some of which are long-established and some of which have been developed by the school itself.  Examples of these public schools include Montessori, Waldorf, and project based approaches.

 Note: Some specialized schools can be classified as Non-traditional, whcih is an option you might want to consider.

Private Schools:  

Private (or Independent) schools offer a wide range of choices as well, including many of those described above.  In addition, the private realm offers religious schools, the vast majority of which are Catholic.  

Of course these schools will affect your budget (sometimes quite a bit) and sometimes have a treasure trove of resources that other schools (public and other private/ parochial) only dream about. Academics may or may not be more accelerated or stringent than in public schools, and measures of success such as test scores, also vary quite a bit.   If a private school is “more successful” it may be due to the school, other factors such as the students’ family situation, or a combination thereof. This is where we suggest that you don’t adopt the notion that “private schools are better than public schools,” but rather we recommend that you check out individual schools for their strengths and weaknesses.

More: The über scoop on Private Schools -&- Assessing the Financial Health of a Private School


And lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention homeschooling, which is a growing trend, and not only in religious circles.

Note: Here's one mom's experience with Unschooling, a movement within homeschooling.  And a different spin on this idea, Schools Without Teachers

So now that you have a general idea of the types of schools that Portland has to offer, make note of any questions that came up for you while reading this. To learn more about the specialty options available, get comfortable and settle in to keep on reading…

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