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School Setups

This page covers:

  • The rules around moving from elementary to middle to high school
  • The various configurations of Portland schools
  • A few exceptions worth noting as you research your options

The nuts and bolts of school organization: Even if you are a preschool parent just starting to get your head around the fact that your hip-high kid is going to be in elementary school, it’s a good idea to get the big picture on how students are channeled from elementary to middle to high school, and the various options for how schools are configured. 

Progressing from school to school: As mentioned, every child in Portland Public Schools has squatting rights to a given school as determined by his address.  This goes for middle and high schools as well, which can cause some rub if you choose to go to a school outside of your neighborhood.

So let’s take Buckman K-5 Arts Focus as an example.   Those students living within Buckman’s neighborhood boundaries will automatically have a spot at Hosford Middle School, their neighborhood middle school.  But if you lottery in, your kid will only have automatic rights to a spot in whichever middle (and high) school that your neighborhood school feeds into.  If you want your child to follow his Buckman peers to middle school, you will then need to win a spot via the middle school lottery (if the school is a Focus Option school), or petition to enroll (if the school is a neighborhood middle school).

One related and interesting caveat to note: Once your child is enrolled in a school, s/he may stay in that school for the year, even if you move out of the neighborhood.  And it's possible for your child to remain in his or her former neighborhood school beyond a year with principal approval, which is an attractive possibility for folks who move and want to minimize the transition for their children.

THE TWO EXCEPTIONS to these “feeder school” rules: (1) If your child is in a language immersion program, or (2) has special needs that can only be met at certain schools.  Most language immersion programs have continuations through middle and high school now, and you are guaranteed a spot if you choose to continue with immersion, regardless of where you live.  The International Baccalaureate Program may ultimately offer the same feeder override once their K-8 schools become IB accredited.

School Configurations

PreK-K (or age 3-6):  Many preschools offer the option of staying through kindergarten, which makes putting the harrowing decision about school off for a year.  But kindergarten is typically the key “intake year,” when schools have the most spots to offer. If you wait until 1st grade to look at school options, your odds of getting a spot will be lower. 

A note about Montessori pre-schools:  If you are interested in Montessori long-term, it is a good idea to send your child to a Montessori preschool both to prepare him for the experience and to keep open the option of private Montessori.  (Nearly all private Montessori schools strongly favor those students who have a Montessori background.)  Keep in mind that one of the distinctive features of Montessori schools is that their classrooms are multi-aged.  This means that kindergarteners are housed with pre-schoolers in what is usually called “The Children’s House.”  Therefore, the Montessori elementary schools (public or private) begin in first grade rather than kindergarten. So, if you are thinking about the free charter Montessori in NE (Ivy School), then you simply will do a lottery when your child is in Kindergarten (Montessori background or not) for entry at 1st grade.

Pre-K in PPS: Another exception to note is that some PPS schools offer Pre-K programs (free and tuition based).  And award-winning Richmond Japanese Immersion offers a tuition based pre-K program which allows automatic entry to the elementary program.  So, if you’re interested in Japanese immersion definitely consider this before your child reaches kindergarten age.

More: The Preschool Quest - Where to Begin

K-5 Elementary schools:  There are several K-5th grade schools that remain in the Portland area, even after a huge re-vamping done several years ago, which mandated that many of the neighborhood elementary schools convert to K-8th grade schools.  A lot of folks weren’t happy about this change, or how it was done, but there is research out there that shows K-8 offers a better environment for students overall.  As of 2015 there is some noise out there about changing most elementary schools back to this K-5 model, so keep your ear to the ground about your neighborhood school if this issue is important to you.

K-8 Elementary Schools: As mentioned above, many area schools are now K-8th grade, which eliminates your need to be concerned about a transition to Middle School.  Since this configuration is new to Portland Public, growing pains can be felt at many public K-8 sites, along with complaints that middle schoolers have fewer choices of electives.  Additionally, some kids are ready for a change by 6th grade.  As a result some attrition exists in the middle school years at these schools, despite research that backs the model.

Middle Schools (grades 6-8):  Because some K-5s weren't converted to K-8s, middle schools remain.  They look and feel pretty similar to what we all remember – electives, band, sports teams, hormones and angst abounding. 

High School (grades 9-12):  Portland public high schools have lately been the subject of much discussion, protesting, and tension. The driving ambition behind the a potential re-districting is to create more equitable high schools by balancing resources, high quality classes, and increasing diversity.  Time will tell how this will shake out, hopefully for the better…

K-12: There are a few public or charter schools, as well as a few private schools that encompass the whole shebang.  In some respects this seems ideal (imagine not having to think about transfers or applications until college!) but in other ways it might seem confining to your child to be on the same campus for their entire school career.  However, many of these schools increase enrollment at sixth and ninth grades, providing some element of change for existing students.   

So knowing all of this, how does it pertain to your decision now about Kindergarten (or another early transfer)?  It kind of boils down to how comfortable you are, or think your child will be, with future transitions.  If you are really drawn to a focus program right now, you very well could be facing the fact that your child’s peer group will scatter across town to various schools come the 6th grade (or 9th grade).  That will be a very different experience than if your child were to mosey along with his or her peer group, gathering new friends a long the way.  Ditto on the peer group transition if you are leaning toward your neighborhood school now but figure you may transfer for middle or high school.

None of this may matter much in the long run (it all works out, as they say…) especially if your child is socially well-adjusted.   We have a friend whose daughter went from Buckman Arts Focus (K-5) to an entirely different Odyssey History Focus (K-8) across town.  She only knew 1 or 2 kids who were also making the trek across the river, but she is loving school more than you can imagine, and instantly fell in with a great circle of friends.  But the “strangers are friends you haven’t met yet” thing may not be so easy for every kid (or adult for that matter!).


Take the big picture in to see if anything discussed here resonates with you in terms of how you see your child’s school years shaking out. It’s not worth getting attached to an outcome, but rather to file away as you research your options. If you still have a preschooler in tow and are curious about Language Immersion or Montessori, those are the 2 options where it might behoove you to get a jump start on exploring.

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