Tuesday, January 14, 2020

My Monthly Column – January 2020

A regional approach to challenges will help Portland schools thrive
By Xavier Botana

Mainers strongly identify with the cities and towns they live in. We Portlanders, for example, are very proud of our great city and all it has to offer. But Portland didn’t become great all by itself. Portland is the seat of Cumberland County and its success is linked to the success of other cities and towns within our region.

Thrive2027 is an initiative seeking to capitalize on what Portland and the other communities in our region can do if we work together collectively, instead of in our “silos.” Launched in 2016 by United Way of Greater Portland, Thrive2027 is built around three ten-year goals to make Cumberland County better and stronger in the areas of education, employment and health.

As superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, I strongly believe in the value of a regional approach to address educational and other challenges, so I have become a member of the Thrive2027 Council. The Council is made up of leaders from government, corporate and nonprofit sectors throughout the county who advise and oversee Thrive2027 to ensure its success.

Cumberland County is Maine’s most populous county and is already a great place to live for many. However, the three Thrive2027 goals, created by and for community stakeholders, are designed to make it stronger for ALL residents in the 28 communities of our county: Baldwin, Bridgton, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth, Casco, Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, Frye Island, Gorham, Gray, Harpswell, Harrison, Long Island, Naples, New Gloucester, North Yarmouth, Portland, Pownal, Raymond, Scarborough, Sebago, South Portland, Standish, Westbrook, Windham and Yarmouth. 

The three goals are to ensure that:
  • More kids have a strong start in school so that they’re reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
  • More people have the education and employment opportunities needed to afford to live and work in Cumberland County – to thrive, not just survive.
  • More of our neighbors live longer, healthier lives.

When it comes to our children’s learning, the first goal is vital. Research shows that third-grade reading ability is a key indicator of future academic success. In the 2017-2018 school year, 59 percent of the county’s children read proficiently at the end of third grade. By 2027, the goal is to hike that to 70 percent.

Strong pre-kindergarten programs can help students reach that goal. My column in September was about the Portland Public Schools’ plan to expand our pre-K program over the next five years in an effort to eventually offer pre-K to all Portland 4-year-olds. Any efficiencies and savings that might result from a regional approach to pre-K expansion would benefit everyone.

The second and third Thrive2027 goals might not seem to be education related, but they are. With the prices of homes and rents rapidly increasing in Cumberland County, schools in Portland and other communities are serving an increasing number of homeless students. In 2017, just 65 percent of households in the county paid less than less than 30 percent of their income for housing. Boosting that number to 70 percent by 2027 will help ensure more youngsters have a stable home environment, making it more likely they’ll succeed in school.

And doing more to promote the health and well being of families also leads to better educational outcomes. 

The idea behind Thrive2027 is collective action. By bringing people together around a common goal, all working at it from different vantage points, I believe we’ll be exponentially successful. In the end, we’ll get more than the sum of our individual efforts to help Cumberland County communities thrive.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

My Monthly Column – December 2019

A diverse staff is a boon for all students
By Xavier Botana

When I became superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, one consistent message I heard from students, parents and members of the school board and community was that they wanted our faculty and staff to better reflect the diversity of our students. That’s why we made staff diversity a key part of the People goal in our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan.

This is the last of four monthly columns I’m dedicating to discussing important investments in the Portland Public Schools’ 2019-2020 budget. The initiatives embody our Portland Promise goals of Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. I’ve previously discussed our pre-kindergarten expansion initiative, our behavioral health continuum and our efforts to strengthen our core curriculum. This column focuses on our work to realize our People goal by attracting, supporting and retaining talented and diverse staff.

The data is clear: Having teachers of color is very good for students of color. It also shows that staff diversity benefits ALL students.

An article in the April 2019 issue of Educational Leadership, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), focuses on data analyses showing that “having even a single black teacher in elementary school can make a tremendous difference” for black K–12 students, “improving a student's trajectory far beyond the elementary years.” http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr19/vol76/num07/The-Impact-of-Teacher-Diversity.aspx

The article says: “Being taught by a black educator is so salient that it can affect whether or not a student of color not only finishes high school, but enrolls in college.”

Other students also benefit from learning from diverse teachers. According to a
Scientific American article: “Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

When launching our Portland Promise in October 2017, we set a People goal target of having 10 percent of our staff be persons of color within five years. Just 6.7 percent of our staff met that definition in the 2016-2017 school year. Last school year, the number had climbed to 7.5 percent. We hope to continue to make gains toward our goal.

Here are some steps we’re taking to increase staff diversity:

·       The summer of 2019 marked the third year of our educator diversity program, called TeachPortland. The program provides high school, college students and adults in our community interested in teaching the opportunity to gain classroom experience and relevant professional development. We had 44 participants in the program this year, and ultimately hired five participants this fall.

·       In January 2019, we launched the Education Academy at The New Mainers Resource Center at Portland Adult Education (PAE). The Education Academy assists new Mainers trained as teachers in other countries to become licensed educators here. We had 11 Education Academy graduates this spring and most are working in our schools – three as teachers; three as educational technicians; and one as an AmericaCorps/Vista staff assistant at Riverton. Another volunteers at King Middle School while awaiting work authorization. This year, we have 11 more students enrolled in Education Academy programs.

·       Just last month, PAE and Southern Maine Community College agreed to partner in a new initiative called Building the Pipeline to enhance workforce training and educational opportunities for new Mainers.

All of these initiatives will aid us in building a workforce that better reflects the wonderful diversity of our student body. I firmly believe that we will only be as good as our talented and diverse staff. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done and look forward to continuing these efforts.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

My Monthly Column – November 2019

Developing a ‘vertical’ districtwide content vision for curriculum
By Xavier Botana

We’re working to realize the Achievement goal in our Portland Promise by strengthening core instruction through a quality curriculum, strong teacher leadership and sustained professional learning. One way we’re doing that is by going “vertical” when it comes to our curriculum.

This is the third of four monthly columns I’m dedicating to discussing four new initiatives in the Portland Public Schools’ 2019-2020 budget. The initiatives embody the goals in our Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan: Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. I’ve previously discussed our pre-kindergarten expansion initiative and our behavioral health continuum initiative.

This month, my focus is on how we’re working to strengthen core instruction. Research shows effective supports, quality curriculum, and collective teacher efficacy improve student achievement. This work is connected to not only our Achievement goal, but also our Equity goal.

Under the leadership of Melea Nalli, our assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, we have created Core Content Vertical Teams to enhance curriculum development. We began these teams last year in math and we’re adding English language arts, social studies, science and health vertical teams this year. By “vertical,” we mean that what students learn at one level – whether it’s at the elementary, middle or high school level – will prepare them for moving on to the next level.

This is a change because, in the past, we haven’t focused on curriculum development from a districtwide perspective. These vertical teams will now give us a bird’s eye view of our curriculum across all levels. That will allow us to develop a shared and coherent vision for instruction at all levels, based on current research and evidence-based practices, and mesh our districtwide content vision with school instructional visions. 

It also will help bring a lens of Equity and high expectations for all students to our current practices, and ensure we’re evolving to meet the needs of all our students in core content areas.  Additionally, we’ll be better able to share best practices, analyze curriculum and data, and look at instruction to inform decision making around curriculum, structures, professional development and policy.

In short, the vertical teams will help everyone at the elementary, middle and high school levels to know what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching it and what our instruction is telling us.

Another way we’re working to strengthen our core curriculum is by taking a critical eye toward content and perspective. We are taking such steps as diversifying materials and content, allowing students to demonstrate mastery in diverse ways, and ensuring what is being taught is relevant and engaging to all students. Research shows that this is a core strategy to improve outcomes for all our students and help realize our Equity goal. 

One example of this is the Wabanaki Studies curriculum we’re developing. The Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes are known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.” Some of our students are Wabanaki, but we consider teaching about Maine’s Indigenous peoples necessary to give ALL our students a comprehensive understanding of the history of our state and our nation. 

To ensure we’re creating an accurate, culturally responsive, Equity driven curriculum, we are partnering with the Abbe Museum and tribal leaders from across Maine. We are also using a decolonizing framework to help ask tough questions about what we teach, why we teach it, and whose perspective we’re uplifting. 

We’re also working to develop a social studies curriculum around holidays that focuses on more culturally appropriate ways of celebrating holidays in the diverse and inclusive setting of Portland’s public schools.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

My Monthly Column – October 2019

Behavioral health continuum helps all students
By Xavier Botana

This is the second of four monthly columns I’m dedicating to discussing four new initiatives in the Portland Public Schools’ 2019-2020 budget that embody our Portland Promise goals: Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. This month, my focus is on our initiative to create a robust behavioral health continuum.  This work is connected to our Whole Student, Achievement and Equity goals.

We want students to have a well-rounded education – which is why we have the Whole Student goal in the Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan. We are committed to not only teaching academics, but also to helping students develop socially and emotionally so they can attain the skills, habits and mindset for success in life. 

When it comes to academics, most of us are familiar with the idea of a “continuum” of student learning. At one end are students who need very individualized support, while at the other end are very advanced students who seek opportunities to accelerate their learning. 

The same is true about social-emotional development. We recognize that some students need higher levels of support, but we also strive to ensure healthy social-emotional development for all our students. That is why we are building a system of continuous support around behavioral health.

Social and emotional health goes hand in hand with academic learning. Teachers are very aware that one or two students with significant disruptive behavior can take an inordinate amount of time away from classroom instruction. Having clear expectations and making sure that everyone understands them is an important part of a high performing environment in all walks of life.  

The foundational component of the continuum of our behavioral health is the development of a school culture and climate that reinforces positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS).  This ensures that our teachers have the support they need to have students access learning opportunities.

Chris Reiger, our director of clinical and behavioral support services, who joined our team last year, leads our social-emotional development work.  We’ve added social workers and behavioral health professionals to help support this work. But building the capacity of all of our staff is the key to making this happen.

A significant part of our new budget initiative was the development of a behavioral health continuum in our schools.  This included reorganizing our former Bayside Learning Community to create more opportunities to support our students’ social-emotional needs.  

We’ve added programming for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities at Rowe and East End elementary schools and have strengthened existing programs at the middle and high school levels.  We still have a day treatment program – formerly Bayside Learning Community, now called the Breathe Day Treatment program. For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the program now is located at Lyman Moore Middle School and it’s at Portland High School for students in grades 9-12. These changes enhance our behavioral health continuum by allowing students to participate in school-based programming with non-disabled peers as appropriate, regardless of their service location. 

I’ll close by recognizing National Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.  Close to 560 of our students – about 8.2 percent of our total population – are Hispanic and I am too. Generations of Hispanic Americans have enhanced and enriched our nation and society. I want our students to know about our heritage and be proud.