Tuesday, May 15, 2018

My Monthly Column – May 2018

Time to Recognize School Staff – and Volunteers

By Xavier Botana

Another name for May could be “Appreciation Month” because it’s an opportunity to recognize and thank many of our school employees. During May, we celebrate National Teacher Day and National Teacher Appreciation Week, as well as National School Nurses Day, School Nutrition Employee Appreciation Week and School Lunch Hero Day. Here at the Portland Public Schools, we are deeply grateful to all these employees for the crucial roles they play in our students’ success.

This year, May also is an opportunity to express our appreciation to the hundreds of other people who make a vital difference in the lives of our students: our school volunteers.

On May 10 at East End Community School, we held a Volunteer Appreciation event for the approximately 700 parents and other community members who donate about 90,000 hours per year in services to our schools. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to these volunteers for all the time, caring and expertise they give to our students.

Our volunteers come from all backgrounds and – in our very diverse school system – from various countries. They include parents, some of whom begin volunteering when their children are in school but end up continuing to volunteer after their own children move on. Some volunteers aren’t parents themselves but value education and want to help our community’s children. Our volunteers range in age from retirees and grandparents sharing a lifetime of knowledge with our students to young professionals sharing their cutting edge expertise.

Volunteers do myriad things in our schools. For example, our classroom volunteers do everything from assisting students with reading and math to helping teachers organize classrooms and prepare materials. Volunteers in our Make It Happen! program, a college-readiness and academic success program for language minority students in grades 9-12, assist students with the college application process and help them engage in leadership, community service and professional development opportunities.

Outside the classroom, volunteers do such things as accompanying students to school in our Walking School Bus program, serving in PTOs, planning and organizing fundraisers, teaching students new skills before or after school, serving as an accompanist for student/parent chorus, assisting with drama clubs or as volunteer coaches, working as Sports Boosters and manning the ticket office and concessions at sporting events. They also chaperone events that include field trips, school dances and Project Graduation.

One of our core strategies is to ensure that every student has a meaningful connection to a caring adult. That person can be a teacher or other school employee but also a volunteer. Volunteers create bonds with students and serve as role models.

We always need more volunteers, so if you’d like to join this group of amazing individuals, please contact the community coordinator at your local school.

May 9 was National School Nurse Day, when we recognize our school nurses for all their contributions to student health and learning. One particular Portland Public Schools nurse truly stood out in that regard, and now our new school that will open this fall to replace Hall Elementary School will be named after her. The Portland Board of Public Education voted unanimously April 24 to name the new school the Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School.

Amanda was a beloved and dedicated longtime school nurse who died in 2013. In almost three decades with the Portland Public Schools, she tirelessly and courageously served as a health teacher, school nurse, and district school nurse coordinator. She worked at the local and state levels to increase students’ health and safety and combat injustice.

You can learn more about Amanda Rowe and the naming process on our website at:

Last but not least, the City Council votes May 14 on our proposed $112 million FY19 school budget to send to Portland voters June 12.  This year’s budget process has been a very challenging one, with a $3.4 million decrease in state education aid coupled with rising fixed costs. The budget we have crafted maintains quality education in Portland while being cognizant of the tax burden the state aid shortfall shifts to local homeowners. I hope you’ll make your support of this budget known to the council and at the polls.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

My Monthly Column – April 2018

Portland schools must keep moving forward
By Xavier Botana

Each year, we give our proposed Portland Public Schools school budget a name. This year, the title for our 2018-2019 budget proposal is “Portland Public Schools at a Crossroads.”

That title underscores that we in the Portland community face a clear choice. Do we support our current school system’s needs in the face of what likely will be ongoing decreases in state funding? Or, do we significantly reevaluate what we provide in the form of programs, services and the number of options available to our families?

I hope and believe that our community will answer “yes” to the first question.

Portland’s public schools are on the move – and we want to keep moving in a positive direction. This past fall, our district was ranked by niche.com as one of the top 10 school districts in Maine. Our test results show we provide a high quality education; our middle class students perform on par with their peers in surrounding communities. A recent student-growth rating of schools nationwide places Portland’s schools in the top 10 districts in the state and the 91st percentile nationally.

As Maine’s most diverse school district, we also have opportunity and achievement gaps for some of our students from poverty and students of color, but we’re actively striving to change that through our new Portland Promise initiative. We have established Achievement, Whole Student, Equity and People goals and have set strategies and five-year targets to achieve them.

Achieving those goals and sustaining quality schools require a continued fiscal commitment from the Portland community. Portland taxpayers have been generous with our schools and our results show why that matters.

Let me give you a brief summary of the budget challenges we face.

I’ll start by saying that we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem.  This year, the Maine Department of Education made changes to the school funding formula. Those changes contributed to a shortfall in our state education subsidy – for fiscal year 2019 we have $3.4 million less in state revenue than in FY 2018.

State education aid is influenced heavily by the total property valuation of a community – and property values in Portland are climbing. High valuation districts, like Portland, get less state money and are expected to contribute more locally.

To address the revenue shortfalls and rising costs, I proposed on March 6 an investment of $113 million in FY 2019, a 7 percent increase over FY 2018. We forecast this same amount in our multi-year budget last June. It reflects the increase the state school funding formula expects Portland to contribute.

The increase covers rising costs, such as our contractual obligations for staff salaries and health insurance, additional debt service for the new Hall Elementary School and investments tied to achieving our Portland Promise goals. It would add almost $20 a month to the tax bill for an average Portland home valued at $240,000.

I am grateful to the Portland Board of Public Education’s Finance Committee for its thorough public review of my budget proposal. That committee first evaluated reducing the budget by $3.8 million. That would have lessened the tax burden but cut deeply by closing our island schools, making class sizes larger, eliminating world languages in elementary schools and electives in middle school and increasing elementary school class sizes.

But many parents and community members opposed these reductions. In the end, the committee reduced my proposal more than $1 million through personnel cuts and a retirement incentive and advanced a $112 million budget proposal that meets the needs of Portland students while being cognizant of the challenges our budget situation poses for local taxpayers. That budget would add $168 to the annual tax bill of a $240,000 home. That’s about $14 per month to keep our schools on an upward trajectory.

The school board approved this budget April 12 and will present it to the City Council on April 18. The council sets the bottom line of the school budget, so please continue to stay informed and engaged throughout this process.  Here’s a budget timeline: https://www.portlandschools.org/district_home/school_budget

We stand at a crossroads. Please make your voices heard about the direction you want our schools to take.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My Monthly Column – March 2018

A Pivotal Moment Against Gun Violence in Schools
By Xavier Botana

Students who survived the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day are telling us that they don’t want other students to experience what they did. They created the #NeverAgain movement to advocate for stricter gun control, resulting in the National School Walkout March 14.

Portland’s high school and middle school students decided to join in this peaceful statement against gun violence. Because school was closed March 14 for a snow day, we allowed for a brief intermission during school on March 15 to permit students to express their viewpoints in a constructive, non-coercive way. Students with different viewpoints also were allowed to use this time to speak their minds. We’re proud that our students chose to advocate for their beliefs. As educators, we look for teachable moments to engage students in civic life. This is one of those moments.

I am encouraged that students are leading the way on this issue. These senseless tragedies have become all too familiar to us, but this time – thanks to our young people – we appear to be at a pivotal moment.

Adults need to do their part as well. We educators must ensure that our schools remain safe learning environments.

Unfortunately, in spite of our best efforts, we can’t completely protect our schools from every possible threat. That is something that I lose sleep over.

However, we can plan and prepare to minimize the circumstances that lead up to these situations.

Enhanced security measures are a part of this, as are drills and practice. Also a part of this is staying connected to our students and having strong mental health supports in our schools and in the community. Another part is training our staff to recognize signs of disconnectedness and to know where to go for help.

I also believe that we educators must take a proactive role in changing the policy climate in which school shootings have become far too commonplace.

Policies that limit access to guns must be part of this. As an educator responsible for the safekeeping of about 6,700 students each day, I am dismayed that our state and federal lawmakers cannot seem to agree on reasonable legislation to decrease the likelihood of such catastrophic events.

I’m distraught that a bill before the Maine Legislature would allow those picking up or dropping off students at schools to have firearms in their cars.  LD 1761 has the potential of making schools less safe and is opposed by the Maine School Management Association, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition and many other parties. I urge you to contact your legislators to vote down this bill, which was still pending as of this writing.

I’m dismayed by calls to arm teachers. Make no mistake, teachers and school staff will put themselves in harm’s way for their students, as we witnessed in the recent Florida school shooting and in many others. But no teacher or principal, no matter how well trained, should be asked to decide whether to leave the children in their immediate care to become first responders. It’s time for serious legislative proposals, not red herrings.

I’m encouraged by a proposal before the Maine Legislature, titled: “An Act To Create a Community Protection Order.” The bill would provide an avenue to petition the courts to temporarily remove weapons from a high-risk individual that potentially poses a threat to others or themselves. LR 2943 is still in draft form but could be finalized for a public hearing soon.

I’m also encouraged by the response from educators. Maine Educators United Against Gun Violence held a rally March 15 on the steps of City Hall, in which I and many of our teachers and staff participated. I look forward to being part of subsequent actions by this coalition.

As a voter, I support laws that limit access to weapons, including bans on certain types of weapons, strong background checks and the elimination of loopholes for obtaining guns. I encourage my colleagues to express their guaranteed right to free speech on this issue.

We need a thoughtful and proactive discussion if we’re going to effect the change our students and schools need.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My monthly column – February 2018

Teaching about Consent to Combat Sexual Harassment
By Xavier Botana

The #MeToo movement is shining a spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct, exposing abuses in all aspects of our society. That includes not only Hollywood, government and businesses of all types – but also colleges and K-12 schools.

As schools, we have a unique role to play when it comes to combating sexual harassment and misconduct. One key step is ensuring we have clear policies in place, and responding appropriately when they’re violated. Educators also have the opportunity to be proactive. We must educate students so they can recognize harassment – and break the cycle by not perpetuating it themselves.

February – Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month – is an opportune time to talk about these issues and highlight some steps underway at the Portland Public Schools to address them.

Teen dating violence is “a pattern of abuse or threat of abuse against teenaged dating partners, occurring in different forms, including verbal, emotional, physical, sexual and digital,” according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

To help combat teen dating violence, the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program http://www.yaapp.org/ works with our schools to help students learn how to make safe, healthy, and informed choices in their dating relationships.

Most sexual harassment in schools also is peer-to-peer, according to research from the American Association of University Women. That research also shows that most students who sexually harass another student have been targets of sexual harassment themselves. It’s “a vicious cycle” that is self-perpetuating if not addressed, the AAUW concludes.

Here at the Portland Public Schools, we are taking steps to help students learn to understand what sexual harassment is and how to prevent it. One example is the focus our schools are giving to the issue of consent in social situations and relationships.

“If you don’t teach a young adult about consent, they are forced to learn it on their own, which results in mistakes – mistakes that could potentially scar someone for the rest of their life, physically and/or emotionally,” says a Deering High School senior who has chosen the issue of consent as her senior Capstone project.

In their Capstone projects, Deering students explore topics they are passionate about and that they believe may be relevant to their next stage in life. The Deering senior whose project will focus on consent is concerned that Maine’s Health Education Standards (http://www.maine.gov/doe/healthed/standards/index.html) don’t specifically require the issue of consent be taught.

Maine is not alone in that. According to a recent Education Week article, fewer than half the states in our nation require schools to include the topic of “avoiding coercion” in a sex education program. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/01/26/what-do-schools-teach-about-sexual-harassment.htm

To help ensure her peers are educated about consent, this senior plans to work with Deering’s health teachers to have students watch videos about consent and engage in small-group discussions.

At Casco Bay High School, the issue of consent was a focus as student leaders and staff recently worked together to devise new norms for school dances. Deering also has adopted these norms and Portland High School plans to share them with students.

The new norms include:
·      Do not touch, hold or grab anyone else on the dance floor without clear consent.
·      We are all responsible for each other’s safety. Check in with people if you see something happening to another student that is questionable to you.
·      Report what you see to an adult if you do not feel comfortable intervening yourself.
·      Please see a chaperone if you experience any non-consensual touching or dancing.

We’re also reaching out to parents, through our new Parent University, to assist them in helping their children foster healthy relationships. A March 14 session, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Lyman Moore Middle School, will focus on raising powerful and confident girls. A March 31 session, from 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, will be on raising healthy and resilient boys.

I’ll close by noting that National School Counseling Week was Feb. 5-9. School counselors typically are the first people our students turn to and depend on when dealing with such issues as sexual harassment. During this month, let’s all take the time to thank and celebrate our school counselors!