Monday, April 17, 2017

My Monthly Column – April 2017

Portland schools commit to greater staff diversity

By Xavier Botana

Spring is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate many of our school employees. In April, we have National School Librarian Day and National Assistant Principals Week. In May, there’s 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 our staff members for all they do to help our students learn and/or be ready to learn.

This also is a good time to reflect on how critical Portland Public Schools’ staff is to the vision of our school district, which states: “All learners will be fully prepared to participate and succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.” Without an excellent, diverse staff our students can’t succeed in the way we envision. That is why we have made “People” one of the four goals in our district’s new Comprehensive Plan.

Our People goal states: “The Portland Public Schools attracts, supports and retains talented and diverse people who use their strengths to achieve our shared goals.”

In recent columns, I’ve written about the other goals in our Comprehensive Plan: Achievement, Equity and Whole Student. This month, I’m focusing on People. This fourth goal undergirds our three other goals and is critical to our achieving them.

We’re fortunate to have many outstanding staff members.

To cite just a few examples, Ann Hanna, assistant principal at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, is Maine’s 2017 Elementary School Assistant Principal of the Year, and Grecia Caraballo, a Spanish immersion teacher at Lyseth Elementary School, was named the Foreign Language Association of Maine’s 2017 Teacher of the Year. Also, Lauren Cormier, a social studies teacher at Lyman Moore Middle School, recently was selected as “Teacher of the Year” by both the VFW Deering Memorial Post and District 10. Cormier was honored for her commitment to teaching students about U.S. history and the importance of civic responsibility and service.

We also have many other excellent staff members who may not have received formal recognition for their efforts, but who work tirelessly to help students succeed. We know this because our students and parents tell us about these teachers and other staff that really make a difference in students’ lives.

However, as Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, we also hear concerns from students that our faculty doesn’t reflect the diversity in our classrooms. That’s an issue not just for us, but also for schools across the country. We are now taking steps to try to increase the diversity of our workforce.

For example, we’re kicking off an initiative this summer that focuses on creating a pipeline of diverse educators who more closely reflect the diversity of our students and their families.

The four-week summer program, co-sponsored by the Portland Public Schools and the University of Southern Maine, seeks to build interest in the teaching profession while also increasing the diversity of our teachers. The program will provide an opportunity for participants to experience teaching firsthand as interns in a PPS summer learning classroom, and to earn three college credits, tuition-free, by attending an introductory course in education at USM.

We hope to start with 20 participants comprised of current high school students, college students who are not currently majoring in education, and adults from the community who are interested in teaching as a profession. Program attendees will also receive a stipend for participating.

We’re also launching a new staff training program to promote cultural competency and foster a deeper understanding of the role of culture in learning. Our Cultural Competency Training Program will begin with staff from Central Office, school leaders and teaching staff. We will extend this to all staff over the next two years. We are grateful for a grant from the Bangor Savings Bank Foundation to help underwrite some of this work and will continue to seek outside funding for this program.

These initiatives will help us attract new talent, strengthen our organizational culture and assist the district in its mission of ensuring a challenging, relevant and joyful education that empowers every learner to make a difference in the world.

Monday, March 13, 2017

My Monthly Column – March 2017

Community Partners Help PPS Students Achieve
By Xavier Botana

I’ve been exploring the four goals in the Portland Public Schools’ new Comprehensive Plan in my monthly columns. I recently wrote about our Whole Student and Equity goals. This month, I’m focusing on our Achievement goal and the variety of ways the Portland Public Schools helps students achieve.

Our Achievement goal states that all our students will be prepared for college and career and empowered to pursue a productive postsecondary path.

That doesn’t mean all students necessarily will go to college. Our goal is to prepare every student to be ready for college, and to empower each student – through good guidance and an individual student plan – to be able to make a decision about whether to go to college or choose another postsecondary option.

Our Comprehensive Plan has several strategies related to our Achievement goal. We will ensure that our curriculum aligns to educational standards and that tasks reflect learning expectations. We will develop a districtwide intervention strategy with a focus on extending learning for students who need it. To drive instruction, we also plan to improve access to, and the use of, student learning data.

How will we know if we’re meeting our Achievement goal? To measure progress, we have a series of benchmarks with which we will hold ourselves accountable. They include ensuring that students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade; are “algebra ready” by the end of eighth grade; and are “on track” when it comes to grades, course completion and attendance by the end of ninth grade.

However, there also are other ways that the Portland Public Schools helps students achieve. As a large urban school district with the city of Portland as our campus, we have a wealth of opportunities – a world-class art museum, a critically acclaimed symphony orchestra and a professional theater venue, for example – on our doorstep. These opportunities are unique to students in our district by virtue of going to school in this great city.

As just one example, I recently spent an amazing hour being interviewed by some fifth-graders at Ocean Avenue Elementary School about my family’s immigration story. The interview was part of a project that the students are engaged in with Side x Side to make a documentary film based on the students’ study of the history of migration and immigration.

Side x Side is a Portland nonprofit that helps integrate arts-based programming into the curriculum of the Portland Public Schools. As evidenced by my experience with Ocean Avenue students, this partnership is helping students with critical thinking, creativity and innovation. I was impressed with how smart, serious and well prepared my student interviewers were!

Another community partner, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), also helps our students expand their knowledge. March is National Youth Art Month and the creative works of Portland Public Schools students are among the more than 90 works of art from K-12 Maine students on display at the museum through April 2.

That exhibition, sponsored by the Maine Art Education Association, is an annual event. However, thanks to Culture Club-Portland, Portland students get additional exposure to the museum and other cultural institutions.

Culture Club-Portland was created five years ago to expand cultural experiences for students in Portland’s public schools. The consortium, brought together by a generous anonymous donor, includes the PMA, Portland Ovations, Portland Stage, and Portland Symphony Orchestra (PSO). Its aspirational goal is to provide free arts experiences to every child in the Portland Public Schools, every year.

Each arts organization has special programming for our students. For example, the PMA uses a “visual-thinking-strategy teaching method” to help students in middle school and high school explore social justice issues as they decipher the meaning behind a circa 1913 symbolic painting featuring an interracial couple.

In another instance, the PSO worked with Lincoln Middle School history teachers to present a “Musical Melting Pot” concert featuring significant music during the historical periods Lincoln eighth-graders were studying. And a recent Portland Stage Company workshop helped students at Lyseth Elementary school appreciate the theater.

Students learn best when they’re actively engaged. Thank you to all our community partners for engaging our students in such wonderful learning opportunities.

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Monthly Column – February 2017

Achieving Equity

By Xavier Botana

I’m using my monthly column to explore the four goals in the Portland Public Schools’ new Comprehensive Plan. Last month, I wrote about our Whole Student goal. This month, I’ll talk about our Equity goal.

February is an opportune time to talk about equity because it’s Black History Month. It’s a time to celebrate how the contributions of African Americans have helped make our country great. It’s also a time to pay tribute to the generations of black Americans who have struggled to achieve equity in American society – a fight still ongoing today in such areas as education.

As Maine’s largest and most diverse school system, equity for all students is an extremely important goal for us. 

Our Equity goal states: “The Portland Public Schools is vigilant in supporting each and every student's particular path to achieving high standards, rooting out systemic or ongoing inequities.”

Currently, we recognize that as a school district, we have not yet attained that goal. Our state assessment and other data show that our results with students are uneven. There is a performance gap between some groups of students – such as members of racial minority groups and economically disadvantaged students – and their more advantaged classmates.

We do a great job with many of those advantaged students. However, there is a tremendous amount of work we need to do as a system to help the students in our district who don’t have the same level of opportunity in their lives. Many of our students face a variety of challenges. For example, they may not speak English as their first language or their families may be grappling with poverty and even homelessness.

When we look at our district, we can see a pattern of systemic and ongoing inequity regarding the outcomes for those students.

Let me give you a few examples from the district’s most recent state test scores, which the state released in December. When we look at our district as a whole, our performance largely mirrors the state average when it comes to the percentage of our students meeting or exceeding state standards.

However, as we drill down, the data shows we have a stark achievement gap between students who qualify to receive a free or reduced-cost school lunch (FRL students) and students with family incomes high enough so they don’t qualify for such lunch assistance (non-FRL students).

When you compare our non-FRL students to students statewide, our students significantly outperform similar students. But when you compare the scores of our FRL students to statewide scores, our FRL students do not perform as well. That pattern holds against other comparison sets, such as neighboring districts and districts with similar demographics.
About 55 percent of our students are FRL students. By setting an Equity goal, we’re making a commitment to work together to break that pattern and help those students improve their learning.

We have a number of strategies for doing that.

One is to strengthen family partnerships by improving communication and by building authentic opportunities for families to participate in the learning process.  We’re already moving toward action on this. A Parent Partnership Policy Ad Hoc Committee has been working since early fall on developing a new district family engagement policy, which the Portland Board of Public Education is expected to vote on soon.

We also want to expand student-learning opportunities. We want to ensure that all students have access to higher-level classes such as advanced placement and our talented and gifted programs. We also want to ensure that we have appropriate representation of students in our special education programs.

To this end, we are committed to reviewing current policies and practices that create unintended barriers to equity, to access and root out whatever stands in the way.

We plan to build a transparent and collaborative equity audit system, which will be used to identify best practices and areas for growth and act on them. We’ll report on our findings publicly.

One of the ways to ensure the success of these strategies is by attracting and retaining the most talented and diverse staff possible. That’s our People goal. I’ll be talking about that goal and our Achievement goal in upcoming columns.

Monday, January 16, 2017

My Monthly Column – January 2017

Educating the Whole Student

By Xavier Botana

Happy 2017! The Portland Public Schools is beginning the year with a new Comprehensive Plan, approved by the Portland Board of Public Education Jan. 3.  Over the next four columns I will explain what the plan is, how we plan to achieve it and how our community can help. 

Our Comprehensive Plan is a road map that aligns our district’s work with our mission and vision. It tells us what we need to do to guarantee that our community has the great schools it deserves. The district’s vision is: “All learners will be fully prepared to participate and succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.” And our mission states: “The Portland Public Schools are responsible for ensuring a challenging, relevant, and joyful education that empowers every learner to make a difference in the world. We build relationships among families, educators and the community to promote the healthy development and academic achievement of every learner.”

Over the fall, teachers, administrators, community partners and experts have worked together to establish four goals. The goals focus on Achievement, the Whole Student, Equity, and People (our employees). We also have developed key strategies for meeting those goals and refined the ways to measure and report our progress toward them.

Because January is National Mentoring Month, it’s a great time to focus on our Whole Student goal. That goal states: “All PPS students will develop the skills, habits and mindsets they need to engage in and contribute to our diverse city and ever-changing world.”

Our educators spend a great deal of time teaching about subjects ranging from math, science, reading and writing to art, music and physical health. But we also spend a lot of time and effort helping students develop other skills, habits and traits that are an important part of being successful in life.

These skills, habits and traits help students meet the standards set in the state of Maine’s Guiding Principles. Those five guidelines call for schools to teach students to become clear and effective communicators; self-directed and lifelong learners; creative and practical problem solvers; responsible and involved citizens; and integrative and informed thinkers.

To meet our Whole Student goal, we are committed to creating a shared understanding and language around social-emotional learning, and ensuring that we have programming and resources in each of our schools for getting us there. We are also committed to making sure that our students receive a balanced and well-rounded education.

One way to do that is to ensure that each student has a meaningful connection to a caring adult, someone in their universe focused on making sure the student is connected to school and on building an individual success plan for that student. That person can be a teacher, a bandleader, a coach, a school counselor or a parent – or a community mentor.

Statistics show that one in three young people are growing up without a mentor to offer real-life guidance. That’s a concern because students who have mentors are more likely to stay in school and on a path to making better life decisions. 

The Portland Public Schools has strong mentoring programs in place for many students, but we can always use more help. Please consider volunteering. Mentoring opportunities include our Multilingual & Multicultural Center’s Make It Happen! program and the Foster Grandparents program. There are many outstanding community organizations that also provide adult mentoring for students such as the Boys & Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters. 

While mentoring is one way that you can help, there are other opportunities to make a difference in our students’ lives. Those ways include accompanying students to school in our Walking School Bus program, volunteering to read to students or working with the many partner organizations that support our students. Each of our schools has a community coordinator to help build these relationships.  Learn more by contacting your local school or at this link:

January also is a month to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The national holiday commemorating his birth is Jan. 16 this year. It’s a time to remember Dr. King’s life and legacy and to engage in service to our community.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

My Monthly Column - December 2016

Human Rights Are More Important than Ever

By Xavier Botana

December is Human Rights Month. It’s a time for us to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and to do our part to reaffirm the dignity and worth of every human being by standing up for human rights. Recent events have brought the importance of protecting human rights into clearer focus for me than ever before.

One of the events that got me thinking more about human rights was the death of Fidel Castro. I’m a Cuban American who was born in Castro’s Cuba. My son has been working on a school project about Cuba for his Spanish class.  As part of his assignment, he has been interviewing people whose life was impacted by Castro’s rise to power. On Black Friday, he spent over an hour “skyping” with my older brother, the only living member of my family that lived in pre-Castro Cuba. The next morning we woke to the news that Castro was dead.

The conversation with my brother was wide-ranging, and I learned things I didn’t know about the revolution and its impact on my family. What wasn’t new was the pervasive sense that my family left Cuba at some peril. Not only did my family leave everything that they had worked to build over many years behind, but in doing so, they entrusted their future to strangers. My parents’ greatest fear was that their children would be taken away and forced to work the sugar harvest and, in the process, brainwashed by the revolution.

Flight attendants carried me and my infant brother to family who had left before us and would take care of us until my parents were able to leave. A generous country – the United States – welcomed all of us and gave us hope and a future. We were fortunate to be born at a time when we were able to come to this country and be afforded great opportunities.  And I am grateful for that every day.

It also makes watching the images of what is happening elsewhere in the world – places such as Syria, China, Russia, Kenya and Pakistan – stark reminders that the freedoms that we enjoy are not universal. Most importantly, it makes the tone of current conversations about immigration dissonant and difficult to reconcile with my own experiences.

Many of the children in the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, come to us fleeing oppression or worse. Regardless of where they come from – regions such as Central Africa or the Middle East or from former Russian republics – the themes in their stories are universal. They come to us hoping for the same opportunities my family enjoyed. They and their families want to be able to go to school, work hard, make their way and, in time, give back to this amazing country.  

Last month, I visited the Casco Bay High School Senior Exhibition “Pop-up Museum” on Heroes of the Middle East. Our CBHS students researched the stories of scores of men and women who have fought for human rights in that region, often at a great price. Through their research, our students learned how the hope for human dignity lives on even in the most inhospitable settings. Walking through the exhibits, I was proud of the depth of understanding their work displayed. I was most proud of the affirmation and commitment to understanding those experiences that was evident in their work.

And, above all, I am proud to lead a school district where I am confident that our schools are, and will continue to be, welcoming and supportive places for those seeking the rights expressed by the United Nations resolution that we commemorate this month. I can only hope that our country will continue to be that kind of place as well.

Monday, November 14, 2016

My Monthly Column – November 2016

Public Education Is Unifying Force

By Xavier Botana

This week – Nov. 14 to Nov. 18 – is American Education Week. It’s a time each year to celebrate public education and honor those who ensure that every child receives a quality education.

Thomas Jefferson saw public education as vital to the success of our democracy. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” he said. “They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Today, our public schools remain one of the few common democratic institutions that bring us together. Public schools are where all students – regardless of socio-economic, racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds or gender or sexual orientation or physical or mental disability – come together to learn.

The Portland Public Schools – Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – serves as a wonderful example of this.

About 33 percent of our approximately 6,800 students speak a primary language other than English at home. A total of about 60 different languages are spoken. We’re teaching new Americans about our country’s values, while at the same time building a new Portland community that is all the richer for the diversity these students and their families bring to it.  Every day in Portland, children from many different backgrounds work and learn together. These lessons give hope for the enlightened future envisioned by supporters of universal public education.

American Education Week started through a collaboration of two rather diverse groups – the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Legion.  Both were concerned in 1919 that 25 percent of the country's World War I draftees were illiterate, so they began to seek ways to generate public support for education.

Today, cosponsors include the U.S. Department of Education, the National PTA, the American Legion, the American Legion Auxiliary, the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American School Counselor Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National School Public Relations Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The NEA, at the time American Education Week was established in 1921, called for it to be a week “observed in all communities annually for the purpose of informing the public of the accomplishments and needs of the public schools and to secure the cooperation and support of the public in meeting those needs."

That resolution is reflected in this year’s theme for American Education Week: “Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility.”

Supporting our public schools is part of our civic responsibility, and it’s clear Maine voters agree. In 2004, they overwhelmingly approved a referendum requiring the state to fund 55 percent of the cost of public education. That commitment has never been met. However, it now appears that Maine voters at the polls Nov. 8 approved “Stand Up for Students,” a citizens’ initiative designed to make that 55 percent funding happen by generating about $157 million in additional state education funding for all Maine school districts, including Portland. I look forward to state lawmakers implementing this initiative.

I’ll note also that Education Support Professionals Day is Nov. 16, and Substitute Educators Day, Nov. 18. My gratitude to our school support staff and substitutes. We all play a role in ensuring our students receive a quality education, and yours is essential. We couldn’t do it without you!

Also, November is National Family Literacy Month. I encourage families to start a habit of keeping everyone in your family engaged in reading on a regular basis. Do such things as having adults read a favorite story from their childhood and then read their children’s favorite bedtime story. By modeling good reading habits, adults can show the importance of strong reading skills to children.

Finally, Nov. 11 was Veterans Day. Some of our great Portland Public Schools’ employees are veterans. I want to express my gratitude to them – and all veterans – for their sacrifices for our country.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

My Monthly Column October 2016

Time to Recognize All School Employees

By Xavier Botana

I’d like to propose an additional new designation for October: School Employees Appreciation Month.

Officially, October is National Principals Month. National Custodial Workers’ Recognition Day also falls during this month, as does School Bus Driver Appreciation Day. National School Lunch Week also took place this month, a chance for our Food Service staff to showcase the delicious and nutritious foods they prepare for our students each day.

All these recognitions underscore the wide variety of staff essential to the running of a successful school system. And although our jobs are very different, each of our more than 1,200 Portland Public Schools staff plays a very important role in ensuring all our students have successful learning experiences.

That’s why I want to express my appreciation to all our school employees for their dedication and service.

Let’s start with our principals.

A U.S. Senate resolution designating October 2016 as National Principals Month says, “Principals are educational  visionaries, instructional and assessment  leaders, disciplinarians, community  builders, budget analysts, facilities managers, and administrators of legal and contractual obligations.”

It also says their job involves working “collaboratively with teachers and parents to develop and implement a clear mission, high curriculum standards, and performance goals.”

We have great public schools in Portland – and that’s a clear testament to those leading them. Thank you to our Portland Public Schools school leaders – our principals, assistant principals and teacher-leaders!

Now a few words about the vital role our support staff plays in our schools.

We sometimes take for granted that our school floors and windows are shining, our trash baskets emptied and the building temperature not too hot or too cold. We also expect our buildings to be open after school for sporting events, extracurricular activities and meetings.

But those things only happen because of our dedicated maintenance staff. Many thanks to our custodians and other maintenance personnel for all they do to ensure our students have clean and comfortable facilities in which to learn.

And then there are our school bus drivers.

Before the first day of kindergarten classes this year, I took a practice bus ride with a group of youngsters about to start kindergarten at Lyseth Elementary School and their parents. It was a great opportunity for these new kindergartners to have a chance to become familiar with riding a big yellow school bus before their actual first day of school.

Being a school bus driver involves not only good driving skills but also great people skills, and our Portland Public Schools bus drivers exhibited both that day. The drivers not only calmed the students’ jitters but also their parents’. I am so grateful for our school bus drivers.

And let’s not forget that a healthy school lunch helps students learn, giving them the energy to power through the day. As of Oct. 1, 55 percent of our nearly 6,800 students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals. We have many students who might go hungry if not for school breakfast or lunch.

Many thanks to our dedicated Food Service staff for all the meals they serve and for incorporating fresh, local foods such as fruits and vegetables that make them nutritious as well as good tasting.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to also talk about all our great teachers, educational technicians, school nurses, social workers, Central Office administrators, office assistants and many other staff. But please know that the work you do matters very much to our students – and that we greatly appreciate you.

I’ll close by noting that the Portland Public Schools teaches our students to be good citizens. Part of being a good citizen is doing our civic duty, so I hope you’ll take the time to vote on Nov. 8. And I’ll remind you that the Portland Board of Public Education has endorsed “Stand Up for Students,” the citizens’ initiative on the state ballot that would generate about $157 million more in state education funding. If that Question 2 initiative passes, Portland stands to get approximately $11 million in additional state aid, reducing our reliance on local property owners. That’s something many Portland taxpayers can appreciate!