Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My Monthly Column – August 2017

Welcoming Students, Families Back to School
By Xavier Botana

August is a time to savor the last weeks of summer. It’s also a time to for students – with help from their parents – to start getting ready for the new school year.

Those two statements aren’t contradictory. There are a few simple things that students and parents can do to help make the transition to school easier while still allowing time for summertime fun. They range from making sure students are registered before the first day of school to gradually switching to school sleep routines a week before school starts.

In Portland, the first day of school for students in grades 1-12 is Wednesday, Aug. 30. There is no school on Friday, Sept. 1, so everyone can enjoy a long Labor Day weekend. Then school resumes on Tuesday, Sept. 5, for all students, including pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Sept. 5 is their first day.

To view the Portland Public Schools’ 2017-2018 calendar, go to our website, http://www.portlandschools.org, and click on “News & Calendars.”

If your child is new to the district and not yet registered for the new school year, please make an appointment at your neighborhood school to enroll your child. For more information, go to “School Enrollment” under the blue “Parents” box on our website.

Please don’t wait for the first day of school to register your child. It’s difficult for our schools to plan if they don’t know how many students they’ll have in the fall.

Also, many of our schools hold back-to-school barbeques, ice cream socials and other welcoming orientation events before the first day of school. You don’t want your child to miss out on those! Familiarizing students with their school and teachers beforehand helps quell first-day-of-school anxiety. Also, families are our valued partners when it comes to educating our students, so we look forward to meeting students’ families!

To find out about the events at your child’s school, go to that school’s website. You can link to school websites from the district website under the “Schools” tab.

I’d also like to remind parents of a new addition this year to the immunizations that Maine state law requires for students. Effective for the 2017-2018 school year, all Maine students entering seventh grade will need to receive one dose of Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine before attendance is allowed. Pertussis (whooping cough) is a very contagious and potentially serious disease, so this new requirement will protect your child and others.

Also, families should be aware that this year’s ninth-graders will be the first to comply with a new state’s new proficiency-based high school graduation requirements. The Class of 2021 must demonstrate proficiency in language arts, math, science, and social studies.

This year, all high schools in Portland will align to common baseline expectations related to moving in the direction of a proficiency-based system. To facilitate that transition, we have decided that course grades and report cards won’t change. Instead, ninth-grade teachers will keep track of students’ mastery of graduation performance indicators in a system that parallels the traditional grade reporting.

I’ll be explaining this transition in more detail in an upcoming letter to parents. I want to stress here that we see great value in a proficiency-based learning model – which ultimately is about being clear about what our students need to know and be able to do in order to graduate from high school.

Finally, as the new school year begins, I want to remind parents how important it is that students attend school, starting from the first day. The start of school is a critical time when students and teachers get to know one another, build relationships and establish important classroom routines.

Students also need to continue attending throughout the rest of the year. According to Count ME In, the Maine affiliate of the national organization Attendance Works, “students who miss school frequently are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, more likely to fail in middle school and eventually drop out of high school. Missing school, even in kindergarten, has consequences.”

Schools, students, families and the Portland community: Let’s all work together to have a great start to the new school year!

Friday, July 21, 2017

My Monthly Column - July 2017

Education Is Key to the American Dream

By Xavier Botana

July marks my one-year anniversary as superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. As my family and I enjoyed the city’s fireworks display on the Fourth of July, I thought about how much I have come to love this community. Thank you to all who have made me feel welcome and supported here.

The celebration of America’s birthday also is a good time to remember the importance our founding fathers placed on education. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to.”  Jefferson was convinced an educated public was necessary to preserve liberty.  

I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of education in my own family’s life when I addressed Portland Adult Education (PAE) graduates receiving their high school diplomas in June. Many PAE graduates came here from other countries and overcame many obstacles to further their education.

My family also came to this country looking for safety and opportunity. Like the PAE graduates, we understood the importance of an education. My grandparents attended an adult education program, laboring to learn English so they could become American citizens. For us, education was the gateway to the American dream.

Now, I am proud to lead Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. We strive  to provide a quality education to all our students – whether they were born in this country or not. We want all our students to succeed in college and career so they can realize their own American dream.

I am grateful that the Portland community, which has supported and sustained a public education system for more than 270 years, has once again voiced its commitment to education for all in Portland through the overwhelming approval of our school budget. Clearly, the people of Portland reflect the timeless values of our founding fathers and our most recent immigrants.

As I look back over this past year, I’d like to highlight some achievements that will help guarantee our community has the great schools our students deserve.

One key achievement was updating our Comprehensive Plan, a road map aligning our district’s work with our mission and vision. Last fall, teachers, administrators, community partners and experts worked together to establish four goals – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity and People – that are designed to help us ensure that our students are prepared and empowered to achieve.  We also developed key strategies for meeting those goals and refined the ways to measure and report our progress toward them. The Portland Board of Public Education approved the plan in January.

We are already taking steps to realize the goals. One example is our Equity goal. Our district data shows we have a stark achievement gap between students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost school lunch (FRL students) and those who do not qualify. 
About 55 percent of our students are FRL students. We’re committed to achieving equity by helping those students. To do this, we are working to strengthen family partnerships and ensuring that all students have access to higher-level classes, such as advanced placement and our talented and gifted programs. We’re also reviewing current policies and practices to make sure we don’t have unintended barriers to equity.

Our People goal will help ensure the success of these strategies, by attracting and retaining the most talented and diverse staff possible.

As part of that goal, a joint Portland Public Schools-University of Southern Maine four-week summer program is now underway – designed to create a pipeline of diverse educators who more closely reflect the diversity of our students.

About 45 participants have enrolled and are experiencing teaching firsthand as interns in PPS classrooms this summer. They’re also earning college credits, tuition-free, by attending an introductory education course at USM.

Portland is an amazing and supportive community that believes in education. Partnerships with the Portland community and its world-class educational institutions are key to achieving our Comprehensive Plan goals.  This year has been a wonderful opportunity to meet and begin to work with all these partners. I look forward to many more years working to advance education for all here in Portland.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Monthly Column – June 2017

Many Reasons for Pride in the Portland Public Schools
By Xavier Botana

June is Pride month, and I’m very proud that the Portland Public Schools was a part of the Pride Portland! Parade again this year.

This past Saturday, June 17, marked the third year in a row that our district has been an official entrant in the parade, with our students, staff and families either riding in one of our signature yellow school buses or marching alongside it. As I and other members of the Portland Public Schools family marched down Congress Street with our big bus, we were met with enthusiastic applause and cheering from the crowds lining the sidewalks along the parade route. That’s very fitting because our participation in this annual event that celebrates inclusivity, diversity and unity is certainly something to cheer about.

The Portland Public Schools is the state’s largest and most diverse school district. Our participation in the Pride Portland! Parade helps send an important message to our students, staff, families and the Portland community that our district works to foster harmony and understanding – and that we welcome and value everyone in the Portland Public Schools.

The parade is part of Pride Portland! According to its website, Pride Portland! is “a celebration of Portland, Maine’s LGBTQIA – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, ally/asexual – community” each June.

To further ensure that the Portland Public Schools is a place of safety and respect for all members of this community, the district is currently working on developing a policy regarding the rights of transgender staff and students. We hope to have the policy in place by the start of the new school year.

We recently wrapped up graduations at our high schools and Portland Adult Education. Our ultimate goal as a district is to ensure that all of our students graduate prepared and empowered for the next step in their life.

Over the past few weeks, I felt very proud as I watched more than 500 students walk – and sometimes dance, do wheelies and definitely strut – across the stage to the cheers of their loved ones.

Graduation is very rewarding, but our students would not get there without our faculty and staff. We’re proud of our staff for all they do to ensure student success.

Graduating students from high school is only one part of the wonderful work happening in Portland Public Schools.  None of what we do would happen without the support of our Portland community. Thank you to Portland voters for investing in education by approving our 2017-2018 budget on June 13.

The budget voters approved represents a modest 1.4 percent increase in spending and will allow Portland Public Schools to continue the level of services to our students that Portland residents and our students deserve and expect. We are proud of the Portland community’s consistent support for our schools.

The last day of the school year for students is June 22. However, we are back to school immediately. Our summer school programs will begin June 26 and go through mid-August.

As part of our summer efforts, the Portland Public Schools and Opportunity Alliance will be operating summer meal sites across the city of Portland. Many of our approximately 6,800 Portland Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced price school lunch based on family income. Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation.

Most sites will begin operations on June 26 and continue thru mid-August. Meals and times will be posted at sites and will be distributed prior to the end of school. You can learn more by going to the Summer Programs link on the front of our website, www.portlandschools.org

Another summer opportunity is I Reading in Portland: Pedal Through the Pages, a partnership between the Portland Public Schools and the Portland Public Library. Children throughout the community are encouraged to read about and explore Portland this summer. The program will run for eight weeks, and signup at the library begins the week of June 18. Learn more at www.portlandlibrary.com

As I wrap up my first year at the Portland Public Schools, I would like to thank our Portland community for your support of our school system. I have felt welcome, supported and blessed to have the opportunity to work in this wonderful community.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Monthly Column – May 2017

Graduation a Celebration for Students and Staff
By Xavier Botana

It’s graduation season. Our seniors are excited and their teachers are too. Graduation from high school is our goal for students from their first day of  pre-school, so seeing them achieve that is as gratifying to us as it is to them.

I’m looking forward to congratulating the Class of 2017 this June. It’s thrilling every year to see our students transformed from the youngsters they once were to accomplished young adults, eager to grasp their diplomas and take on the new challenges of college and career.

The Portland Public Schools will have five graduation events.

Four will be for our high schools – Portland, Deering, Casco Bay and the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS), our regional high school. I look forward to congratulating graduates at each one and recognizing the educators that helped them achieve this milestone.

Deering High School’s ceremony will be June 7 at the Cross Insurance Arena. Both Portland and Casco Bay high schools will hold their ceremonies June 8 at Merrill Auditorium – PHS in the morning and CBHS in the evening.  

On May 19, PATHS students will receive certificates of completion in the arts or technical education fields they chose to pursue. Some students also will receive national certifications they’ve earned.

The Portland Adult Education (PAE) ceremony on June 15 at Merrill will close our graduation season. PAE graduates, who typically range in age from their late teens to late adulthood, will be honored for receiving their high school diplomas or passing a high school equivalency test.

These graduates stand out because they haven’t taken the usual route to complete high school. They represent the spirit of perseverance and commitment to improvement that we strive to teach all of our students. Many were unable to previously finish high school for reasons that include illness, family responsibilities, moving to new country where they didn’t speak the language, homelessness and other life circumstances.   

Next year’s entering freshman class, the Class of 2021, will be the first class required by the state to earn a “proficiency-based high school diploma.” In proficiency-based education systems, students earn units of proficiency rather than accumulating credits through seat time. Students will be expected to demonstrate that they understand and are able to do work in required content areas.  Experiences in their classes and in other settings in and out of school will be used to determine students’ proficiency.

Two of our schools already use this approach to learning. Casco Bay High School and King Middle School have been implementing proficiency-based learning and grading practices for years now. The experience of these high-performing schools shows us that this model works.   

Schools all across Maine and elsewhere in the country already use this model and are proponents of it because it increases transparency in student expectations and provides students with multiple avenues to demonstrate their competency. It also increases student responsibility for their learning.

We understand that this will be an adjustment for many families.  Communication and careful listening are never more important than when making significant changes such as these. We recently held a series of information sessions for parents of our current eighth-graders and we will continue to keep families informed. You can find more information at this link:  http://www.portlandschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=1094237&pageId=8936816http://www.portlandschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=1094237&pageId=8936816  or by going to the “Parents” section of our website, www.portlandschools.org and clicking on the “Proficiency-based Learning at PPS” button.

I’ll close with information on the FY2018 school budget. The City Council voted to approve the budget on May 15 and it now goes to Portland voters June 13.

Our proposed budget of $105 million represents a modest increase of 1.4 percent over the FY2017 approved budget. It requires a tax rate increase of 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or 2.75 percent – adding $67.20 to the annual tax bill of a home worth $240,000. Because of a projected decrease in state revenue of approximately $1 million and given increased personnel costs, we had to make significant cuts. However, we have preserved small class sizes and successful programs and services.  

I ask that you please support the budget at the polls and continue to pressure elected officials in Augusta to properly fund our schools!