Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Monthly Column – September 2018

Don’t stop believin’ – in student potential
By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli

Some people succeed in life despite being branded as low achievers in school. But they’re the exception. More typically, if schools set low expectations for students, they won’t realize their potential.

That’s why the Portland Public Schools is committed to the belief that all learners can rise to high expectations. That’s the first of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning

This is the first in a series of columns focused around our Learning Beliefs. Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, is joining me in writing this series. This month, we focus on why we set high expectations for our students.

Research shows that when teachers teach with a “growth mindset,” all their students progress and develop more. We strive to instill a growth mindset – which tells our students that they can achieve more if they work hard – by encouraging them to see learning challenges as opportunities.

One of our many successful graduates is a perfect case in point. Jacqui Savage, a 2001 Deering High School graduate, started in our school system as a senior who lacked confidence in her ability to succeed in school because she struggled with standardized tests. Then, in the music program at PATHS, she found a teacher who believed in her.

“Ms. Victoria Bradford – now Mrs. Stubbs – was a great teacher and encouraged me to sing and perform more. It just felt good,” Jacqui said. “It definitely gave me a push to go to college, when I didn’t feel like I was very good at school and wasn’t sure it was the right path for me. But ultimately I decided college was a way for me to become a music teacher.”

Jacqui graduated from the University of Maine with a music education degree and today runs her own music school in Falmouth. Read about the Success Stories of Jacqui and other PPS graduates at: https://www.portlandschoolspromise.org/story/

 We don’t just believe in our students’ potential – we help them realize it. Teachers do this in many ways, such as by conveying confidence in students, supporting their development by assigning meaningful tasks that motivate and push them, and by providing timely and constructive feedback.

One concrete way this plays out in our schools is exemplified by King Middle School math teacher Ann Young. She uses math routines and tasks with "low floor" entry points and "high ceiling" challenge opportunities so all her students get access to rigorous math, along with the supports they need to access challenging tasks.

Young puts it this way: “We believe that all students can learn math to high levels.” She presents tasks that have an entry point for all, but can lead to high-level math concepts. For instance, Young said she might give students a problem, such as 1.2 x 3.6, and ask them to mentally calculate a solution and share out how they got their answer. “Several methods are displayed,” she said. “The class discussion is then orchestrated to address fluency and concepts in need of review, yet at the same time introduce higher level algebra concepts that are either at grade level or beyond.”

In another example of high expectations, Deering High School has a “Challenge by Choice” policy that allows any student who wants to do so to take higher-level classes, including Advanced Placement (AP) courses. That has led to more students – including more minority students – taking those classes. In a Maine Public radio story last fall, students said they welcomed the learning challenge.

We also set high expectations for reading. At our elementary schools, for example, students practice reading at their independent reading level, while at the same time – with teachers providing scaffolding and support – they have the opportunity to access complex texts that may be above their reading level. Research shows the ability to read and comprehend complex text is essential for success in college and career.

In short, the Portland Public Schools strives to challenge every student to rise to high standards and supports them in reaching them.

Next month, we’ll focus on our second Core Learning Belief – that students learn in different ways and time frames. Please watch this space!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My Monthly Column – August 2018

Gearing up for the 2018-2019 school year
By Xavier Botana

School doesn’t start for Portland Public Schools students until September, but families can use the month of August to help ensure that their children make a seamless transition from summer to school.

The 2018-2019 school year begins after Labor Day for our students. The first day for students in grades 1-12 is Tuesday, Sept. 4. Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students will start on Thursday, Sept. 6.

To view the Portland Public Schools’ 2018-2019 calendar, go to our website, https://www.portlandschools.org/ and click on “News & Calendars.”

However, we encourage our families to start engaging with us before the first day of school. One important way to do that this year is by attending a Back to School Fair the Portland Public Schools is hosting on Saturday, Aug. 25. Families are invited to stop by Ocean Avenue Elementary School, located at 150 Ocean Avenue, between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

At the fair, a team of trained staff will help parents set up their parent login and fill out essential paperwork. This year, all start-of-school paperwork is going online and parents can get help filling it out.

Parents also will have a chance to sign their children up for after-school programs and athletics and other activities. In addition, families can meet with more than 25 local organizations to learn about programs, resources, and volunteer opportunities.

Interpreters will be available and there also will be activities for children and light refreshments.

If your child is new to the district and not yet registered for the new school year, please don’t wait for the first day of school to enroll your child. You can register your child online using our new Online Enrollment Application process. For more information, go to “School Enrollment” under the blue “Families” box on our website or use this link: https://www.portlandschools.org/families/school_enrollment

Also, many of our schools hold back-to-school barbeques, ice cream socials and other welcoming events before the first day of school. Attending helps both parents and children. Familiarizing students with their school and teachers beforehand helps quell first-day-of-school anxiety. Our families are valued partners in educating our students, so we always look forward to meeting students’ families!

Look for more details about these events on the website of your child’s school and also on the district website.

As the new school year is about to begin, I want to remind parents how important it is that students attend regularly, 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.

By contrast, missing school has consequences for students. Those who miss school frequently are more likely to fall behind academically; research shows this has long-term negative consequences.  

Finally, I’ll close with a note about what to expect from this column during the 2018-2019 school year.

At the suggestion of our district’s Parent Advisory Committee, this column will focus on our seven Core Beliefs about Learning and the Core Teaching Practices you should look for in connection with those beliefs.

Our Beliefs about Learning are:
  • All learners can rise to high expectations.
  • Learners have different strengths, needs and starting points, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced. They learn in different ways and timeframes.
  • Academics, work habits, and social-emotional skills are equally important in school and in life.
  • Students can learn better when they are empowered and feel capable.
  • Learning in diverse groups prepares students to thrive in an increasingly diverse, complex, and connected world.
  • Practicing and learning from mistakes are natural and necessary parts of the learning process.
  • Belonging, engagement, and joy help a learner achieve.

I have invited Melea Nalli, our Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, to join me in writing this column as we explain to our families and community how the Portland Public School teaches to these beliefs. We’ll also tell you how the four goals in our Portland Promise – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity and People – connect to our Core Beliefs.  

I’m looking forward to working closely with our families and the Portland community to ensure that our students have a successful 2018-2019 school year!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Monthly Column – July 2018

No summer break for student hunger
By Xavier Botana

One of the Portland Public Schools’ goals is to teach the “Whole Student.” That means that beyond teaching academics, we help students develop other skills and habits needed for success in life. We look out for students’ physical and mental well being too, with the aid of school nurses and social workers – and by providing nutritious school meals each school day.

Now it’s summer, and school is out. That’s why this is an important time for us to come together as a community to ensure that our students’ needs are being met during this long break, especially when it comes to meals. Student hunger doesn’t take a vacation.

To help bridge the gap when schools are closed, the Portland Public Schools and Opportunity Alliance are again sponsoring summer meals sites across Portland this summer. Through this federally funded program, all children 18 years and younger may receive free meals on a first-come, first-serve basis, at any of the 15 sites.

The sites are open and some will continue as late as August 24. Get more specifics about sites and times online at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks
You can also text “Summer Meals” to 97779 or dial 2-1-1.

All youngsters are welcome – regardless of whether they eat school meals during the school year. All they need to do is show up to get nutritious breakfasts and lunches during the summer.

Because we want to make the most of every learning opportunity, our district and Opportunity Alliance also have worked with community partners to offer enrichment activities at meal sites.

At the Deering Oaks Park site, for example, partners offering activities and events include our city’s Recreation Department, Cultivating Community, Kids Movement Project and Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Weekly event schedules are posted at the meal site in the park. Thank you to all our generous partners.

Too many Portland families experience food insecurity, so we’re also working year-round to make sure our district does more to utilize all the opportunities to feed students through the federal nutrition programs and the many community organizations focused on food security.

Last summer, the Portland Public Schools and the Cumberland County Food Security Council launched the Portland Public Schools Food Security Task Force. This coalition of organizations believes that food fuels learning and that all students have the right to nutritious food that enables them to attain their full potential.

Our schools are working to reduce food insecurity. At Riverton Elementary School – one of four Portland schools having more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals – many families don’t always have enough to eat at home.

So Riverton launched a Backpack Food Program this past December, serving 60 families. The program, in which food is discreetly delivered to families in backpacks that students take home, is a collaboration between Riverton school staff and PTO, the Locker Project and other community volunteers. It has been so successful that it recently won a School Partner Award from the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

The Portland Public Schools is making other strides. Last year, we discontinued the practice of withholding meals from students with unpaid school meal balances and offering them an “alternative” meal.  The Portland Board of Public Education was among the first in Maine to take this step to prevent “shaming” of students. Several community benefactors have stepped in to erase meal debt at different schools this past year. We are always so grateful to those generous contributors.

This past spring, we successfully piloted a program to provide better nutrition to students in after-school settings and are expanding this program.

Partnerships with food pantries and other organizations can help improve food access for students on long breaks and weekends. The Food Security Task Force has mapped out which schools have those programs, and which schools should add them. This assessment will be available later this summer and will include recommendations for sustainable solutions to student hunger.

These recommendations will provide opportunities for others in the community who want to help. Our children are our future, so please join us in ensuring that all Portland students have the adequate, nutritious food they need to thrive, learn and succeed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My Monthly Column – June 2018

Class of 2018 Is Prepared, Empowered

By Xavier Botana

At the Portland Public Schools, our goal is to prepare and empower students for what comes next. “Prepared” means students have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. “Empowered” means that they know what to do – that they have a plan.

I’m satisfied we’ve met that goal with the Portland Public Schools Class of 2018.

This month, after participating as superintendent in the commencement ceremonies of Portland, Deering and Casco Bay High Schools, I feel confident our future is in good hands with these 500 new graduates of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district.

I know these graduates are prepared because of their many accomplishments in academics and sports, the millions of dollars in scholarships and grants they’ve received and the approximately 260 colleges and universities to which they’ve been accepted. Those include Bard, Bates, Bowdoin, Brown, Cornell, Loyola, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke Northeastern, the Pratt Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, Skidmore, Smith, Temple, Tufts, and Vassar. Our students also plan to attend a variety of Maine institutions, including Maine Maritime Academy, Maine College of Art and our close partners, the University of Southern Maine and Southern Maine Community College.

And, judging from the impact these graduates have already made while still in high school, I have no doubt that the Class of 2018 is empowered.

As just one example, members of that class were among our students who made their voices heard during the National School Walkout in March. They took a stand to call for measures that keep students safe at school, limit access to weapons and provide mental health care to those in need.

Also, Deering High School Class of 2018 member Mulki Hagi, who won a prestigious Bezos Scholar award that took her to the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, organized and oversaw a “Local Ideas Summit” this spring. The summit covered such topics as gender expansiveness, domestic violence, Islamophobia and affordable housing.  

Deering students learned from each other on these topics, which are representative of the difficulties we face as a nation. These difficulties will only be resolved through the Kesho Wazo – Swahili for “tomorrow’s ideas” – of empowered young people like our graduates.

Two other Deering Class of 2018 members, Alex Fitzgerald and Izzy Smith, helped develop the Portland Board of Public Education’s new Transgender and Gender Expansive Students policy. As part of their work with the Deering Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), not only did they shape the policy, but they also helped us train staff at every Portland public school. Deering’s GSA also led a successful effort to allow students to wear whatever color graduation gown they choose at graduation, independent of gender.

Another example was at Casco Bay High School, where the Class of 2018 took what they learned in social studies about the power of rhetoric to exercise their free speech rights. On First Friday in May, they literally took to their soapboxes, standing atop them in Monument Square to voice their beliefs and passions.

At Portland High School, class members embraced their tradition and their diversity. They weren’t content with the status quo and engaged with faculty around issues of concern to them. Those conversations weren’t always easy, but they prompted us to listen and reflect. Portland High School is a better school, and the Portland Public Schools a better district, because of their efforts.

In short, it’s clear that the Class of 2018 has a powerful voice that has already effected change. I’m hopeful these graduates will continue to take to their soapboxes in the next chapter of their lives.

Of course, students don’t become prepared and empowered on their own. Portland Public Schools administrators, teachers and other school staff have done a great job of educating our graduates.

That includes not only high school teachers and staff but those at our elementary and middle schools too. They should take great pride each graduation season, because their work at the lower levels is the bedrock of our graduates’ education.

I’ll conclude by thanking Portland voters for resoundingly approving our $110.6 million FY2019 budget on June 12. We are deeply grateful to the Portland community’s consistent commitment to quality education for all our students.