Tuesday, October 16, 2018

My Monthly Column – October 2018

Different Strokes for Different Folks

By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli

The Portland Public Schools believes that learners have different strengths, needs and starting points, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced. They learn in different ways and time frames.

That belief is the second of our district’s seven CoreBeliefs about Learning

Joined by Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, I’m writing a series of columns on our Learning Beliefs. This month, we focus on why differentiated instruction is important to help our students succeed.

Every parent knows that children learn and develop differently.

In my own case, for example, my elder son was a reluctant reader who didn’t really embrace reading until the fourth- or fifth-grade. He went on to earn a degree in history and anthropology and now is an avid reader who also enjoys writing. My younger son, by contrast, began to read early and has an amazing mathematical mind. Still in high school, his math skills put my abilities to shame.

Traditionally, many schools have approached teaching as though all students in a class are basically alike. That approach doesn’t take into account the learning needs of individual students. It doesn’t ensure that students with different learning skills – such as my sons have – achieve their maximum potential.

We’re Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. Our students come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and also from multiple countries and cultures. They bring diverse strengths and have different learning needs.

Some students may need little guidance and support to achieve mastery of a topic, while others may need significant background building and assistance to get to the same place. A traditional course-based learning structure can fall short by not differentiating those learning needs. That’s one reason why our district is moving toward proficiency-based diplomas.

In a proficiency-based system, some students might be able to satisfy the standards traditionally associated with demonstrating competency in a particular course through a final exam or capstone project instead of taking the full semester or yearlong course. However, other students taking a course might fall short in just a couple of areas. Under traditional credit-based systems, those students would have to retake that entire course, but with proficiency-based learning, students can work to demonstrate competency in the areas where they lag behind, and then move on when they achieve it.

The Portland Public Schools tailors teaching to meet the varied learning needs of students in a range of ways.

For example, our high schools have built flexibility into the school day by designing blocks of time that students can use to get additional support in areas where they need help – or to accelerate their learning beyond baseline expectations.

At Casco Bay High School, flexibility also is built into the calendar year to help students meet rigorous standards. CBHS offers a “Frost School” in December and a “Mud School” in late March. Those are opportunities for eligible students to meet any remaining course standards in a course or two from the first or second trimester, respectively.

CBHS also offers students the opportunity to exceed standards in all courses. For example, ninth- and 10th-graders can take an Exceeds Reading Seminar, where they explore literary theories while reading literature beyond what's required in Humanities courses.

At the elementary level, we use a “workshop” model for reading and writing in which all students learn the same grade-level content but get differential support as needed. Those supports can include visual cues such as a chart, speaking and auditory cues and an opportunity for independent time so students can progress at their own pace.

To fully master a concept, some students benefit from extended learning time via summer school. This summer, the district hosted a Middle School Summer Academy, a two-week experiential academic summer camp, funded by a grant of nearly $25,000 from Unum. Teachers collaborated with The Telling Room, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Sail Maine to develop engaging experiences to help selected students master challenging STEM and humanities standards.

In summary, our goal is to prepare and empower students to succeed in college and career, and we recognize that they need multiple pathways to reach the academic milestones that get them there.

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.