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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

My Monthly Column – January 2022

PPS aims to be a leader in teaching Black history

By Xavier Botana

In January, we observe Martin Luther King Day, honoring his life and legacy. Black History Month comes in February, a time to celebrate Black Americans’ achievements and recognize their central role in U.S. history. That makes this an opportune time for me to highlight the Black history curriculum that the Portland Public Schools is developing, and to share our vision around this work.

This curriculum will be essential to help our students gain a full understanding of the history of this country and Maine. This curriculum is being created with the recognition that Black history, achievements, excellence and humanity have all systemically been left out of the broad curriculum across the nation, including here at the Portland Public Schools.

The research is clear that it is important for students to be able to see themselves in what they learn in school. To date, our curriculum has done that much better for some students than others. As Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, incorporating Black history is part of our focus on equity, the central goal of the Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan.  

We’re in the early stages of creating this curriculum. This school year, a group of our teachers and Black education advisors are drafting an outline for a Black history curriculum for our students in preK through grade 12. Curriculum development will be in process during the 2022-2023 school year. We intend for this curriculum to offer opportunities for interdisciplinary learning across all content areas, not just social studies. Implementation of the curriculum will be supported by professional development for all teachers.

Our advisors have direct ties to Black communities and education needs. In response to their guidance, the curriculum we draft will not begin and end with slavery, as many curriculums do. Instead, it will focus on the humanity, resistance, advocacy and, above all, achievements of Black cultures from the ancient and the international to the contemporary and the local. 

The curriculum will use local history to contextualize and connect national and international histories, events, topics, and themes with Maine and New England. To aid in that, the group drafting the curriculum has partnered with the Atlantic Black Box project, a grassroots historical recovery project committed to surfacing New England’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade, while re-centering the stories of its racially marginalized groups. 

Our curriculum will strive to celebrate Black excellence, as defined by Dr. Bettina Love. It will serve as a mirror for Black students from diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and provide a window into that excellence for the rest of our diverse student body.

Our work dovetails with a new Maine education requirement that was signed into law in June.  The new law requires that African American studies and Maine African American studies be added to what Maine students learn in their American history and Maine studies courses.  

As with our Wabanaki Studies curriculum, our Black history curriculum work isn’t about compliance, but it positions us in an important leadership role in our state. Above all, it will help our students truly understand Maine’s history and its connection to the world and will allow them to see themselves in that history. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

My Monthly Column – December 2021

 All PPS staff play role in supporting teaching and learning 

By Xavier Botana

In my past three columns, I’ve written about the Portland Public Schools’ four teaching and learning priorities for this school year. All the priorities are aligned to our work of realizing our Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

I’ve already detailed three of these priorities: strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments; and fostering a district-wide culture where staff members feel supported to grow professionally in ways that best serve students and families.

The final priority – enabling effective school operations – is the subject of this column.

This fourth priority is designed to elevate and position the work of everyone in the system toward the three other priorities. It is about enabling our teaching and learning staff to focus on that work by minimizing the distractions that keep them from doing that. Creating safe, clean and well-functioning learning environments and effective and responsive support systems help reduce time spent on operational issues by teaching staff, so they can do what they do best.

Everyone in our organization – no matter what their job – has a role in enabling effective school operations because that will advance the other priorities.

For example, all of us have the responsibility of following our health and safety protocols that allow our schools to function in the midst of COVID-19.

The mitigation measures in place this year, including masking, pooled testing and vaccines, have meant fewer students have had to quarantine and lose instruction. Staff members at all levels of the organization – including custodians, bus drivers and nurses – are making sure these measures are followed. By doing that, they play a vital role in ensuring the majority of our students remain able to learn.

Our social workers, Community Partnership Team and Food Service staff work together to get school meals to students who need to quarantine or isolate.  Along with community agencies such as the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, they established a group of 35 volunteers to drive meals to the homes of quarantined students. This ensures our students don’t go hungry because they can’t be in school.

School bus transportation continues to challenge our district, due to an acute bus-driver shortage. We’ve had to cancel buses when we don’t have drivers. I am grateful our community has been able to largely meet the transportation needs through a variety of means. I am also so very grateful to all our staff who have found ways to support our cancellations by organizing walking school buses and driving students to school.  We continue to explore contractual relationships and work to procure smaller vehicles that don’t require a commercial driver’s license to drive.  We are also recruiting volunteers to help with our walking school buses when we cancel buses. Anyone interested in volunteering should fill out an application at this link

We have three schools undergoing major renovations under the Buildings for Our Future program and over $9 million in additional construction and renovation efforts. Making sure we keep our facilities in good working order while not disrupting our students’ learning is the challenge facing our facilities and maintenance staff and something we are tracking carefully.

To sum up, the expression “it takes a village” applies to all four of these priorities I have written about in the past few months. All of us at the Portland Public Schools doing our part will enable us to strengthen core instruction; ensure our school environments are safe and equitable; and deepen our professional learning culture.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

My Monthly Column – November 2021

 Supporting PPS staff so they can best serve students and families

By Xavier Botana

Our Portland Promise commits the Portland Public Schools to realizing four goals: Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People. To succeed, we need to have our staff – our People – share fully in that vision. 

That’s why we’re prioritizing fostering a district-wide culture where staff members feel supported to grow professionally in ways that best serve students and families.

That’s just one of four teaching and learning priorities this school year. The other three are strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments; and enabling effective school operations.

I’m writing a series of columns about these priorities. This month, I’m focusing on our plan to deepen our professional learning culture. 

To begin this work, we’re asking all our educators to individually and collectively reflect on our current student outcomes – what students are expected to know or demonstrate when completing a course or a grade level.

Working together, we’ll use this to build a stronger, shared, instructional vision. This will help deepen our work to achieve equity and assist in providing professional development better aligned to our priorities and connected to our instructional materials and core practices.

This work will also elevate teacher leadership and help all staff collaborate more meaningfully. That will help foster a district-wide culture where people trust each other, work together and welcome feedback to grow professionally to better respond to our students’ needs.

Strategies to achieve this include building a common understanding of what we want students to know and be able to do as they move through the grades. We’re starting by developing a “portrait of a graduate” at the high school level – a vision for the skills, traits, and competencies that students need to succeed in college, career, and life. Educators across the district will develop the portrait to define exactly what we mean when we say that PPS students will graduate “prepared and empowered.”

Once we establish a clear portrait for our high school graduates, we’ll develop eighth-grade and fifth-grade portraits. These will help ensure a shared understanding of what elementary school students need to be prepared and empowered for middle school, and middle school students for high school.

We need all educators to deepen their shared understanding of and commitment to an equity-oriented vision for instruction. Our goal is to build trust, openness and appreciation for diverse approaches and opinions. That requires us all to be comfortable giving and receiving feedback in order to learn from each other and improve. To that end, we are including equity-literacy based language in our teacher evaluation system. 

We are committed to elevating and supporting our People who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color by implementing key recommendations from our Educators of Color Report. That report, released last spring, gave us honest feedback from our educators of color about their work experiences and barriers to opportunities in our district. A survey of all our staff also showed lackluster coaching, career development and professional learning opportunities.

As a consequence, we’re focusing this year on creating support structures and career pathways that lead to teaching and leadership opportunities for all staff. Specifically, we’re creating support structures for teachers that want to become administrators and for educational technicians that want to become teachers.

Years of research show that organizations attain their goals when they achieve a truly collaborative professional learning structure where everyone feels they have something to learn and something to contribute. That is what we are committed to accomplishing through our focus on professional culture in our schools.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

My Monthly Column – October 2021

Fostering safe, equitable schools where all students feel connected 

By Xavier Botana

Eighteen months of remote and hybrid learning due to the pandemic has disconnected many of our students from school, their teachers and each other. That is why reconnecting our students is a key focus at the Portland Public Schools now that we have returned to full-time, in-person learning.

We’ve made creating safe and equitable school environments, where students feel a sense of belonging and connection, one of our district’s four teaching and learning priorities this year. 

The other three priorities are strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families; and enabling effective school operations. All four teaching and learning priorities are aligned to our Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

I’m writing a series of columns about these priorities. Last month, I wrote about strengthening core instruction. This month, my focus is on safe and equitable schools where students feel connected and engaged.

This priority is responsive to the needs of our students at the current moment. But we are also deepening work that has been underway for the past few years.

Having safe and equitable schools will help us realize our Whole Student and Equity goals. We know that if we prioritize authentic individual relationships with each student, clear and equitable expectations in our schools, and meaningful support structures district-wide, along with deep listening to what our students and families tell us they experience and need, we will create an environment where students feel valued and thrive.

However, just as achievement and opportunity gaps exist between student groups, not all students experience our schools in this way today. Too often, the ones who end up feeling less valued and disconnected from school are our most marginalized students – students who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, are English language learners, have disabilities and are LGBTQ. 

Strategies to address this include strengthening the implementation of having a “Portland Promise Point Person” for every student across all grades, and working with our staff to develop the skills and mindsets to use restorative practices and de-escalation to influence student behavior.

We’ll also be working to develop structures in our system that support the development of meaningful connections for students through our ongoing PBIS work – PBIS stands for positive behavioral interventions and supports and its focus is prevention, not punishment. We’re also implementing our newly revised anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy and focusing on critical times of transition in our system, especially from eighth to ninth grade.

Some of this work is already underway. Recently, Deering High School senior Balqies Mohamed shared with PPS staff how meeting with teacher advisors helped her during the past school year. “At Deering High School, advisory was not only a place for students to receive support but also for student-teacher collaboration,” Balqies said. She said she and other students worked with two faculty members to co-design lessons centered on equity and anti-racism, using dialogue and interactive activities. The result of the lessons, Balqies said, “was an increase in student engagement as well as, as a school, we took the first step to create an anti-racist and tolerant school culture.”

She added, “Undoubtedly students do look for an adult they can lean on for support, and advisory is a great way to foster those authentic student and teacher bonds.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

My Monthly Column – September 2021

 Strengthening core instruction to help students learn at high levels

By Xavier Botana

School this fall has not been the “return to normal” we all envisioned last June. We continue to battle this pandemic, and are currently focused on fine-tuning our health and safety protocols to protect our students and staff. At the same time, we are committed to realizing our goal of continuously working to improve the quality of education that the Portland Public Schools offers students.

That is why we have developed clear teaching and learning priorities for the 2021-2022 school year. Those priorities are aligned with the goals of the Portland Promise, our strategic plan: Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

Our four priorities this year are key to our students’ success. They are: strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments where students feel a sense of belonging and connection; fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families; and enabling effective school operations.

I’m writing a series of columns exploring each priority. This month, I’m focusing on strengthening core instruction, which aligns with our Achievement and Equity goals.

Looking at our achievement data across the district, we consistently see that we do an excellent job with some of our students – but not all of them. Yet we know that all our students have the potential to achieve at high levels and become fully prepared and empowered to pursue whatever their life goals might be.

We understand that we have work to do to change our systems, structures and practices in order to unleash all our students’ full potential. Our Equity goal commits us to addressing achievement and opportunity gaps for our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students, as well as those who are English language learners (ELL), have disabilities and are economically disadvantaged.

Strengthening core instruction is an important way to do that. We believe that exposing students to grade-level learning with appropriate support is key if we want all our students to learn at high levels.

Our strategies for strengthening core instruction include continuing our math and phonics curriculum work and launching new science and social studies units. For example, we’re implementing a new science unit about the Presumpscot River, including raising and releasing salmon. We’ll also hold professional development sessions for teachers on Wabanaki Studies throughout the year.

To help ensure instruction is equitable, we’ll ensure access to grade-level instruction and rigor for all students, taking such steps as reducing remedial pullouts and tracking. One focus will be supporting our ELL teachers, special educators and classroom teachers as they collaborate together to best meet students’ learning needs.

We’ll also promote inclusive practices and work to include the voices of traditionally underrepresented students and parents to ensure their needs and views are accounted for in our work.

Also, we want to ensure that all our educators experience a clear connection between our equity work and our instructional work. Everything we’re doing around developing curriculum materials, providing opportunities for professional learning and reimagining structures is rooted in our commitment to build a more equitable system where all students are held to high expectations and are supported to reach them.

Of course, everyone’s health and safety are our first responsibility, so we will adjust the cadence of our teaching and learning priorities as needed. Our goal is to balance reacting to the moment and following the steady course of continuous improvement to our teaching and learning that we have set for ourselves, and that our community deserves.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

My Monthly Column – August 2021

 Portland Promise is scaffold for teaching and learning priorities

By Xavier Botana

After more than a year of hybrid and remote learning, Portland Public Schools students will return soon to full-time, in-person instruction. We’ll welcome them back with clear teaching and learning priorities organized around the goals of the Portland Promise, our strategic plan. These teaching and learning priorities are key to our students’ success and aligned to the four Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

To help everyone understand what these priorities are all about, I’ll be writing a series of columns exploring each one in detail. This month, I’ll focus on an overview of what they are and why they’re important.

We have four priorities for this year: strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments where students feel a sense of belonging and connection; fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families; and enabling effective school operations.

Strengthening core instruction relates to our Achievement and Equity goals. Underpinning it is the idea that exposing all students to grade-level learning with appropriate support is key if we want our students to learn at high levels. 

Our strategies for strengthening core instruction include continuing our math and phonics curriculum work and launching new science and social studies units. To help ensure that instruction is equitable, we’ll reduce remedial pullouts and tracking. We’ll also promote inclusive practices and work to include the voices of traditionally underrepresented students and parents to ensure their needs and views are accounted for in our work.

Our priority of ensuring safe and equitable schools will help us realize our Whole Student and Equity goals. We know that if we prioritize authentic individual relationships with each student, equitable and transparent systems in our schools, and meaningful support structures district-wide, along with deep listening to what our students and families tell us they experience and need, we will create an environment where students feel valued and thrive.

Strategies to achieve this include fulfilling our commitment to have a “Portland Promise Point Person” for every student across all grades, working with our staff to build skills and mindsets to use restorative practices and de-escalation to influence student behavior and implementing our newly revised anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy.

Our priority for creating a district-wide culture where teachers and other staff feel supported to grow professionally relates to our People and Equity goals. We aim to create a professional learning culture throughout the district where our people trust each other and welcome feedback to grow professionally and better respond to student needs. 

One strategy is to improve our planning processes at the district and school level. We also will implement key recommendations from our Educators of Color Report – a study completed this past school year about the experiences of PPS educators of color in our schools. For example, we plan to establish pathways for advancement for them and improve recruitment of diverse staff.

Our last priority is focused on flawless operations in our school system in areas that include buildings, transportation, technology, finance, and nutrition to reduce time spent on operational issues by teaching staff. That will enable them to focus on what they do best. 

We are grateful for the opportunity to have students in school full time this coming year.  Our goal is to “build back better” by focusing on these four priority areas. I look forward to explaining our work in more detail in my coming columns this year.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

My Monthly Column – July 2021

Food Service team essential to learning

By Xavier Botana

Our main job as a school district is to educate students, but they can’t do their best learning if they’re hungry. That’s why our Food Service team is such an integral part of our educational mission. 

More than half of Portland Public Schools students come from food-insecure families. They depend on the thousands of nutritious meals our Food Service team serves each day. School breakfast and lunch not only keep students’ hunger at bay, but they help them realize their full learning potential.

 The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how essential our Food Service team is.

Even when our buildings were closed, a herculean effort by this team ensured families could get a nutritious bagged breakfast and lunch each day at outdoor food sites. As our schools went hybrid, the team went hybrid too, serving students both in school and at pick-up sites. We can’t thank team members enough for their unflagging efforts to ensure our students didn’t go hungry.

This month, as I conclude my series about outstanding PPS staff, I’m recognizing Food Service team member Jessica Puzak. Jess, cafeteria team leader at Rowe Elementary School, exemplifies the dedication and service these crucial staff members bring to their jobs.  


Jess, who grew up in Massachusetts, completed several apprenticeships and internships on organic farms after graduating from college. She wanted to use her learning and experience with children, so she joined FoodCorps, a national nonprofit working with communities to connect kids to healthy food in school. In 2017, as a FoodCorps service member with Cultivating Community, Jess began teaching Rowe students about gardening, cooking and nutrition before becoming cafeteria team leader in 2018. In 2019, she also became the school’s garden coordinator, a position supported by Rowe’s PTO. Here’s more about Jess:

How did you get interested in growing food?

As a kid, I became fascinated with how you could put a seed in the soil and then something magical would grow. Also, my nana in New Hampshire had a beautiful garden. We were very close. She passed when I was in high school, and I became almost obsessed with flowers and growing vegetables.

What led you to join the Food Service team?

As a FoodCorps service member, I partnered with Food Service on taste tests and promoting the school lunch program. When the team leader job opened up, I decided that could be really cool because it’s an opportunity to continue some of the work I was already doing around food with school kids, and I could learn how school meals work in reality.

What do cafeteria team leaders do?

We’re responsible for providing meals that meet all the USDA requirements – students need a veggie, fruit, a grain and protein and they need milk available. I’m the point person for making sure that happens effectively and to safe standards, and also making sure school breakfasts are delivered to classrooms. There’s a lot of accounting and recording keeping, so it’s a very busy, nonstop shift.

How did COVID impact your job?

My goodness, it was really something how fast we had to completely restructure, but we did it. Something amazing came out of that experience this past year: it really highlighted how essential school food actually is.

What drives you?

What gets me out of bed every day is that there are hundreds of children counting on me to feed them. Also, if kids are hungry, there’s no way they’re focusing on their learning. In offering quality fresh food, we are inherently creating more equity in our schools. That’s motivating for me.