Tuesday, May 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – May 2020

FY21 school budget still must address growing opportunity gap 
By Xavier Botana

Much has changed since I presented my proposed FY21 school budget to the Portland Board of Public Education on March 10. Titled “Addressing the Opportunity Gap,” that budget called for investments to mitigate gaps in achievement and opportunity experienced by our economically disadvantaged students, students with special needs and English language learner (ELL) students.

Fast forward two months and a pandemic. Schools are closed and we’re in the midst of an unprecedented experiment in remote learning. One thing hasn’t changed, however: the need to address those opportunity and achievement gaps for our most vulnerable students. The gaps are growing even wider, because the students that lack ready access to the internet and technology, and whose families’ struggle to meet basic needs for food and housing, are those same students. 

Our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan, has four goals– Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People – to help prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

Equity – reducing the achievement and opportunity gaps between our students – is the centerpiece of those goals. We already had a long way to go to reach Equity, even before COVID-19. Comparing the data of our non-economically disadvantaged students with those of our least-advantaged students, students of color and ELL students, we see great disparities.  Portland cannot be satisfied with those outcomes, especially with this pandemic only enhancing the problem. 

Our FY21 budget must continue to make investments to reduce these inequities. However, recognizing the new economic reality confronting our city and state in this crisis, my proposed budget is now lower than in March. It is now nearly $3 million less, calling for a tax rate increase of  .5 percent instead of 3 percent. 

This budget excludes most of the original equity focused investments for improving our ELL program, enhancing special education services, scaling up curriculum to sustain and deepen core instruction and enhancing our district website to improve communications.  

We are committed to funding those investments within the proposed budget.  Some areas include tightening our athletics and co-curricular budgets; reductions of planned cost of living allowances for staff (These would have to be negotiated with bargaining units.); staffing reductions (holding off hiring for vacant positions or eliminating those positions and layoffs and/or furloughs).  

I am seeking the flexibility to look for these reductions based on the circumstances facing us as a result of the pandemic.  There is much that we do not know about what next school year will require from us.  For example, if we are not learning remotely, we will need larger investments in technology and curriculum and less resources devoted to transportation and maintenance.   If the fall sports season is canceled we would be in a position to eliminate coaching stipends.

I recognize that any of these will entail sacrifices, but our students must come first.  Falling further behind now could profoundly impact a generation of students for years.

Ordinarily, the school budget would have gone to Portland voters in the June primary, but the state has moved the primary to July 14. The Board plans to vote on the budget on May 26 and send it to the City Council, which sets the bottom line of the school budget. See the full budget calendar.

The next step is a Board workshop, public hearing and first read of the budget on Tuesday, May 19. I encourage everyone to join us for that 6 p.m. Zoom meeting and share your thoughts on how to best meet all our students’ needs.




Tuesday, April 14, 2020

My Monthly Column – April 2020

We empathize with families on remote learning challenges 
By Xavier Botana

As you now know, the Portland Public Schools won’t be re-opening our buildings for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Instead, we’ll continue to deliver learning remotely through the end of the year.

We based our decision on a recommendation by Maine’s education commissioner that school districts should continue remote learning to keep students and staff safe during this COVID-19 crisis. I believe our decision was the right one – but it was a painful one.

While everyone at the Portland Public Schools is working incredibly hard to make remote learning a success, we know it doesn’t replace the classroom experience.

Remote learning also creates so many challenges for our families, particularly those also coping with issues such as job loss, dislocation or illness. 

I am very fortunate my family is together and that we have the flexibility of being able to work mainly from home. However, I see firsthand in my daily conversations with staff who have different circumstances just how taxing those can be. They, like many of our parents, must juggle working from home with providing childcare and managing school expectations.

Remote learning is not easy for students, either. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual meeting with youth leaders from one of our great community partners. 

As we discussed their experiences with remote learning, these amazing young people spoke about how different circumstances make it challenging for them. They talked about not being able to work at their after-school jobs, needing to pitch in to take care of younger siblings, the grief of losing out on school rites of passage and the sense of social isolation that comes from home confinement. We often think of young people as living primarily on their phones, but it turns out they miss actual social interaction as much as adults do.

Many of our students and families are experiencing anxiety and distress – normal reactions in these difficult times. Help is available. The district’s school counselors and social workers are ready to assist students and to aid in connecting families to community and national resources. You can find a letter from them on our website (in English and seven other languages) that tells how to contact them and also how to support your family’s mental health. Find the page with the letter HERE.

Also, after April break, we plan to hold a virtual Parent University session for families on the topic of maintaining social/emotional health during this time. We’ll post the details on our website soon.  

Across the country, some districts have opted to work through the April vacation. However, along with most Southern Maine districts, we have decided to maintain our scheduled break because we believe everyone needs a respite from the tremendous initial effort to launch remote learning. Following the break, we will hopefully be more restored to finish out the school year.

I’ll close with the news that the Portland Board of Public Education on April 7 unanimously approved the appointment of Alyson Dame and Abdullahi Ahmed as co-principals of Deering High School.

The two were serving as interim co-principals while we conducted a nationwide search for a permanent school leader. Based on their achievements over the past year and their unique qualities, our search ended up confirming that we already had the best people in place at Deering.

Interim Assistant Principal Jim Moses also will continue to provide his steady leadership in that same role at Deering next year.

I’m pleased that these accomplished school leaders will be able to provide continuity to Deering in these uncertain times.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

My Monthly Column – March 2020

PS families: Social distancing critical to keep everyone safe
By Xavier Botana

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is evolving rapidly, and the Portland Public Schools has closed all its facilities until March 30. We are transitioning to remote learning and have arranged for the distribution of school meals. I’m writing here now with another important message: It’s critical for families and students to also do their part during this crisis to help keep everyone safe.

We recognize the hardship that the school closure represents for families and our staff. I didn’t make the decision to close lightly – it was an extremely difficult choice but we determined that it is the most responsible one to protect everyone’s health. Our students and families also need to take this situation very seriously. Everyone should understand the very real potential for additional community spread of the virus if they don't practice “social distancing.” 

It’s important that families don’t think of this closure as a series of “snow days” in which students are free to indulge in any social activity they want because the learning will be made-up at a later date. Activities like gathering in groups, holding sleepovers, going out to eat or have coffee with friends and roaming the neighborhood will potentially add to community spread of the virus. . Parents, I’m asking you to please take responsibility for suspending these activities and limiting your family’s social contact as much as possible!

Social distancing is  socially responsible during this crisis. Please read: “Social Distancing: This is Not a Snow Day,” by Dr. Asaf Bitton.

Families, please also make clear to your children that this is not a holiday from learning. Remote learning begins Wednesday, March 18. Schools will be taking attendance and we are establishing expectations for work completion.

I sent a letter to families on March 16 that details how families will be able to access learning materials and tech devices.  The letter also details how our Food Service Department will begin distributing meals starting March 18 to students 18 and under at these sites: Riverton, East End, Presumpscot, Rowe and Peaks Island elementary schools, King and Lyman Moore middle schools and Deering High School. Families should go to the site most convenient for them.  


When picking up food at our distribution sites, we encourage families to continue to be proactive in reducing the risk of COVID-19 by not congregating at the sites
once meals have been distributed. Also, to maximize social distancing, families are asked to only come to pick up learning materials at distribution sites/your child’s school if your child is not able to access the materials online. Please only pick up tech devices if your child doesn’t have an alternate device at home.

I will add here that, given the challenges around the COVID- 19 crisis, I have withdrawn from my recommended FY21 school budget a proposal to implement a reconfiguration of our elementary schools. I feel it’s responsible to take a step back and work on an implementation plan with a longer timeline. With public meetings curtailed because of the virus, it would be difficult to have a meaningful public discussion about the proposal at this time. I propose implementation in the 2021-2022 school year, which will give us time to engage the community in this important step towards a more equitable system.  

The evolving nature of this pandemic is uncharted territory. However, we will be able to confront the challenges it poses if we all pull together as a community in support of our students. Stay safe.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – February 2020


Equity Drives the Portland Public Schools
By Xavier Botana

I’m delighted the Portland Board of Public Education began Black History Month by voting to rename a school for Portland civil rights icon Gerald Talbot. That Feb. 4 vote means Riverton Elementary School will become the Gerald E. Talbot Community School, starting this fall.

This exceptional community leader’s list of accomplishments is long. He’s an educator, author, historian, civil and human rights activist, founding president of the Portland NAACP branch and Maine’s first African American legislator. He helped pass the Maine Human Rights Act and establish the Maine Human Rights Commission.

In short, Gerald Talbot has long been a champion of equity for all. It is fitting to name a school for him because – as Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – Equity is the foremost goal of the Portland Public Schools. And as we begin our 2020-2021 school budget process, we must continue to prioritize our investments to advance our Equity goal.

In 2017, our district set an ambitious agenda for improving education in Portland with the Portland Promise, our strategic plan. It has four clear, measurable goals– Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People – to help prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

Equity – reducing the achievement and opportunity gaps for our economically disadvantaged students and students of color – is the centerpiece of our four goals. However, we have a long way to go to reach Equity. When we compare the data of our non-economically disadvantaged students with those of our least advantaged students and students of color, we see great disparities.  

As a world-class progressive city, Portland cannot be satisfied with those outcomes. I know I’m not. To make progress on this front, our FY21 budget must continue to invest in programs, services and initiatives designed to reduce the persistent opportunity gaps between students.

The state’s school funding formula gives less state aid to districts with high valuation, like Portland, because we’re expected to contribute more locally. The state aid outlook is more positive for Portland than we initially projected, but our district still receives only about 15 percent of its revenue from the state. About 80 percent of our funding comes from local property taxes and 5 percent from federal or other sources.

Like any organization, we have rising costs for salaries and benefits every year.  With limited revenues and increasing costs, we must ask ourselves: How do we best manage our priorities to continue to have quality schools and also provide our least advantaged students with the support they need?

Portland taxpayers have consistently supported their schools, but simply adding to the budget to cover increased costs and make necessary investments yields a high burden on local taxpayers.  That is why we are looking for ways to make room in our budget for equity-focused investments, such as improved opportunities for English language learners and students with disabilities.

During the Board’s budget planning process this fall, Board members expressed willingness to consider revisiting existing programs and activities if needed to make room to advance our Equity agenda. Options could include moving from the current K-5 model to a primary/intermediate school model and evaluating programming such as co-curriculars and elementary school world languages, alongside our annual right-sizing staffing ratios across our schools.

The budget process is just beginning. Our annual public budget forum is on Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. at East End Community School, before I present my budget proposal to the Board on March 10. I look forward to hearing everyone’s ideas on how we can provide a quality education for all of our students.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

My Monthly Column – January 2020


A regional approach to challenges will help Portland schools thrive
By Xavier Botana

Mainers strongly identify with the cities and towns they live in. We Portlanders, for example, are very proud of our great city and all it has to offer. But Portland didn’t become great all by itself. Portland is the seat of Cumberland County and its success is linked to the success of other cities and towns within our region.

Thrive2027 is an initiative seeking to capitalize on what Portland and the other communities in our region can do if we work together collectively, instead of in our “silos.” Launched in 2016 by United Way of Greater Portland, Thrive2027 is built around three ten-year goals to make Cumberland County better and stronger in the areas of education, employment and health.

As superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, I strongly believe in the value of a regional approach to address educational and other challenges, so I have become a member of the Thrive2027 Council. The Council is made up of leaders from government, corporate and nonprofit sectors throughout the county who advise and oversee Thrive2027 to ensure its success.

Cumberland County is Maine’s most populous county and is already a great place to live for many. However, the three Thrive2027 goals, created by and for community stakeholders, are designed to make it stronger for ALL residents in the 28 communities of our county: Baldwin, Bridgton, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth, Casco, Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, Frye Island, Gorham, Gray, Harpswell, Harrison, Long Island, Naples, New Gloucester, North Yarmouth, Portland, Pownal, Raymond, Scarborough, Sebago, South Portland, Standish, Westbrook, Windham and Yarmouth. 

The three goals are to ensure that:
  • More kids have a strong start in school so that they’re reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
  • More people have the education and employment opportunities needed to afford to live and work in Cumberland County – to thrive, not just survive.
  • More of our neighbors live longer, healthier lives.

When it comes to our children’s learning, the first goal is vital. Research shows that third-grade reading ability is a key indicator of future academic success. In the 2017-2018 school year, 59 percent of the county’s children read proficiently at the end of third grade. By 2027, the goal is to hike that to 70 percent.

Strong pre-kindergarten programs can help students reach that goal. My column in September was about the Portland Public Schools’ plan to expand our pre-K program over the next five years in an effort to eventually offer pre-K to all Portland 4-year-olds. Any efficiencies and savings that might result from a regional approach to pre-K expansion would benefit everyone.

The second and third Thrive2027 goals might not seem to be education related, but they are. With the prices of homes and rents rapidly increasing in Cumberland County, schools in Portland and other communities are serving an increasing number of homeless students. In 2017, just 65 percent of households in the county paid less than less than 30 percent of their income for housing. Boosting that number to 70 percent by 2027 will help ensure more youngsters have a stable home environment, making it more likely they’ll succeed in school.

And doing more to promote the health and well being of families also leads to better educational outcomes. 

The idea behind Thrive2027 is collective action. By bringing people together around a common goal, all working at it from different vantage points, I believe we’ll be exponentially successful. In the end, we’ll get more than the sum of our individual efforts to help Cumberland County communities thrive.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

My Monthly Column – December 2019


A diverse staff is a boon for all students
By Xavier Botana

When I became superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, one consistent message I heard from students, parents and members of the school board and community was that they wanted our faculty and staff to better reflect the diversity of our students. That’s why we made staff diversity a key part of the People goal in our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan.

This is the last of four monthly columns I’m dedicating to discussing important investments in the Portland Public Schools’ 2019-2020 budget. The initiatives embody our Portland Promise goals of Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. I’ve previously discussed our pre-kindergarten expansion initiative, our behavioral health continuum and our efforts to strengthen our core curriculum. This column focuses on our work to realize our People goal by attracting, supporting and retaining talented and diverse staff.

The data is clear: Having teachers of color is very good for students of color. It also shows that staff diversity benefits ALL students.

An article in the April 2019 issue of Educational Leadership, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), focuses on data analyses showing that “having even a single black teacher in elementary school can make a tremendous difference” for black K–12 students, “improving a student's trajectory far beyond the elementary years.” http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr19/vol76/num07/The-Impact-of-Teacher-Diversity.aspx

The article says: “Being taught by a black educator is so salient that it can affect whether or not a student of color not only finishes high school, but enrolls in college.”

Other students also benefit from learning from diverse teachers. According to a
Scientific American article: “Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

When launching our Portland Promise in October 2017, we set a People goal target of having 10 percent of our staff be persons of color within five years. Just 6.7 percent of our staff met that definition in the 2016-2017 school year. Last school year, the number had climbed to 7.5 percent. We hope to continue to make gains toward our goal.

Here are some steps we’re taking to increase staff diversity:

·       The summer of 2019 marked the third year of our educator diversity program, called TeachPortland. The program provides high school, college students and adults in our community interested in teaching the opportunity to gain classroom experience and relevant professional development. We had 44 participants in the program this year, and ultimately hired five participants this fall.

·       In January 2019, we launched the Education Academy at The New Mainers Resource Center at Portland Adult Education (PAE). The Education Academy assists new Mainers trained as teachers in other countries to become licensed educators here. We had 11 Education Academy graduates this spring and most are working in our schools – three as teachers; three as educational technicians; and one as an AmericaCorps/Vista staff assistant at Riverton. Another volunteers at King Middle School while awaiting work authorization. This year, we have 11 more students enrolled in Education Academy programs.

·       Just last month, PAE and Southern Maine Community College agreed to partner in a new initiative called Building the Pipeline to enhance workforce training and educational opportunities for new Mainers.

All of these initiatives will aid us in building a workforce that better reflects the wonderful diversity of our student body. I firmly believe that we will only be as good as our talented and diverse staff. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done and look forward to continuing these efforts.