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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

My Monthly Column – May 2018

Time to Recognize School Staff – and Volunteers

By Xavier Botana

Another name for May could be “Appreciation Month” because it’s an opportunity to recognize and thank many of our school employees. During May, we celebrate National Teacher Day and National Teacher Appreciation Week, as well as National School Nurses Day, School Nutrition Employee Appreciation Week and School Lunch Hero Day. Here at the Portland Public Schools, we are deeply grateful to all these employees for the crucial roles they play in our students’ success.

This year, May also is an opportunity to express our appreciation to the hundreds of other people who make a vital difference in the lives of our students: our school volunteers.

On May 10 at East End Community School, we held a Volunteer Appreciation event for the approximately 700 parents and other community members who donate about 90,000 hours per year in services to our schools. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to these volunteers for all the time, caring and expertise they give to our students.

Our volunteers come from all backgrounds and – in our very diverse school system – from various countries. They include parents, some of whom begin volunteering when their children are in school but end up continuing to volunteer after their own children move on. Some volunteers aren’t parents themselves but value education and want to help our community’s children. Our volunteers range in age from retirees and grandparents sharing a lifetime of knowledge with our students to young professionals sharing their cutting edge expertise.

Volunteers do myriad things in our schools. For example, our classroom volunteers do everything from assisting students with reading and math to helping teachers organize classrooms and prepare materials. Volunteers in our Make It Happen! program, a college-readiness and academic success program for language minority students in grades 9-12, assist students with the college application process and help them engage in leadership, community service and professional development opportunities.

Outside the classroom, volunteers do such things as accompanying students to school in our Walking School Bus program, serving in PTOs, planning and organizing fundraisers, teaching students new skills before or after school, serving as an accompanist for student/parent chorus, assisting with drama clubs or as volunteer coaches, working as Sports Boosters and manning the ticket office and concessions at sporting events. They also chaperone events that include field trips, school dances and Project Graduation.

One of our core strategies is to ensure that every student has a meaningful connection to a caring adult. That person can be a teacher or other school employee but also a volunteer. Volunteers create bonds with students and serve as role models.

We always need more volunteers, so if you’d like to join this group of amazing individuals, please contact the community coordinator at your local school.

May 9 was National School Nurse Day, when we recognize our school nurses for all their contributions to student health and learning. One particular Portland Public Schools nurse truly stood out in that regard, and now our new school that will open this fall to replace Hall Elementary School will be named after her. The Portland Board of Public Education voted unanimously April 24 to name the new school the Amanda C. Rowe Elementary School.

Amanda was a beloved and dedicated longtime school nurse who died in 2013. In almost three decades with the Portland Public Schools, she tirelessly and courageously served as a health teacher, school nurse, and district school nurse coordinator. She worked at the local and state levels to increase students’ health and safety and combat injustice.

You can learn more about Amanda Rowe and the naming process on our website at:

Last but not least, the City Council votes May 14 on our proposed $112 million FY19 school budget to send to Portland voters June 12.  This year’s budget process has been a very challenging one, with a $3.4 million decrease in state education aid coupled with rising fixed costs. The budget we have crafted maintains quality education in Portland while being cognizant of the tax burden the state aid shortfall shifts to local homeowners. I hope you’ll make your support of this budget known to the council and at the polls.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

My Monthly Column – April 2018

Portland schools must keep moving forward
By Xavier Botana

Each year, we give our proposed Portland Public Schools school budget a name. This year, the title for our 2018-2019 budget proposal is “Portland Public Schools at a Crossroads.”

That title underscores that we in the Portland community face a clear choice. Do we support our current school system’s needs in the face of what likely will be ongoing decreases in state funding? Or, do we significantly reevaluate what we provide in the form of programs, services and the number of options available to our families?

I hope and believe that our community will answer “yes” to the first question.

Portland’s public schools are on the move – and we want to keep moving in a positive direction. This past fall, our district was ranked by niche.com as one of the top 10 school districts in Maine. Our test results show we provide a high quality education; our middle class students perform on par with their peers in surrounding communities. A recent student-growth rating of schools nationwide places Portland’s schools in the top 10 districts in the state and the 91st percentile nationally.

As Maine’s most diverse school district, we also have opportunity and achievement gaps for some of our students from poverty and students of color, but we’re actively striving to change that through our new Portland Promise initiative. We have established Achievement, Whole Student, Equity and People goals and have set strategies and five-year targets to achieve them.

Achieving those goals and sustaining quality schools require a continued fiscal commitment from the Portland community. Portland taxpayers have been generous with our schools and our results show why that matters.

Let me give you a brief summary of the budget challenges we face.

I’ll start by saying that we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem.  This year, the Maine Department of Education made changes to the school funding formula. Those changes contributed to a shortfall in our state education subsidy – for fiscal year 2019 we have $3.4 million less in state revenue than in FY 2018.

State education aid is influenced heavily by the total property valuation of a community – and property values in Portland are climbing. High valuation districts, like Portland, get less state money and are expected to contribute more locally.

To address the revenue shortfalls and rising costs, I proposed on March 6 an investment of $113 million in FY 2019, a 7 percent increase over FY 2018. We forecast this same amount in our multi-year budget last June. It reflects the increase the state school funding formula expects Portland to contribute.

The increase covers rising costs, such as our contractual obligations for staff salaries and health insurance, additional debt service for the new Hall Elementary School and investments tied to achieving our Portland Promise goals. It would add almost $20 a month to the tax bill for an average Portland home valued at $240,000.

I am grateful to the Portland Board of Public Education’s Finance Committee for its thorough public review of my budget proposal. That committee first evaluated reducing the budget by $3.8 million. That would have lessened the tax burden but cut deeply by closing our island schools, making class sizes larger, eliminating world languages in elementary schools and electives in middle school and increasing elementary school class sizes.

But many parents and community members opposed these reductions. In the end, the committee reduced my proposal more than $1 million through personnel cuts and a retirement incentive and advanced a $112 million budget proposal that meets the needs of Portland students while being cognizant of the challenges our budget situation poses for local taxpayers. That budget would add $168 to the annual tax bill of a $240,000 home. That’s about $14 per month to keep our schools on an upward trajectory.

The school board approved this budget April 12 and will present it to the City Council on April 18. The council sets the bottom line of the school budget, so please continue to stay informed and engaged throughout this process.  Here’s a budget timeline: https://www.portlandschools.org/district_home/school_budget

We stand at a crossroads. Please make your voices heard about the direction you want our schools to take.