Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My Monthly Column – March 2018

A Pivotal Moment Against Gun Violence in Schools
By Xavier Botana

Students who survived the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day are telling us that they don’t want other students to experience what they did. They created the #NeverAgain movement to advocate for stricter gun control, resulting in the National School Walkout March 14.

Portland’s high school and middle school students decided to join in this peaceful statement against gun violence. Because school was closed March 14 for a snow day, we allowed for a brief intermission during school on March 15 to permit students to express their viewpoints in a constructive, non-coercive way. Students with different viewpoints also were allowed to use this time to speak their minds. We’re proud that our students chose to advocate for their beliefs. As educators, we look for teachable moments to engage students in civic life. This is one of those moments.

I am encouraged that students are leading the way on this issue. These senseless tragedies have become all too familiar to us, but this time – thanks to our young people – we appear to be at a pivotal moment.

Adults need to do their part as well. We educators must ensure that our schools remain safe learning environments.

Unfortunately, in spite of our best efforts, we can’t completely protect our schools from every possible threat. That is something that I lose sleep over.

However, we can plan and prepare to minimize the circumstances that lead up to these situations.

Enhanced security measures are a part of this, as are drills and practice. Also a part of this is staying connected to our students and having strong mental health supports in our schools and in the community. Another part is training our staff to recognize signs of disconnectedness and to know where to go for help.

I also believe that we educators must take a proactive role in changing the policy climate in which school shootings have become far too commonplace.

Policies that limit access to guns must be part of this. As an educator responsible for the safekeeping of about 6,700 students each day, I am dismayed that our state and federal lawmakers cannot seem to agree on reasonable legislation to decrease the likelihood of such catastrophic events.

I’m distraught that a bill before the Maine Legislature would allow those picking up or dropping off students at schools to have firearms in their cars.  LD 1761 has the potential of making schools less safe and is opposed by the Maine School Management Association, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition and many other parties. I urge you to contact your legislators to vote down this bill, which was still pending as of this writing.

I’m dismayed by calls to arm teachers. Make no mistake, teachers and school staff will put themselves in harm’s way for their students, as we witnessed in the recent Florida school shooting and in many others. But no teacher or principal, no matter how well trained, should be asked to decide whether to leave the children in their immediate care to become first responders. It’s time for serious legislative proposals, not red herrings.

I’m encouraged by a proposal before the Maine Legislature, titled: “An Act To Create a Community Protection Order.” The bill would provide an avenue to petition the courts to temporarily remove weapons from a high-risk individual that potentially poses a threat to others or themselves. LR 2943 is still in draft form but could be finalized for a public hearing soon.

I’m also encouraged by the response from educators. Maine Educators United Against Gun Violence held a rally March 15 on the steps of City Hall, in which I and many of our teachers and staff participated. I look forward to being part of subsequent actions by this coalition.

As a voter, I support laws that limit access to weapons, including bans on certain types of weapons, strong background checks and the elimination of loopholes for obtaining guns. I encourage my colleagues to express their guaranteed right to free speech on this issue.

We need a thoughtful and proactive discussion if we’re going to effect the change our students and schools need.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My monthly column – February 2018

Teaching about Consent to Combat Sexual Harassment
By Xavier Botana

The #MeToo movement is shining a spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct, exposing abuses in all aspects of our society. That includes not only Hollywood, government and businesses of all types – but also colleges and K-12 schools.

As schools, we have a unique role to play when it comes to combating sexual harassment and misconduct. One key step is ensuring we have clear policies in place, and responding appropriately when they’re violated. Educators also have the opportunity to be proactive. We must educate students so they can recognize harassment – and break the cycle by not perpetuating it themselves.

February – Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month – is an opportune time to talk about these issues and highlight some steps underway at the Portland Public Schools to address them.

Teen dating violence is “a pattern of abuse or threat of abuse against teenaged dating partners, occurring in different forms, including verbal, emotional, physical, sexual and digital,” according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

To help combat teen dating violence, the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program http://www.yaapp.org/ works with our schools to help students learn how to make safe, healthy, and informed choices in their dating relationships.

Most sexual harassment in schools also is peer-to-peer, according to research from the American Association of University Women. That research also shows that most students who sexually harass another student have been targets of sexual harassment themselves. It’s “a vicious cycle” that is self-perpetuating if not addressed, the AAUW concludes.

Here at the Portland Public Schools, we are taking steps to help students learn to understand what sexual harassment is and how to prevent it. One example is the focus our schools are giving to the issue of consent in social situations and relationships.

“If you don’t teach a young adult about consent, they are forced to learn it on their own, which results in mistakes – mistakes that could potentially scar someone for the rest of their life, physically and/or emotionally,” says a Deering High School senior who has chosen the issue of consent as her senior Capstone project.

In their Capstone projects, Deering students explore topics they are passionate about and that they believe may be relevant to their next stage in life. The Deering senior whose project will focus on consent is concerned that Maine’s Health Education Standards (http://www.maine.gov/doe/healthed/standards/index.html) don’t specifically require the issue of consent be taught.

Maine is not alone in that. According to a recent Education Week article, fewer than half the states in our nation require schools to include the topic of “avoiding coercion” in a sex education program. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/01/26/what-do-schools-teach-about-sexual-harassment.htm

To help ensure her peers are educated about consent, this senior plans to work with Deering’s health teachers to have students watch videos about consent and engage in small-group discussions.

At Casco Bay High School, the issue of consent was a focus as student leaders and staff recently worked together to devise new norms for school dances. Deering also has adopted these norms and Portland High School plans to share them with students.

The new norms include:
·      Do not touch, hold or grab anyone else on the dance floor without clear consent.
·      We are all responsible for each other’s safety. Check in with people if you see something happening to another student that is questionable to you.
·      Report what you see to an adult if you do not feel comfortable intervening yourself.
·      Please see a chaperone if you experience any non-consensual touching or dancing.

We’re also reaching out to parents, through our new Parent University, to assist them in helping their children foster healthy relationships. A March 14 session, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Lyman Moore Middle School, will focus on raising powerful and confident girls. A March 31 session, from 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, will be on raising healthy and resilient boys.

I’ll close by noting that National School Counseling Week was Feb. 5-9. School counselors typically are the first people our students turn to and depend on when dealing with such issues as sexual harassment. During this month, let’s all take the time to thank and celebrate our school counselors!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My Monthly Column – January 2018

Inviting all Portland Parents to Parent U!
By Xavier Botana

As an educator and father, I know firsthand that being a parent is both a joy and a challenge. It’s wonderful to see our children grow, learn and realize their full potential. But it’s challenging at times to know how best to guide them in that process. That’s especially true today, in the age of the smartphone, when many of our youth are hyper-connected but may struggle with personal contact skills and are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety.

To aid parents in helping their children succeed both academically and in life, the Portland Public Schools is starting off 2018 by launching Parent University. Parent U is intended to bring together parents and caregivers to learn from experts and each other. Through free classes and events that are fun, interactive, and informative, we’ll focus on trending topics that are important to families.

For example, at Parent U’s kickoff event – on Saturday, Jan. 27, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Ocean Avenue Elementary School – Columbia University Professor Amy Stuart Wells will speak about how to create truly integrated public schools that prepare our children for life in today’s global society.  Portland Schools are uniquely positioned to achieve this as the most diverse district in Maine.  I encourage you to come and discuss this with Dr. Wells and your friends and neighbors.

Future sessions will focus on such topics as how parents can model a positive, "growth mindset" to help their children persevere when school becomes challenging. Other classes will explore how to use art to discuss sensitive topics with our children and discuss how to raise healthy and resilient girls – and also healthy and resilient boys.

I plan to lead a lunchtime book discussion group in March about raising “iGen” children, based on Jean Twenge’s book by that name. As we parents and educators know, social media and texting often take up a major portion of their lives, and they typically have less personal contact with friends and family. Dr. Twenge suggests that this impacts this generation in ways that the rest of us should understand. That is the goal of this discussion group, and I look forward to learning together with my fellow Portlanders.

Check our Parent U website – http://parentu.portlandschools.org/  – concerning dates and other specifics on this session and others that we’re offering.

There will be no grades or tests at Parent U, and parents and caregivers can attend as many, or as few, sessions as they like. Childcare and refreshments will be provided, and interpretation services are available upon request.

We are deeply grateful to generous donors for helping to fund Parent U. The Maine Community Foundation, People of Color Fund has provided a $7,500 grant; and the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust has awarded us $3,000 for this project.

We’ll also be looking to our community partners and our parents to provide their expertise and knowledge on specific topics.

Parent U is part of one of our key strategies for fulfilling the Portland Promise, our Comprehensive Plan.  Parents are our partners in helping students succeed. Research shows that parents can increase their child’s academic success by being involved in their children’s school and community. We want to provide ALL our families with learning opportunities and learn together how to help ALL of our children succeed. Parent U ties into our Equity goal strategy of increasing parent engagement in our schools. As part of our Equity goal, we strive to reduce gaps in academic achievement and opportunity between our financially advantaged students and students who don’t have the same advantages – due to such factors as family income or education level, race or native language.

On Jan. 15, we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for equity and against racial oppression. This year is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. It’s an opportune time to remember his life and legacy, and to recognize that the struggle to achieve equity in American society remains ongoing today, in such areas as social justice and education. Through Parent U and other initiatives, the Portland Public Schools is striving to come closer to achieving equity in our schools.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

My monthly column – December 2017

Inclusivity, Diversity for the Holidays
By Xavier Botana
When I was growing up, I took the Christmas holiday for granted. The only debate was what to eat with my family’s traditional roast pork. Should we have Cuban dishes, such as yuca and black beans, or Spanish dishes like besugo al horno (roast snapper), favored by family members from Spain?
Over the years, my world expanded beyond my own childhood experience. I came to realize that not only do different families have different holiday traditions, but also that many of us don’t celebrate the same holidays. Today, as superintendent of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, it is important for me to ensure that any holiday observances in our schools reaffirm the Portland Public Schools’ commitment to our great diversity and affirm our respect for different traditions.
Portland’s public schools are a microcosm of today’s global world. One-third of our students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – a total of 61 languages district wide. Our schools reflect an increasingly diverse society with many religious, ethnic and cultural traditions and beliefs that are meaningful to our students and their families and other members of the Portland community.
We do our best to accommodate the diverse religious beliefs of our students. Because of the traditional school schedule, school vacation coincides with many Christian holidays. For students from other traditions, some religious holidays may require students to miss school, and those are excused absences. We provide schools with a list of different faiths’ major religious holidays each year, and ask our educators to not schedule important school activities or exams on those holidays.
The diverse holidays and traditions cherished by our students and families provide opportunities for learning, further creating awareness and sensitivity to our diverse society. However, our responsibility as educators is to ensure that any holiday observances have an educational purpose. We also must take a thoughtful approach to such lessons in the classroom.
For example, we must ensure that lessons don’t make any students feel excluded or forced to identify with a religion that is not their own.
Recently, the Maine Department of Education recognized the importance of being sensitive to our growing diversity by sharing information with school districts. We recently shared with our schools an article that highlights other considerations educators need to take into account at holiday times.
One key point is that we need to consider educational goals when celebrating a holiday or tradition. Is our goal to have students learn about different cultures or traditions, for example, or simply to add some fun to the classroom? Are we accomplishing those goals when some students can’t participate? Some cultures and religions don’t celebrate Halloween or Christmas, for example. Are there other, more inclusive ways to accomplish our goals?
Holiday decorations for the sake of decoration are discouraged. Symbols or artifacts of any holiday should be used as educational resources in the teaching-learning process.
We also need to include diverse voices in planning holiday or cultural observances. If everyone at the table is of the same tradition, it makes it more likely we could overlook sensitive points important to others.
Columbus Day is one example of that. When the Portland Board of Public Education sets the district’s calendar for next school year, the board will consider following the example of the Portland City Council regarding that holiday. The council has voted to designate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.
For years, we’ve seen the Columbus story only from the viewpoint of the European settlers who “discovered” America, and not from the perspective of those who were already living here. Native Americans were decimated by disease and warfare as the result of Columbus’ discovery, and we need to acknowledge that.
This change is not about excluding Italian Americans. Many Italians past and present have made tremendous contributions to society and are worthy of recognition. This is about including the voices of indigenous people in the historical discussion.
I’ll close with this: Christmas is an important part of my family’s tradition. To those who also celebrate it, merry Christmas. To everyone else, happy holidays – whenever and however you celebrate them.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

My Monthly Column – November 2017

The Future is Now for PPS Elementary Schools
By Xavier Botana

Thank you, Portland voters, for making your commitment to quality education in modern facilities so clear at the polls!

On Nov. 7, Portland voters overwhelmingly voted to approve a proposal to renovate four aging elementary schools: Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche. The voters’ approval authorizes the city to bond $64.3 million to fund these renovations. These buildings have been part of a plan called “Buildings for Our Future,” which was launched in 2014 to address their significant deficiencies. Now, thanks to Portland voters, we are in a position to upgrade these facilities. These upgrades will enable all elementary students in the district to attend safe schools designed for 21st century learning.

Portland’s public schools are unique in Maine. That’s not just because we’re the largest and most diverse school district in the state, but also because of the tremendous commitment by our community to its schools. Portlanders are generous with their schools because they recognize that great schools are inextricably linked to our community’s vitality. As a school leader in this state, I don’t take this for granted and I am deeply grateful to live and work in this amazing community.

Renovations at Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche are necessary to transform these schools into the kind of modern learning environments that will best prepare our students for college and career success in the 21st century.

These renovations are critically needed now because of accessibility and safety issues. Problems include asbestos and auditoriums that don’t meet modern safety codes, and heating systems and windows that are outdated. Several of the schools are overcrowded.

We strive to make improvements to our school buildings each year, prioritized based on the needs of each facility and available funding in the budget, but we haven’t been able to make significant capital investment to these schools since they were built 40 to 65 years ago. Last year, we completed a comprehensive analysis of all our facilities. This study shows that we have deferred and expected maintenance costs of $321 million in the next 20 years.

Renovating our elementary schools will help us fulfill the Portland Public Schools Promise.

As I discussed in detail in last month’s column, we have promised the Portland community to prepare and empower our students for their future by working to realize the four goals established in our Comprehensive Plan – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity, and People.

As part of the Portland Promise, we’ve also begun a community campaign to highlight the unique educational experience that Portland’s public schools offer and illustrate why our district is a great choice for families. Our updated school buildings will help convince even more families that Portland is right for them.

Now that the bond package has been approved, we can begin the process for proceeding with the work to renovate the four schools.

The next step is to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for architectural work.

We also will engage with the Portland Board of Public Education, staff, families and the community concerning the order in which the projects will proceed. That process will include the sequencing of the projects and the specific timeline for initiating and completing each renovation. We look forward to the day when all four of these elementary schools are finally up to 21st century learning standards.

It takes a community to ensure that we meet our commitment of preparing our students to succeed in college and career.  Thank you once again, Portland, for being that generous and supportive community!

I’ll close with just a few words about Veteran’s Day, which was this past Saturday, Nov. 11, and observed by many on Nov. 10. Our armed forces are an important and respected institution and this day was set aside to celebrate the service of all U.S. military veterans. Let’s all take the opportunity this month to acknowledge the contributions of our veterans. I especially want to recognize members of our school community: staff, parents and graduates who are veterans or are currently serving in the military. Thank you all for the sacrifices that you have made to serve our country.