Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Monthly Column – May 2017

Graduation a Celebration for Students and Staff
By Xavier Botana

It’s graduation season. Our seniors are excited and their teachers are too. Graduation from high school is our goal for students from their first day of  pre-school, so seeing them achieve that is as gratifying to us as it is to them.

I’m looking forward to congratulating the Class of 2017 this June. It’s thrilling every year to see our students transformed from the youngsters they once were to accomplished young adults, eager to grasp their diplomas and take on the new challenges of college and career.

The Portland Public Schools will have five graduation events.

Four will be for our high schools – Portland, Deering, Casco Bay and the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS), our regional high school. I look forward to congratulating graduates at each one and recognizing the educators that helped them achieve this milestone.

Deering High School’s ceremony will be June 7 at the Cross Insurance Arena. Both Portland and Casco Bay high schools will hold their ceremonies June 8 at Merrill Auditorium – PHS in the morning and CBHS in the evening.  

On May 19, PATHS students will receive certificates of completion in the arts or technical education fields they chose to pursue. Some students also will receive national certifications they’ve earned.

The Portland Adult Education (PAE) ceremony on June 15 at Merrill will close our graduation season. PAE graduates, who typically range in age from their late teens to late adulthood, will be honored for receiving their high school diplomas or passing a high school equivalency test.

These graduates stand out because they haven’t taken the usual route to complete high school. They represent the spirit of perseverance and commitment to improvement that we strive to teach all of our students. Many were unable to previously finish high school for reasons that include illness, family responsibilities, moving to new country where they didn’t speak the language, homelessness and other life circumstances.   

Next year’s entering freshman class, the Class of 2021, will be the first class required by the state to earn a “proficiency-based high school diploma.” In proficiency-based education systems, students earn units of proficiency rather than accumulating credits through seat time. Students will be expected to demonstrate that they understand and are able to do work in required content areas.  Experiences in their classes and in other settings in and out of school will be used to determine students’ proficiency.

Two of our schools already use this approach to learning. Casco Bay High School and King Middle School have been implementing proficiency-based learning and grading practices for years now. The experience of these high-performing schools shows us that this model works.   

Schools all across Maine and elsewhere in the country already use this model and are proponents of it because it increases transparency in student expectations and provides students with multiple avenues to demonstrate their competency. It also increases student responsibility for their learning.

We understand that this will be an adjustment for many families.  Communication and careful listening are never more important than when making significant changes such as these. We recently held a series of information sessions for parents of our current eighth-graders and we will continue to keep families informed. You can find more information at this link:  http://www.portlandschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=1094237&pageId=8936816http://www.portlandschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=1094237&pageId=8936816  or by going to the “Parents” section of our website, www.portlandschools.org and clicking on the “Proficiency-based Learning at PPS” button.

I’ll close with information on the FY2018 school budget. The City Council voted to approve the budget on May 15 and it now goes to Portland voters June 13.

Our proposed budget of $105 million represents a modest increase of 1.4 percent over the FY2017 approved budget. It requires a tax rate increase of 28 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or 2.75 percent – adding $67.20 to the annual tax bill of a home worth $240,000. Because of a projected decrease in state revenue of approximately $1 million and given increased personnel costs, we had to make significant cuts. However, we have preserved small class sizes and successful programs and services.  

I ask that you please support the budget at the polls and continue to pressure elected officials in Augusta to properly fund our schools!

Monday, April 17, 2017

My Monthly Column – April 2017

Portland schools commit to greater staff diversity

By Xavier Botana

Spring is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate many of our school employees. In April, we have National School Librarian Day and National Assistant Principals Week. In May, there’s 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 our staff members for all they do to help our students learn and/or be ready to learn.

This also is a good time to reflect on how critical Portland Public Schools’ staff is to the vision of our school district, which states: “All learners will be fully prepared to participate and succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.” Without an excellent, diverse staff our students can’t succeed in the way we envision. That is why we have made “People” one of the four goals in our district’s new Comprehensive Plan.

Our People goal states: “The Portland Public Schools attracts, supports and retains talented and diverse people who use their strengths to achieve our shared goals.”

In recent columns, I’ve written about the other goals in our Comprehensive Plan: Achievement, Equity and Whole Student. This month, I’m focusing on People. This fourth goal undergirds our three other goals and is critical to our achieving them.

We’re fortunate to have many outstanding staff members.

To cite just a few examples, Ann Hanna, assistant principal at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, is Maine’s 2017 Elementary School Assistant Principal of the Year, and Grecia Caraballo, a Spanish immersion teacher at Lyseth Elementary School, was named the Foreign Language Association of Maine’s 2017 Teacher of the Year. Also, Lauren Cormier, a social studies teacher at Lyman Moore Middle School, recently was selected as “Teacher of the Year” by both the VFW Deering Memorial Post and District 10. Cormier was honored for her commitment to teaching students about U.S. history and the importance of civic responsibility and service.

We also have many other excellent staff members who may not have received formal recognition for their efforts, but who work tirelessly to help students succeed. We know this because our students and parents tell us about these teachers and other staff that really make a difference in students’ lives.

However, as Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, we also hear concerns from students that our faculty doesn’t reflect the diversity in our classrooms. That’s an issue not just for us, but also for schools across the country. We are now taking steps to try to increase the diversity of our workforce.

For example, we’re kicking off an initiative this summer that focuses on creating a pipeline of diverse educators who more closely reflect the diversity of our students and their families.

The four-week summer program, co-sponsored by the Portland Public Schools and the University of Southern Maine, seeks to build interest in the teaching profession while also increasing the diversity of our teachers. The program will provide an opportunity for participants to experience teaching firsthand as interns in a PPS summer learning classroom, and to earn three college credits, tuition-free, by attending an introductory course in education at USM.

We hope to start with 20 participants comprised of current high school students, college students who are not currently majoring in education, and adults from the community who are interested in teaching as a profession. Program attendees will also receive a stipend for participating.

We’re also launching a new staff training program to promote cultural competency and foster a deeper understanding of the role of culture in learning. Our Cultural Competency Training Program will begin with staff from Central Office, school leaders and teaching staff. We will extend this to all staff over the next two years. We are grateful for a grant from the Bangor Savings Bank Foundation to help underwrite some of this work and will continue to seek outside funding for this program.

These initiatives will help us attract new talent, strengthen our organizational culture and assist the district in its mission of ensuring a challenging, relevant and joyful education that empowers every learner to make a difference in the world.

Monday, March 13, 2017

My Monthly Column – March 2017

Community Partners Help PPS Students Achieve
By Xavier Botana

I’ve been exploring the four goals in the Portland Public Schools’ new Comprehensive Plan in my monthly columns. I recently wrote about our Whole Student and Equity goals. This month, I’m focusing on our Achievement goal and the variety of ways the Portland Public Schools helps students achieve.

Our Achievement goal states that all our students will be prepared for college and career and empowered to pursue a productive postsecondary path.

That doesn’t mean all students necessarily will go to college. Our goal is to prepare every student to be ready for college, and to empower each student – through good guidance and an individual student plan – to be able to make a decision about whether to go to college or choose another postsecondary option.

Our Comprehensive Plan has several strategies related to our Achievement goal. We will ensure that our curriculum aligns to educational standards and that tasks reflect learning expectations. We will develop a districtwide intervention strategy with a focus on extending learning for students who need it. To drive instruction, we also plan to improve access to, and the use of, student learning data.

How will we know if we’re meeting our Achievement goal? To measure progress, we have a series of benchmarks with which we will hold ourselves accountable. They include ensuring that students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade; are “algebra ready” by the end of eighth grade; and are “on track” when it comes to grades, course completion and attendance by the end of ninth grade.

However, there also are other ways that the Portland Public Schools helps students achieve. As a large urban school district with the city of Portland as our campus, we have a wealth of opportunities – a world-class art museum, a critically acclaimed symphony orchestra and a professional theater venue, for example – on our doorstep. These opportunities are unique to students in our district by virtue of going to school in this great city.

As just one example, I recently spent an amazing hour being interviewed by some fifth-graders at Ocean Avenue Elementary School about my family’s immigration story. The interview was part of a project that the students are engaged in with Side x Side to make a documentary film based on the students’ study of the history of migration and immigration.

Side x Side is a Portland nonprofit that helps integrate arts-based programming into the curriculum of the Portland Public Schools. As evidenced by my experience with Ocean Avenue students, this partnership is helping students with critical thinking, creativity and innovation. I was impressed with how smart, serious and well prepared my student interviewers were!

Another community partner, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), also helps our students expand their knowledge. March is National Youth Art Month and the creative works of Portland Public Schools students are among the more than 90 works of art from K-12 Maine students on display at the museum through April 2.

That exhibition, sponsored by the Maine Art Education Association, is an annual event. However, thanks to Culture Club-Portland, Portland students get additional exposure to the museum and other cultural institutions.

Culture Club-Portland was created five years ago to expand cultural experiences for students in Portland’s public schools. The consortium, brought together by a generous anonymous donor, includes the PMA, Portland Ovations, Portland Stage, and Portland Symphony Orchestra (PSO). Its aspirational goal is to provide free arts experiences to every child in the Portland Public Schools, every year.

Each arts organization has special programming for our students. For example, the PMA uses a “visual-thinking-strategy teaching method” to help students in middle school and high school explore social justice issues as they decipher the meaning behind a circa 1913 symbolic painting featuring an interracial couple.

In another instance, the PSO worked with Lincoln Middle School history teachers to present a “Musical Melting Pot” concert featuring significant music during the historical periods Lincoln eighth-graders were studying. And a recent Portland Stage Company workshop helped students at Lyseth Elementary school appreciate the theater.

Students learn best when they’re actively engaged. Thank you to all our community partners for engaging our students in such wonderful learning opportunities.

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Monthly Column – February 2017

Achieving Equity

By Xavier Botana

I’m using my monthly column to explore the four goals in the Portland Public Schools’ new Comprehensive Plan. Last month, I wrote about our Whole Student goal. This month, I’ll talk about our Equity goal.

February is an opportune time to talk about equity because it’s Black History Month. It’s a time to celebrate how the contributions of African Americans have helped make our country great. It’s also a time to pay tribute to the generations of black Americans who have struggled to achieve equity in American society – a fight still ongoing today in such areas as education.

As Maine’s largest and most diverse school system, equity for all students is an extremely important goal for us. 

Our Equity goal states: “The Portland Public Schools is vigilant in supporting each and every student's particular path to achieving high standards, rooting out systemic or ongoing inequities.”

Currently, we recognize that as a school district, we have not yet attained that goal. Our state assessment and other data show that our results with students are uneven. There is a performance gap between some groups of students – such as members of racial minority groups and economically disadvantaged students – and their more advantaged classmates.

We do a great job with many of those advantaged students. However, there is a tremendous amount of work we need to do as a system to help the students in our district who don’t have the same level of opportunity in their lives. Many of our students face a variety of challenges. For example, they may not speak English as their first language or their families may be grappling with poverty and even homelessness.

When we look at our district, we can see a pattern of systemic and ongoing inequity regarding the outcomes for those students.

Let me give you a few examples from the district’s most recent state test scores, which the state released in December. When we look at our district as a whole, our performance largely mirrors the state average when it comes to the percentage of our students meeting or exceeding state standards.

However, as we drill down, the data shows we have a stark achievement gap between students who qualify to receive a free or reduced-cost school lunch (FRL students) and students with family incomes high enough so they don’t qualify for such lunch assistance (non-FRL students).

When you compare our non-FRL students to students statewide, our students significantly outperform similar students. But when you compare the scores of our FRL students to statewide scores, our FRL students do not perform as well. That pattern holds against other comparison sets, such as neighboring districts and districts with similar demographics.
About 55 percent of our students are FRL students. By setting an Equity goal, we’re making a commitment to work together to break that pattern and help those students improve their learning.

We have a number of strategies for doing that.

One is to strengthen family partnerships by improving communication and by building authentic opportunities for families to participate in the learning process.  We’re already moving toward action on this. A Parent Partnership Policy Ad Hoc Committee has been working since early fall on developing a new district family engagement policy, which the Portland Board of Public Education is expected to vote on soon.

We also want to expand student-learning opportunities. We want to ensure that all students have access to higher-level classes such as advanced placement and our talented and gifted programs. We also want to ensure that we have appropriate representation of students in our special education programs.

To this end, we are committed to reviewing current policies and practices that create unintended barriers to equity, to access and root out whatever stands in the way.

We plan to build a transparent and collaborative equity audit system, which will be used to identify best practices and areas for growth and act on them. We’ll report on our findings publicly.

One of the ways to ensure the success of these strategies is by attracting and retaining the most talented and diverse staff possible. That’s our People goal. I’ll be talking about that goal and our Achievement goal in upcoming columns.

Monday, January 16, 2017

My Monthly Column – January 2017

Educating the Whole Student

By Xavier Botana

Happy 2017! The Portland Public Schools is beginning the year with a new Comprehensive Plan, approved by the Portland Board of Public Education Jan. 3.  Over the next four columns I will explain what the plan is, how we plan to achieve it and how our community can help. 

Our Comprehensive Plan is a road map that aligns our district’s work with our mission and vision. It tells us what we need to do to guarantee that our community has the great schools it deserves. The district’s vision is: “All learners will be fully prepared to participate and succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.” And our mission states: “The Portland Public Schools are responsible for ensuring a challenging, relevant, and joyful education that empowers every learner to make a difference in the world. We build relationships among families, educators and the community to promote the healthy development and academic achievement of every learner.”

Over the fall, teachers, administrators, community partners and experts have worked together to establish four goals. The goals focus on Achievement, the Whole Student, Equity, and People (our employees). We also have developed key strategies for meeting those goals and refined the ways to measure and report our progress toward them.

Because January is National Mentoring Month, it’s a great time to focus on our Whole Student goal. That goal states: “All PPS students will develop the skills, habits and mindsets they need to engage in and contribute to our diverse city and ever-changing world.”

Our educators spend a great deal of time teaching about subjects ranging from math, science, reading and writing to art, music and physical health. But we also spend a lot of time and effort helping students develop other skills, habits and traits that are an important part of being successful in life.

These skills, habits and traits help students meet the standards set in the state of Maine’s Guiding Principles. Those five guidelines call for schools to teach students to become clear and effective communicators; self-directed and lifelong learners; creative and practical problem solvers; responsible and involved citizens; and integrative and informed thinkers.

To meet our Whole Student goal, we are committed to creating a shared understanding and language around social-emotional learning, and ensuring that we have programming and resources in each of our schools for getting us there. We are also committed to making sure that our students receive a balanced and well-rounded education.

One way to do that is to ensure that each student has a meaningful connection to a caring adult, someone in their universe focused on making sure the student is connected to school and on building an individual success plan for that student. That person can be a teacher, a bandleader, a coach, a school counselor or a parent – or a community mentor.

Statistics show that one in three young people are growing up without a mentor to offer real-life guidance. That’s a concern because students who have mentors are more likely to stay in school and on a path to making better life decisions. 

The Portland Public Schools has strong mentoring programs in place for many students, but we can always use more help. Please consider volunteering. Mentoring opportunities include our Multilingual & Multicultural Center’s Make It Happen! program and the Foster Grandparents program. There are many outstanding community organizations that also provide adult mentoring for students such as the Boys & Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters. 

While mentoring is one way that you can help, there are other opportunities to make a difference in our students’ lives. Those ways include accompanying students to school in our Walking School Bus program, volunteering to read to students or working with the many partner organizations that support our students. Each of our schools has a community coordinator to help build these relationships.  Learn more by contacting your local school or at this link: https://www.portlandschools.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=1094237&pageId=7033442

January also is a month to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The national holiday commemorating his birth is Jan. 16 this year. It’s a time to remember Dr. King’s life and legacy and to engage in service to our community.