Tuesday, January 19, 2021

My Monthly Column – January 2021

Custodians among frontline heroes of this pandemic

By Xavier Botana


At the Portland Public Schools, we’ve always been grateful to our custodians for making sure the buildings we walk into each morning are clean and safe. Now, however, we are even more aware of how important their work is to safeguard the health of our students and staff. COVID-19 has made us value these essential staff even more. 


Their work to thoroughly clean and disinfect our schools helps enable our students to attend school in person – an experience increasingly important at this time for students’ learning and social/emotional well-being. Our custodians are among the frontline heroes of this pandemic.



This month, as part of an ongoing series about members of our outstanding PPS staff, I’m turning the spotlight on one of our exemplary custodians: James Benner, head custodian at East End Community School. 


James joined our district 14 years ago and is clearly a lifelong learner. He uses every opportunity at work to learn more about building systems to make sure everything runs smoothly, and takes Portland Adult Education classes in his spare time. A class on playing the piano has led him to take private lessons. Here’s more about James:


How did you get into this line of work?

Portland’s Teen Center helped me find a job at the start of my working career. They help kids get their foot in the door in a lot of places. I got a seasonal job grounds keeping, and then I got a job working at a hotel, mainly dishwashing, but I also was a prep cook and set up for banquets. I started with the school department after that. My mother is a custodian, she’s now head custodian at Lyman Moore Middle School, and she knew I was trying to get something with more solid hours and security.


What do you like about custodial work?

Jobs like dishwashing, you’re doing the same job over and over again, but there’s a lot of different tasks we do as custodians and you deal with different scenarios. I have an inquiring mind and I like puzzles. I enjoy the puzzle of trying to figure out all the different things that come up through the days and making everything work. I love the staff here and my custodial staff here is great. They’re an amazing team. 


How has COVID changed your job?

Ramping up to get school ready for the fall, there was a lot of figuring out. I was part of the Tiger Team, four head custodians who worked with our bosses and did a lot of studying about COVID-19 and cleanup procedures and helped create the guidelines we go by. We learned about upgrading HVAC systems and we were a huge part of setting up classrooms to make sure that everybody is maintaining distance. Cleaning became extra important, disinfecting and sanitizing specifically. And I like to think we played a pretty big role when staff came back into the building, helping to calm people and letting them know it was OK, things are staying clean and we have procedures in place to keep it as safe as possible.


What inspires you about your job?

I’m a custodial rep in my union, and I like working with union members and management to try to find a middle ground between everybody. I have a son, he’s a teenager, and even the kids have a stronger appreciation now of being in school. The school system is about teaching kids and I think that’s such important work, and it’s nice that my job has such a strong impact on keeping that going.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

My Monthly Column – December 2020

Bus drivers are key ambassadors for PPS

By Xavier Botana

The yellow school bus is an iconic symbol of public education. But those vehicles would have no meaning without the people behind the wheel: school bus drivers.

Our bus drivers typically are the very first Portland Public Schools staff that many of our students encounter as kindergartners. And each day, as they transport students in all kinds of weather, bus drivers are the first to greet our kids each morning, and the last to wave them safely off the bus to their homes.

In short, our hard-working, dedicated bus drivers are ambassadors of our schools. They are on the front line – and never more so than during this pandemic.


I’m writing a series of columns featuring members of our outstanding PPS staff – and this month I’m focusing on one of our valued bus drivers: Laura Whitmer. Laura, who transports Ocean Avenue Elementary School and Lincoln Middle School students, has been on the job just 10 months, but she exemplifies the best qualities of our drivers. She’s also fast building a student fan base.

Here’s more about Laura:

Tell us about yourself and becoming a bus driver.

I was born and raised in Portland. I worked in retail for nearly 30 years but I needed a change and the opportunity came up. I applied, interviewed and was hired in March.

What about driving a bus appealed to you?

I had thought about it for about the past 10 years. Some acquaintances are bus drivers and they said it’s a good job. The biggest vehicle I had driven before was my husband’s pickup, but I was like: I can do this. It was rewarding to study and take the permit test and the road test and get my license. I was pretty darn proud of myself! I love children. I have two grandchildren, who live in Cumberland and take the bus there. I love seeing all the different kids. They’re just so grateful when you pick them up and you take them home.

How has COVID-19 changed the job?

I started three days before our schools shut down, when I rode with different drivers, learning routes and the ropes, like securing wheelchairs. With COVID, a lot of things changed. There are a lot more protocols for cleaning, with a lot more time involved and you’re wearing masks and gloves. All summer long, I rode with another bus driver delivering school lunches to families who couldn’t make it to the meal sites. I was the one running the lunches out to the homes we stopped at. It was worth it, making sure that the kids had their meals.

Do masks for bus drivers and students impact communication?

In the beginning, it was tough. It was hard for some students to understand me and me to understand them, but we’ve built a relationship. We’re all good now. They know the protocols for getting on the bus – they have to use the hand sanitizer and wear their masks. They’re really good about keeping their masks on.

What do you enjoy about being a bus driver?

It’s rewarding. The kids are very thankful. One day, while cleaning the bus, I found a note where a girl was sitting that explained who she was and thanked me for bringing her home every day. I have it at the front of my bus on a little magnetic clip so she can see that I appreciate it. One little boy gave me a little paper flower. I have that hanging there in the front of my bus. It’s sweet.


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

My Monthly Column – November 2020

Curriculum coordinators are leaders in learning

By Xavier Botana

To help our students succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world, the Portland Public Schools constantly works to improve what we teach and how we teach it. Our curriculum coordinators lead this work, developing instructional materials, making sure they meet standards and helping bring curriculum to life by supporting teachers. 

This month, as part of an ongoing series in which I’m featuring members of our outstanding PPS staff, I’m focusing on one of our curriculum leaders: science teacher Brooke Teller


Brooke is not only our STEM Coordinator but took on the role of Outdoor Learning Coordinator during COVID-19. Under her leadership, our district has developed such a successful outdoor learning program that it has drawn wide-ranging media attention, including from The New York Times, NBC News and U.S. News & World Report. 

Brooke joined our district in 2007 as Casco Bay High School’s founding chemistry teacher and was Cumberland County’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.

Here’s more about Brooke:

Did you always want to be a teacher?

When I graduated from Smith College with a biology degree, I was actually thinking about becoming a physician’s assistant. But I ended up in the alternate route teacher certification program in Connecticut, where I grew up. I went back and taught at my high school and then at two different start-up schools in Connecticut before moving to Maine. I think I’ve always been a teacher. I spent summers in high school and college teaching swim lessons to young swimmers and coaching swim teams, and I’ve always loved doing something outside from my time as a kid at the nature center or playing outside. The science and teaching aspects were always part of who I am.

How did you become both our STEM and outdoor learning coordinator?

I was at Casco Bay for 11 years and then applied for a sabbatical to work with elementary teachers on science. I became STEM coordinator in 2019 to continue that elementary science work and start looking at our 6-12 science curriculum. Then, in our planning for this fall, it became clear that being outside was safer in terms of transmission of the virus. It was a role that needed to be filled and I stepped in to do that. 

Are STEM and outdoor learning related?

I’m seeing a lot of intersections between outdoor learning and science. For example, in our science curriculum, we’re starting to look at phenomena – something for students to notice, look at and wonder. When students are outside, they might notice that the leaves are turning colors, and then teachers can use that to teach science concepts because students have had a chance to think about what’s going on and hypothesize. They can figure out what happens to the pigments in the leaves and why they’re falling off the trees. 

What are examples of what an outdoor learning coordinator does?

I was able to organize outdoor learning training opportunities for teachers before school started. I can’t be at every school at once, so I helped to recruit building liaisons that I’m in contact with about outdoor learning. I was able to coordinate support from so many community partners, like the City of Portland, that really helped with tree stump seats, and many local businesses.

What drives you?

It’s all about our students – what I can do to give them the best experience they can have. Like right now, I’m working on making sure students have hats and gloves to be warm when they’re outside – so they have the opportunity to look around, be curious and ignite the scientist inside of them.

 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

My Monthly Column – October 2020

PPS is grateful for our school nurses

By Xavier Botana

I was thrilled this month when Talbot Community School teacher Cindy Soule was selected as Maine’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. But I wasn’t surprised that a Portland Public Schools educator won such an honor – because we have so many exemplary staff members. 

The People goal in our Portland Promise commits us to attracting and retaining the best and the brightest. Our staff members are dedicated and passionate about helping our students succeed. They deserve our gratitude. That’s why in the coming year, I’ll be featuring the voices of individual staff members telling why they do the work they do, why it’s important and what they find most rewarding. 


This month, I’ll highlight the importance of school nurses – particularly during this pandemic – by introducing Lizzie Nalli. She’s a skilled and caring nurse in her second year serving students at Deering High School. Lizzie grew up in Cumberland, graduated from Greely High School and earned a nursing degree from Georgetown University and a master’s in public health from George Washington University. After working in Washington, D.C. and New York City, Lizzie and her husband returned to Maine about seven years ago to raise their children. 

Why did you become a nurse?
I was one of those people who applied straight to nursing school from high school. I always felt I’d be a good fit. I liked science and those types of subjects in school and I really like people. I enjoy the diversity of what you can do with a nursing degree, working in different locations and specialties.

Your work has included many different types of nursing, including working in the ER. What drew you to school nursing?
I wanted to work in preventive health and health care promotion and I didn’t want to leave patient care. In a school, there’s a lot of room for health promotion and interacting with students. 

What was a typical day for you at DHS before COVID-19? 
I would see a fair number of kids each day who came to the office or when a teacher called me to a classroom. The complaints could range from an emergency – like a seizure – to a stomachache or a student needing help getting eyeglasses. Deering has a student-based health center and I work as a team with a health assistant, making sure students have vaccines and teaching them how not to be intimidated by the health care system.

How has your job changed with COVID?
With fewer kids in the building, we have a lot less traffic in the office. Now, it’s a lot of tracking kids out sick to see if they have COVID symptoms, making sure they’re getting tested and have notes from a doctor before coming back to school. I also do health screenings to make sure no one with COVID comes into the school and I make sure people are up to date with vaccines. Kids with non-acute needs email me or call me.

Why did you make videos for students before school started, demonstrating mask wearing, hand washing and physical distancing?
I wanted to give a warm, enthusiastic welcome to kids coming back and also pass on information of what to expect. I also didn’t want students to think I hadn’t been thinking about them over the summer!

What keeps you motivated?
The people – the staff and the students – make Deering a really rewarding place to work. I also like knowing that I have a role in helping students come back to school and making sure it’s done in the safest possible way.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

My Monthly Column – September 2020

 Working together, we can make change succeed

By Xavier Botana

By the time you read this, the first day of school for Portland Public Schools students – Monday, Sept. 14 – will be behind us. At the time of this writing, our plan is to open in hybrid mode, with a mix of in-person and remote learning. But one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that we have to be ready to change as circumstances dictate. 

It has been six months – yes, half a year! – since we closed school on Monday, March 16. The Friday before that turned out to be our last day of in-person school as we’d always known it. Our plan then was to close for a couple of weeks, but that had to change as it became clear that there was community spread of COVID-19 in our county. The closure extended for months, to the end of the school year, because it just wasn’t safe to return.

Even before the school year ended, our Reopening Planning Team started planning for the 2020-2021 school year. Again, because of the possibility of changing circumstances associated with this pandemic, we had to plan for three very different scenarios for the new school year: a full reopening of school; a hybrid scenario; and full remote learning. Then we had to wait until later in the summer to learn more about COVID-19 public health restrictions and Maine Department of Education (MDOE) guidance before we could present a clear recommendation – for the hybrid model – to the Portland Board of Public Education for a vote.

MDOE this summer decided it would use a color-coded classification system to rate each county every two weeks on its COVID risk. The state has coded Cumberland County “green” since they began the system at the end of July. Green means a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and that schools can implement in-person learning, with safety precautions that include masks, symptom checks and physical distancing in place. 

Our county’s green rating factored into the Board’s unanimous decision to approve our hybrid learning plan on Aug. 19. But built into the plan they approved was a provision that recognized circumstances could change. Part of that plan is that we will switch to remote learning if the state changes its classification of Cumberland County to “yellow” or “red.” 

A yellow designation would mean our county has an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread. Although the state allows school districts to continue with hybrid learning with extra precautions under a yellow classification, we plan to have all students learn remotely, in an abundance of caution. 

The same of course would be true if the state classifies Cumberland County as “red.” Red would mean there is a high risk of COVID-19 spread and that in-person instruction is not advisable.

Fortunately, as I write this, Cumberland County is still green and we expect hybrid learning to move forward. I’m hoping that our county and community remain low risk so that we don’t have to change our plan.

Change is hard and unexpected change even harder. The Portland Public Schools community has already faced great change. It was extremely challenging for students, families and staff to suddenly switch from in-person to remote learning this past spring. I’m proud of everyone for working together during that time to make that change as successful as possible.

Let’s all continue to work together and support each other. And let’s help keep our community’s COVID risk low by wearing masks, washing our hands and watching our distance. That will help ensure a successful school year – no matter what.


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – August 2020

 Congratulations to the Class of 2020 – and their teachers!

By Xavier Botana

 

Commencement this month for our approximately 500 graduating seniors was two months late and held outdoors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the drive-in ceremonies at Ocean Gateway for Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools were as inspirational as graduations every year – maybe even more so.

 

I’ve spoken at commencements for four years now, ever since these seniors were freshmen and I was in my first year as Portland Public Schools superintendent. This year held special meaning for me because the Class of 2020 is the first class I’ve seen through to graduation.

 

The Class of 2020 is a standout class for many reasons – but most of all for its resiliency during this unprecedented time. The class had to quickly adjust when our schools shut down in March. They soon realized they’d miss out on many cherished senior-year rituals. But these students rallied. They studied hard to make it to graduation, and pitched in to creatively plan safe, alternative ceremonies.

 

The Class of 2020 proved they’re resilient human beings. I’m proud to have watched them grow over the past four years and I can’t wait to see their future achievements.

 

Commencement isn’t just about the graduates – it’s also a time to recognize those who helped them reach that milestone. Class of 2020 speakers said high school staff members were the wind beneath their wings.

 

“It’s very important that we acknowledge the people who have shaped us into who we are and what we have achieved today,” Deering High School Student Body President Ladislas Nzeyimana said. “These words of gratitude go to all the members of the faculty.”

 

He told faculty: “Your impact does not end here, for you have shaped and inspired leaders that will change the world in all forms of life, through the knowledge and wisdom you have transmitted to us.”

 

Casco Bay High class speaker Joshua Mutshaila said school faculty “are always concerned about you. The teachers make time for you. They are special human beings.” He said staff “encouraged me to be the best version of myself.”

 

Portland High School Class President Erin Chadbourne said remote learning was tough for staff too. “Our teachers and staff put in endless hours working to ensure that we finished the year strong, all the while juggling their own situations at home,” she said. “On behalf of the Class of 2020, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ for your dedication and commitment to seeing us through to the end.”

 

Portland Public Schools educators are dedicated and passionate about teaching our students and deserve our gratitude. This fall, I plan a series of columns featuring the voices of individual staff members telling the story of why they chose the work they do, why it’s important and what they find most rewarding about it. Stay posted!

 

I’ll end with a reminder that the Portland Board of Public Education holds a workshop and vote Aug. 18 on my recommendation for a hybrid model for school this fall – a mix of in-person and remote learning. Students would start Sept. 14. 

 

With input from the community, the Board faces a critical challenge: making a decision that threads the needle between full remote learning, with its drawbacks for families and students, and a full return to the classroom, which increases COVID risk. Choosing between problems for families with remote learning and the risk for more COVID are choices we’d rather not make. I’m grateful for the Board’s thoughtful approach and the hundreds of individuals throughout the community who have weighed in throughout our planning process.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

My Monthly Column – July 2020

SRO Decision the Result of Lessons Learned
By Xavier Botana

I fully support the Portland Board of Public Education’s recent decision to discontinue police school resource officers in our schools. That’s a statement I would not have made as recently as last fall, when we first started discussing the SRO issue.

What started as a recommendation for SROs to wear body cameras evolved into a larger conversation set against the backdrop of the nationwide movement to recognize how law enforcement and other institutions in our society – including our schools – perpetuate systemic racism. As our conversation expanded and deepened, so did my understanding.

I have learned a great deal over these past months. I’d like to share my learning with you.

I began our SRO conversation by glowingly citing SROs value as first responders, crime deterrents, adjunct administrators, mentors and police public relations officials. I was thinking not only of our Portland Police Department SROs, but also of my friend Dion Campbell, the current police chief of Michigan City, Ind. Back when I worked there, Dion, who is African American, a graduate of the local high school, a star basketball player and an ordained minister, was our outstanding SRO.

But as I listened and learned – through multiple conversations with Board members and staff, familiarizing myself with local and national data, reading scores of emails and letters from community members on both sides of the issue and listening carefully to hours of public comment – I realized I had missed some things regarding the impact of having police in our schools.

First, I missed the troubling array of our current policies that provide the police extensive and largely unwarranted access to our students, including their educational records, camera footage and the results of administrative searches. It’s too easy for law enforcement to reach our students at school and to obtain their information. 

On the national level, schools have come to rely on police as the quickest way to enforce behavior norms. We, too, sometimes call police to help us manage the difficult conversations that we should be addressing ourselves. 

I know some of our students feel a sense of security seeing a police officer in school. But I missed the fact that others – particularly students of color – feel the opposite way. At a time when Black Americans suffer disproportionately the impact of police violence, we should not discount those students’ fears.

The resolution that the Board approved to end our use of SROs now seeks to address those issues. It directs me to engage in a thorough revision of our nine policies regulating the district’s relationship with law enforcement.  

If you have ever had any question about the caliber of Portland Public Schools graduates, please listen to the hours of testimony on the SRO topic on the district’s YouTube recordings of the June 30 Board meeting

I feel proud and fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from thoughtful young advocates on both sides of this issue, and look forward to working with members of the Portland Public Schools community to create a plan that prioritizes the voices of students of color and meets the safety and educational needs of all of our students.

I hold that Portland is exceptional in many ways. The Portland Public Schools now has an opportunity to lead New England in creating a different approach for ensuring that our schools are safe and welcoming places for ALL of our students. I believe that we will emerge better and stronger from the difficult conversations around this issue.