Tuesday, September 17, 2019

My Monthly Column – September 2019

Expanded pre-K will help Portland meet goals
By Xavier Botana

The new school year has begun and so has our expanded pre-kindergarten program. We’ve added two new pre-K classrooms this year and will continue to add more each year over the next five years in an effort to eventually offer pre-K to all Portland 4-year-olds who need it.

The pre-K expansion is just one of four new initiatives in the 2019-2020 budget embodying the goals of our Portland Promise, the Portland Public Schools’ strategic plan. Starting this month, I’m dedicating my columns to how each initiative will help us realize the four foundational goals in that plan: Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. 

My focus this month is our pre-K program expansion, which will help us realize our Equity goal. That goal pledges us to support each student’s particular path to achieving high standards and rooting out systemic or ongoing inequities.

As Maine’s largest and most diverse school system, Equity is essential to us. Unfortunately, however, our data shows that while our financially advantaged students compete on par with students from surrounding school districts, our financially disadvantaged students don’t have the same positive outcomes. We also have gaps in achievement for students of color and those learning to speak English.

We’re expanding pre-K because decades of research show that quality pre-K can help reduce such gaps. 

According to the “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects," a comprehensive 2017 report completed by a task force of interdisciplinary scientists, all students benefit from pre-K but economically disadvantaged children and dual language learners show the greatest gains in learning.

In short, pre-K is an investment in our students, particularly at-risk students, to realize our Equity and Achievement goals.

In March, the Board voted to add nine new classrooms – 140 seats – to our pre-K program over the next five years. We’re adding two classrooms each year and one in the fifth year in an effort to achieve universal pre-K. Our program, begun in 2010, had grown to eight classrooms last school year, but still could serve only about 21 percent of our city’s 4-year-olds. 

This year, we’ve begun the expansion by adding one classroom at East End Community School and another at Rowe Elementary School. A study of the relationship between student need and current pre-K system capacity, conducted by the University of Southern Maine’s Data Innovation Project, showed we have insufficient programming in certain areas of the city. The selection of these two locations is an effort to address that imbalance.

Students in the pre-K program will demographically reflect the socio-economic make-up of the district overall, where 55 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. 

To ensure the success of our new pre-K initiative, we also have hired our first pre-K program director: Suzanne Chevalier, one of our elementary school teachers, who has many years of early childhood education experience. 

We also are working to establish before- and after-school care options for our pre-K students. To take advantage of our expanded pre-K, families of pre-K students need the same kind of extended childcare services we offer to families of K-5 students. Services for pre-K families are expected to be available in January 2020.

The Portland Public Schools has been one of the leaders in the state in establishing and expanding pre-K opportunities. I am pleased that Gov. Janet Mills now has made expanding pre-K in Maine a priority, and look forward to support from the state as we continue to work toward the important goal of offering pre-K to all Portland students.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

My Monthly Column — August 2019

Proud to be part of caring, committed community
By Xavier Botana

Welcome to the new school year! The 2019-2020 school year – which begins Sept. 3 for students in grades 1-12 and Sept. 5 for kindergarten and pre-K students – will be my fourth as superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. I am so grateful to be part of this great community that believes in the importance and value of public education for all. 

We witnessed a prime example of the community’s caring and commitment this summer when so many of our neighbors came together to support the influx of asylum-seeking families temporarily housed at the Portland Expo.

Among the families were more than 80 school-age children. Portland Public Schools staff stepped up to help, led by Grace Valenzuela, our Executive Director for Communications and Community Partnerships. We determined the first step was completing their intake. Our Multilingual & Multicultural Center’s intake process is a thorough evaluation of a student’s academic, social-emotional and medical history and an assessment of current academic levels and English proficiency. We knew intake would be necessary whether these students remained in Portland and attended our schools or moved to other communities.

Because they arrived at the end of the school year, during the intake center’s break, our intake staff had to change their break plans to help out. I extend my deepest thanks to our Multilingual Center staff for demonstrating their commitment to the well being of our families and students. 

Our district also provided summer school to nearly all of the youngsters at the Expo, thanks to our summer school team. The students were able to improve their English and get an introduction to American schools, which we know will serve them well this coming school year.

Another example of the Portland community’s support is the school budget Portland voters approved in June. The budget is an investment in our Portland Promise and will help it come to life. 

Adopted in the fall of 2017, the Portland Promise is our district’s strategic plan. It commits the district to prepare and empower Portland students to succeed in college and career by working to realize four goals – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity, and People. We’ve set five-year targets to measure progress toward those goals and strategies to achieve them.

Starting this fall, I’ll be writing this monthly column about each of four new initiatives in the 2019-2020 budget that embody our Portland Promise goals. 

I’ll detail how the expansion of our pre-kindergarten program will help address our Equity goal by reducing opportunity and academic achievement gaps for our economically disadvantaged students. Research shows access to high-quality early childhood education helps reduce such gaps. Students perform better academically and attend college at a greater rate.

In the next column, I’ll talk about how we’re creating a robust behavioral health continuum to help realize our Whole Student goal. We’re adding teachers, social workers and behavioral health professionals, and students from our former Bayside Learning Community are in our other schools as part of our new Breathe program. 

Another column will focus on how we’re progressing toward our Achievement goal by strengthening core instruction through strong teacher leadership and sustained professional learning. Research shows effective supports, quality curriculum, and collective teacher efficacy improve student achievement.

I’ll complete the series by writing about how we’re working on realizing our People goal by attracting, supporting and retaining talented and diverse staff.

I’ll say it again: I am so proud and grateful to be a part of this welcoming and caring school district and community.

Monday, July 15, 2019

My monthly column – July 2019

Adult Education Benefits the Whole Community
By Xavier Botana

At a ceremony in late June, we honored more than 100 Portland Adult Education graduates for receiving their high school diplomas or passing a high school equivalency test. I told them how proud I was of them for persevering with their education despite many challenges they faced along the way.

I also am extremely proud to be a part of a community that understands the vital role PAE plays in Portland’s continued viability. Over half of PAE’s budget is from local revenue. I am always eager to remind my fellow Portlanders that every dollar we invest in adult education is not just a dollar invested in PAE students. It is a dollar invested in their children, in their families, and in our community.  

PAE has long been an integral part of the Portland community – it has been providing educational opportunities to Portlanders since 1848. Today, PAE typically serves approximately 4,000 adults each year, in academic and ELL classes, as well as enrichment and job skills classes. About 2,000 of those students – roughly 50 percent – are immigrants.

PAE helps them improve their command of English and learn new job skills. It also helps them earn their high school diplomas if they need that credential. Some immigrants have already completed high school and college in their native countries, but need a high school diploma because they’re unable to access their educational records due to war or other catastrophic events.

Many PAE students are foreign-trained professionals, such as doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, lawyers and CPAs. Maine has a labor shortage and the skills and experience of these new Mainers are needed to help address it.

The New Mainers Resource Center (NMRC), a PAE program, focuses on this professional talent pool. It has programs like the Education Academy, launched in January, which is helping us to diversify the Portland Public Schools’ workforce by helping new Mainers trained as teachers to become licensed educators.

The NMRC also has job classes that focus on preparing students for the American workplace and that help with resume writing and interviewing. It helps students who need to have their credentials or transcripts translated or evaluated. It also recently published six licensing guides to provide information to help foreign-trained professionals understand the licensing process so they can resume their professions here in Maine.

Also, within the past two years, PAE and other adult education centers in our region have formed the Cumberland County Adult Education and Career Development Hub. The regional approach we are now engaged in recognizes that tapping into the talent potential of new Mainers is not just a Portland issue but also one that many communities can benefit from. It harnesses regional thinking about workforce development and leveraging the knowledge and skills of new immigrants to ensure we continue to be a thriving city and region in the 21st century.

PAE Executive Director Anita St. Onge says being part of the Cumberland County consortium has many benefits. “As a hub,” she said, “we can refer students to other programs and we can develop programs that complement one another and develop programs together. We also share ideas and strategies.”

Portland’s immigrants are eager to become contributing members of their new community. PAE has a long history of helping new Mainers transition into the mainstream. Its 171-year tradition of building bridges into the future for Portlanders continues strong today. As we welcome a new wave of immigrants this summer, PAE will be a proud and proven resource to help them to integrate into our city, region, state and country.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

My Monthly Column – June 2019

Teachers are the catalyst of graduates’ success

By Xavier Botana

This month, more than 500 Portland Public Schools students graduated from our three high schools. We’ll hold another ceremony June 27 for approximately 100 Portland Adult Education students receiving their high school diplomas or passing a high school equivalency test.

I am so proud of our more than 600 graduates. I am also extremely proud of our Portland Public Schools teachers, who do such a great job of educating our students.

Our job as a school district is to prepare and empower students for college and career. Knowing what I know about members of the Class of 2019, I’m confident we have met this goal. However, without our dedicated and passionate teachers, we wouldn’t be able to realize this goal, class after class.

We are fortunate to have many outstanding teachers on our staff. Outside organizations agree, granting our teachers numerous accolades. I don’t have the space here to name all our fantastic teachers, but I’ll highlight just a few of the many honored with awards this school year.

Mallory Haar, an English language learner (ELL) teacher at Casco Bay High School, is truly award winning. She garnered three awards for outstanding teaching: a Lawrence W. O’Toole Teacher Leadership Award from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which included a $15,000 grant; an Education for the Common Good Award from Bowdoin College; and a Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms grant. Casco Bay Principal Derek Pierce describes Mallory as “one of this planet’s finest educators.”

At Portland High School, Olivia Bean, a new science teacher, has won a five-year Knowles Teaching Fellowship for early-career math and science teachers, worth approximately $150,000. Bean is in her first teaching job at PHS.

The Knowles Teacher Initiative is  a national program of support for exceptional new teachers, who receive professional development, mentoring, and financial support over a five-year period.

Olivia said one reason she loves teaching in Portland is our district’s diversity. She plans to use some of the fellowship funding to learn new strategies for teaching science to ELL students.

Deering High School English teacher Shana Genre is not only a model teacher but also an  exceptional poet.

Shana’s poems were published in “Balancing Act 2: An Anthology of Poems by Fifty Maine Women.” In December, the Portland Press Herald published her poem “The Seed,” which was awarded a prize by the anthology’s editors.

Shana not only teaches English and creative writing but also is co-advisor of Breccia, Deering’s student-published literary magazine that dates back to 1879. Under Shana’s tutelage, Breccia has won awards and inspired young writers.

It’s thanks to these teachers and others that our graduates are able to succeed.

June is also the month when we honor staff who have contributed years of effort to making the Portland Public Schools a great place to learn: our retirees.

Teacher Sue Olafsen is one example. For 21 years, Sue has been a social studies teacher, a coach, a district leader helping to develop and operationalize our Professional Learning Based Salary Structure, lead negotiator for the Portland Education Association and its president since 2014. She has dedicated herself to elevating the status of the profession in the service of students.

She has also helped further enhance my respect for all our teachers and the work they do.

I’ll close with a shout out to Portland voters for approving our FY20 school budget on June 11. Our teachers couldn’t teach and our students couldn’t learn and graduate without the generous commitment to education on the part of the citizens of this great City. Thank you.