Monday, July 18, 2016

My Monthly Column

September 2016

Updating Our Comprehensive Plan

 By Xavier Botana

In 2011, the Portland Public Schools completed its Comprehensive Plan, a roadmap to align our district’s work with our mission and vision. That plan has served us well, but it’s a dynamic document. It was deliberately designed to last only five years – until 2016 – so it could be updated to meet the evolving needs of our students. The Portland Board of Public Education has asked me to lead an effort to update the Comprehensive Plan framework for Maine’s largest and most diverse school district.

We’re not starting from scratch. It took a two-year, communitywide effort to develop our Comprehensive Plan, and we’ll be building on its solid foundation. For example, the district’s vision and mission will remain unchanged.

Our vision is: “All learners will be fully prepared to participate and succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.”

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.”

What we’ll be updating are the goals that represent that vision and mission realized; and, more importantly, how we organize to meet those goals and how we measure and report our progress toward them. The plan will serve as the basis for my accountability to the board.

Because it’s critical that the plan reflect the work of our schools, we’re actively seeking input from our educators – teachers and administrators.

We’re holding workshops in our schools this fall to get staff input. Then we’ll be reaching out to the community for feedback. We’re hoping to have a final draft by the end of this year.

We currently have four proposed goals: Achievement; Equity; Whole Student; and People. I’ll briefly explain each and give examples of possible ways we may measure progress on these goals.

Achievement focuses on having all students graduate from high school but also on what level of knowledge they should attain. To measure achievement, we could track everything from kindergartner academic readiness to high school graduation rates and enrollment in college or pursuit of a productive career path, such as in the trades.

We are proposing adding a goal around achieving equitable results: our Equity goal. I have been struck by the value the Portland community places on our diversity.  As such, we aspire to be a system that holds a high bar for everyone and meets every student’s needs. 

As a district, we would be committing to devoting resources, time and energy to help more students meet our ambitious goals. We would be looking to measure progress toward representative participation in our special education, gifted and talented programs and in Advanced Placement courses.

As educators, we don’t only teach academics. We also help students achieve the skills and habits they need to succeed and be productive community members.  Students’ self-monitoring, their persistence when things get tough, and their ability to work with others are as influential in their future success as their subject matter knowledge. To gauge progress on our “Whole Student” goal, we might track the percentage of students that have a connection to a caring adult or their ability to self-assess their learning.

We know we can only realize our mission and vision if staff members have the tools and resources needed to do their jobs. Our “People” goal recognizes that education is human resource intensive and that our success depends on our ability to attract, retain and support a talented and diverse workforce using their strengths to achieve our goals. We might expect to see improved staff retention rates and a higher degree of employee satisfaction.

We’ll be finding out over the next few months if these goals resonate with staff and the community. Everyone’s feedback is important to ensure we have the right goals and are measuring and reporting on what our district and community value the most.

I’ll close by inviting you all to join me at an Oct. 8 community meeting of the school board’s Public Affairs Committee, which focuses on enhancing community engagement. The 10-11:30 a.m. meeting is at the Woodfords Club, 179 Woodford St.

August 2016

Attending School Is Important – Starting with Day One

By Xavier Botana

When I worked as a senior administrator for the Chicago Public Schools, first-day-of-school attendance was a very big deal. Every year, we worked hard to encourage all of our students to attend school, beginning with the very first day.

Now, as the new superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, I want to place that same emphasis on attendance here. Going to school matters – and it starts with day one.

In Portland, the first day of school for students in grades 1-12 is Aug. 31 this year. Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children start on Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day. It’s critically important that students be there from the first day of school.

The start of the school year is when students and teachers get to know one another and establish relationships and important classroom routines. Students who miss those early experiences chance getting out of step with the learning going on in their classrooms and can find it hard to catch up.

And, of course, students need to keep up their attendance throughout the rest of the school year too. Missing school can have long-term negative impacts on student success.

Students who miss school frequently end up with gaps in their learning,” according to Count ME In, Maine affiliate of the national organization Attendance Works.
 “They are less likely to read proficiently by third grade and more likely to drop out of school. Missing school, even in kindergarten, has consequences for children.”

Parents are important partners in ensuring students attend school. In addition to making sure their children are in school every day, families should also get involved with their child’s education. The start of school affords a variety of opportunities for families to meet teachers and familiarize themselves with their school communities. 

Even before the official first day of classes, our schools will be holding events that include ice cream socials, barbeques, open houses to meet teachers and visit classrooms and welcoming events for new students. Families can learn more by visiting our district website, or by clicking here.

I urge families also to stay involved throughout the school year. Stay in touch with your child’s teacher by doing such things as attending open houses and maintaining contact through other means, such as email. Please also keep track of your child’s academic progress including grades and assignments, through Infinite Campus, an online portal for parents and guardians accessible through our website at

Families should be aware that students in eighth grade this year will be the first to have to comply with the state’s new proficiency-based high school graduation requirements. An amendment passed this year requires certification of proficiency in language arts, math, science, and social studies by 2021. The Class of 2021 is next year’s freshman class!

I’d also like to remind families that most of our elementary schools and two of our middle schools will have new start/end times this school year so that our school buses can transport students to and from school in a more timely manner. This past school year, some students had long wait times for buses after school and some buses had to drop children off at school too early in the morning. These schedule changes should ensure that doesn’t happen.

There will be no bell schedule changes at the high schools, King Middle School, Riverton Elementary School and the island schools. Please see the Portland Public Schools 2016-2017 calendar on our website for more details on the schools that have schedule changes, or check with your local school.

Families also should know that the Portland Board of Public Education has asked me to organize a new strategic plan for our district that will be the successor of the Comprehensive Plan framework that has been in place since 2011.  There will be opportunities for parents, guardians and other community members to be involved in helping to shape the future direction of education in our district. Expect to hear more about this at the end of this month and into the fall.

July 2016

Stopping the 'summer slide'

By Xavier Botana

I’m the new superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. I officially started my job on July 1, but I visited each of the district’s schools in June to meet staff and students on the last two days of school.

Being in the district then allowed me to see the excitement that comes with the end of the school year and sense the allure of the summer: long, lazy days of fun, rest and new experiences.

Yet summer also is the time for the “summer slide.”

Almost 100 years of research have shown that learning can be lost the during the summer months if students aren’t engaged in educational activities. According to the National Education Association, “experts say much of the reading achievement gap seen in ninth-grade students nationwide can be traced back to unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years.”

A 2010 report by the Afterschool Alliance found that while 25 percent of students were participating in summer learning programs, many more would like the opportunity to do so. A full 83 percent of parents supported spending public funds on summer learning programs and 67 percent of low-income parents said their children would enroll in a summer program if they could.

Here in Portland, we take steps every summer to provide students with learning opportunities to stop the summer slide. What we offer is both fun and instructive.

The Portland Public Schools offers summer literacy and math programming for elementary school students. We also have a program for rising sixth-graders that focuses on math, literacy and easing the transition from elementary to middle school. We have a credit recovery program for high school students who need to make up a class that they were not successful in completing during the school year. Our Multilingual & Multicultural Center provides summer programming at the middle and high school levels. And our students with disabilities, K-12, participate in multiple programs.

Try as we may, however, our programs reach only a fraction of our students. That’s why it’s important to talk about other ways to keep students learning in the summer. The NEA says that a recent study showed that “giving kids 12 books to read over the summer was as effective as summer school in raising the students’ reading scores.”

With this in mind, The Portland Public Library and our schools have partnered to offer a joint eight-week reading program for elementary school students this summer. Called “Reading in Portland: Time of Wonder,” the program encourages children throughout the community to read about and explore the natural world.

The program began in June but runs through mid-August, and kids can still sign up at the library. The goal is to read or listen to at least eight books this summer. Students get a reading log/adventure map that contains suggestions for reading as well as outdoor activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

A variety of educational and entertaining programs also are offered at different Portland Public Library locations. Children who reach the reading goal and return their logs to the library will receive a certificate, a book, a Gelato Fiasco coupon and a free Kids’ Meal from Subway. Visit for more details; I encourage all of our families to take advantage of Portland’s library programs.

Schools today serve many social functions. Some of our students depend on school breakfast and lunch during the school year to get adequate nutrition. Their hunger doesn’t take a break in the summer just because school is out.

That is why the Portland Public Schools and Opportunity Alliance are offering free meals this summer for all youngsters 18 and under across the city of Portland through the middle of August. With their nutritious meals, youngsters can enjoy games and other fun enrichment activities to combat the summer slide. Learn more details by calling 2-1-1 or visiting

We want to ensure that our students enjoy their summers – and not slide back in their learning while doing so.

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