Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Monthly Column – September 2017

Portland Public Schools Supports Dreams of All Students
By Xavier Botana

It’s a new school year and our classrooms at the Portland Public Schools – Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – are filled with “dreamers.” I consider all our students to be dreamers because they all want to achieve the American Dream of getting a good education that prepares them for success in college and career. Our school district strives to encourage, nurture and support the future dreams of all our students, regardless of their immigration status.

Recent events – such as the racist-inspired violence in Charlottesville and the decision to end the federal “Dreamers” program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children to continue to live, work and study here – make this a good time to reaffirm the Portland Public Schools’ values.

At the Portland Public Schools, we recognize that our diversity is our greatest strength. For that reason, it is important for all of us to celebrate, respect, and honor our differences; promote practices that advance inclusion, and affirm our commitment to equity and social justice as part of the Portland Public Schools experience. We affirm that no one in our school community should fear for their safety because of their country of origin, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion – or immigration status.

This past March, the Portland Board of Public Education passed a resolution underscoring that our district is a safe and welcoming community for all.

The board’s Resolution Affirming its Commitment to the Education of All Children & Making Portland Public Schools a Safe Haven for Students and Families stresses that our district is committed to following a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that no public school district can deny students an education based on their immigration status.

The resolution states: “The Board declares Portland Public Schools to be a safe haven for students and families threatened by immigration enforcement or discrimination, to the fullest extent permitted by law.”

This also is the time of year to recognize and celebrate the contributions, heritage and culture of Hispanic Americans, during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Hispanics and Latinos constitute the second largest racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

They also account for the vast majority of Dreamers – recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That 2012 program has allowed nearly 800,000 people to live and work in the U.S. without fearing deportation. Now, Washington plans to stop renewing DACA work permits. The program ends in March unless Congress enacts a legislative solution.

Nearly 80 percent of Dreamers come from Mexico, a country right on our border. Those Dreamers included a young man who recently gave his life while trying to save fellow Texans from the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. News reports say Alonso Guillén, 31, a radio station host, died when his rescue boat struck a bridge, throwing him into the floodwaters. Guillén had been in the U.S. since he was 15.

As Maine Sen. Susan Collins recently tweeted, Dreamers were brought to the U.S. as children and in many cases know only our country as home. Sen. Collins says Congress must act quickly to protect the Dreamers. I agree.

The Dreamers’ dilemma resonates with me because I was brought here as a child from Cuba. My family had to leave our homeland because of Castro. We were fortunate to enter the U.S. legally. However, as a 2-year-old, I had no say in the decision to become an immigrant, just like the Dreamers of today.

When my family came from Cuba, this country welcomed us with open arms. We've worked hard to repay that welcome. Dreamers also study and work hard. Their professions include being teachers and nurses, business owners and employees of Fortune 500 companies, and they also serve in our military. Dreamers are valuable and productive members of our society. Alonso Guillén serves as just one example of their contributions to this nation.

Our district’s policies, values and commitments require us to stand up against those who would intimidate and exclude, rather than nurture and include. This is what we believe; this is what we teach; this is what we defend.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My Monthly Column – August 2017

Welcoming Students, Families Back to School
By Xavier Botana

August is a time to savor the last weeks of summer. It’s also a time to for students – with help from their parents – to start getting ready for the new school year.

Those two statements aren’t contradictory. There are a few simple things that students and parents can do to help make the transition to school easier while still allowing time for summertime fun. They range from making sure students are registered before the first day of school to gradually switching to school sleep routines a week before school starts.

In Portland, the first day of school for students in grades 1-12 is Wednesday, Aug. 30. There is no school on Friday, Sept. 1, so everyone can enjoy a long Labor Day weekend. Then school resumes on Tuesday, Sept. 5, for all students, including pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Sept. 5 is their first day.

To view the Portland Public Schools’ 2017-2018 calendar, go to our website, http://www.portlandschools.org, and click on “News & Calendars.”

If your child is new to the district and not yet registered for the new school year, please make an appointment at your neighborhood school to enroll your child. For more information, go to “School Enrollment” under the blue “Parents” box on our website.

Please don’t wait for the first day of school to register your child. It’s difficult for our schools to plan if they don’t know how many students they’ll have in the fall.

Also, many of our schools hold back-to-school barbeques, ice cream socials and other welcoming orientation events before the first day of school. You don’t want your child to miss out on those! Familiarizing students with their school and teachers beforehand helps quell first-day-of-school anxiety. Also, families are our valued partners when it comes to educating our students, so we look forward to meeting students’ families!

To find out about the events at your child’s school, go to that school’s website. You can link to school websites from the district website under the “Schools” tab.

I’d also like to remind parents of a new addition this year to the immunizations that Maine state law requires for students. Effective for the 2017-2018 school year, all Maine students entering seventh grade will need to receive one dose of Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine before attendance is allowed. Pertussis (whooping cough) is a very contagious and potentially serious disease, so this new requirement will protect your child and others.

Also, families should be aware that this year’s ninth-graders will be the first to comply with a new state’s new proficiency-based high school graduation requirements. The Class of 2021 must demonstrate proficiency in language arts, math, science, and social studies.

This year, all high schools in Portland will align to common baseline expectations related to moving in the direction of a proficiency-based system. To facilitate that transition, we have decided that course grades and report cards won’t change. Instead, ninth-grade teachers will keep track of students’ mastery of graduation performance indicators in a system that parallels the traditional grade reporting.

I’ll be explaining this transition in more detail in an upcoming letter to parents. I want to stress here that we see great value in a proficiency-based learning model – which ultimately is about being clear about what our students need to know and be able to do in order to graduate from high school.

Finally, as the new school year begins, I want to remind parents how important it is that students attend school, starting from the first day. The start of school is a critical time when students and teachers get to know one another, build relationships and establish important classroom routines.

Students also need to continue attending throughout the rest of the year. According to Count ME In, the Maine affiliate of the national organization Attendance Works, “students who miss school frequently are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, more likely to fail in middle school and eventually drop out of high school. Missing school, even in kindergarten, has consequences.”

Schools, students, families and the Portland community: Let’s all work together to have a great start to the new school year!

Friday, July 21, 2017

My Monthly Column - July 2017

Education Is Key to the American Dream

By Xavier Botana

July marks my one-year anniversary as superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. As my family and I enjoyed the city’s fireworks display on the Fourth of July, I thought about how much I have come to love this community. Thank you to all who have made me feel welcome and supported here.

The celebration of America’s birthday also is a good time to remember the importance our founding fathers placed on education. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to.”  Jefferson was convinced an educated public was necessary to preserve liberty.  

I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of education in my own family’s life when I addressed Portland Adult Education (PAE) graduates receiving their high school diplomas in June. Many PAE graduates came here from other countries and overcame many obstacles to further their education.

My family also came to this country looking for safety and opportunity. Like the PAE graduates, we understood the importance of an education. My grandparents attended an adult education program, laboring to learn English so they could become American citizens. For us, education was the gateway to the American dream.

Now, I am proud to lead Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. We strive  to provide a quality education to all our students – whether they were born in this country or not. We want all our students to succeed in college and career so they can realize their own American dream.

I am grateful that the Portland community, which has supported and sustained a public education system for more than 270 years, has once again voiced its commitment to education for all in Portland through the overwhelming approval of our school budget. Clearly, the people of Portland reflect the timeless values of our founding fathers and our most recent immigrants.

As I look back over this past year, I’d like to highlight some achievements that will help guarantee our community has the great schools our students deserve.

One key achievement was updating our Comprehensive Plan, a road map aligning our district’s work with our mission and vision. Last fall, teachers, administrators, community partners and experts worked together to establish four goals – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity and People – that are designed to help us ensure that our students are prepared and empowered to achieve.  We also developed key strategies for meeting those goals and refined the ways to measure and report our progress toward them. The Portland Board of Public Education approved the plan in January.

We are already taking steps to realize the goals. One example is our Equity goal. Our district data shows we have a stark achievement gap between students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost school lunch (FRL students) and those who do not qualify. 
About 55 percent of our students are FRL students. We’re committed to achieving equity by helping those students. To do this, we are working to strengthen family partnerships and ensuring that all students have access to higher-level classes, such as advanced placement and our talented and gifted programs. We’re also reviewing current policies and practices to make sure we don’t have unintended barriers to equity.

Our People goal will help ensure the success of these strategies, by attracting and retaining the most talented and diverse staff possible.

As part of that goal, a joint Portland Public Schools-University of Southern Maine four-week summer program is now underway – designed to create a pipeline of diverse educators who more closely reflect the diversity of our students.

About 45 participants have enrolled and are experiencing teaching firsthand as interns in PPS classrooms this summer. They’re also earning college credits, tuition-free, by attending an introductory education course at USM.

Portland is an amazing and supportive community that believes in education. Partnerships with the Portland community and its world-class educational institutions are key to achieving our Comprehensive Plan goals.  This year has been a wonderful opportunity to meet and begin to work with all these partners. I look forward to many more years working to advance education for all here in Portland.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Monthly Column – June 2017

Many Reasons for Pride in the Portland Public Schools
By Xavier Botana

June is Pride month, and I’m very proud that the Portland Public Schools was a part of the Pride Portland! Parade again this year.

This past Saturday, June 17, marked the third year in a row that our district has been an official entrant in the parade, with our students, staff and families either riding in one of our signature yellow school buses or marching alongside it. As I and other members of the Portland Public Schools family marched down Congress Street with our big bus, we were met with enthusiastic applause and cheering from the crowds lining the sidewalks along the parade route. That’s very fitting because our participation in this annual event that celebrates inclusivity, diversity and unity is certainly something to cheer about.

The Portland Public Schools is the state’s largest and most diverse school district. Our participation in the Pride Portland! Parade helps send an important message to our students, staff, families and the Portland community that our district works to foster harmony and understanding – and that we welcome and value everyone in the Portland Public Schools.

The parade is part of Pride Portland! According to its website, Pride Portland! is “a celebration of Portland, Maine’s LGBTQIA – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, ally/asexual – community” each June.

To further ensure that the Portland Public Schools is a place of safety and respect for all members of this community, the district is currently working on developing a policy regarding the rights of transgender staff and students. We hope to have the policy in place by the start of the new school year.

We recently wrapped up graduations at our high schools and Portland Adult Education. Our ultimate goal as a district is to ensure that all of our students graduate prepared and empowered for the next step in their life.

Over the past few weeks, I felt very proud as I watched more than 500 students walk – and sometimes dance, do wheelies and definitely strut – across the stage to the cheers of their loved ones.

Graduation is very rewarding, but our students would not get there without our faculty and staff. We’re proud of our staff for all they do to ensure student success.

Graduating students from high school is only one part of the wonderful work happening in Portland Public Schools.  None of what we do would happen without the support of our Portland community. Thank you to Portland voters for investing in education by approving our 2017-2018 budget on June 13.

The budget voters approved represents a modest 1.4 percent increase in spending and will allow Portland Public Schools to continue the level of services to our students that Portland residents and our students deserve and expect. We are proud of the Portland community’s consistent support for our schools.

The last day of the school year for students is June 22. However, we are back to school immediately. Our summer school programs will begin June 26 and go through mid-August.

As part of our summer efforts, the Portland Public Schools and Opportunity Alliance will be operating summer meal sites across the city of Portland. Many of our approximately 6,800 Portland Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced price school lunch based on family income. Hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation.

Most sites will begin operations on June 26 and continue thru mid-August. Meals and times will be posted at sites and will be distributed prior to the end of school. You can learn more by going to the Summer Programs link on the front of our website, www.portlandschools.org

Another summer opportunity is I Reading in Portland: Pedal Through the Pages, a partnership between the Portland Public Schools and the Portland Public Library. Children throughout the community are encouraged to read about and explore Portland this summer. The program will run for eight weeks, and signup at the library begins the week of June 18. Learn more at www.portlandlibrary.com

As I wrap up my first year at the Portland Public Schools, I would like to thank our Portland community for your support of our school system. I have felt welcome, supported and blessed to have the opportunity to work in this wonderful community.