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.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

My Monthly Column – May 2019


School Volunteers an Invaluable Resource
By Xavier Botana

At the Portland Public Schools, we recently calculated the estimated dollar value of our volunteers’ contributions to our schools. It’s an astounding school year total of $1.7 million.

In reality, however, the true value of our volunteers adds up to far more than that. In short, our volunteers are priceless.

This month, I want to honor and acknowledge the contributions our volunteers make to support Portland Public Schools students, staff and families. Our volunteers help make a difference and build stronger communities.

No job is too big or too small for our volunteers. They may read one-on-one with kids, coach basketball, mentor students, chaperone a school dance or field trip, assist with our walking school bus, plant a garden, tutor students for the SAT, laminate teaching materials, raise money for PTAs, collect gate receipts at sports events, and/or inspire students to reach for their dreams.

We currently have about 2,500 volunteers, contributing an average of 7,422 hours per month. According to the Independent Sector, a coalition of charities, foundations, corporations and individuals that provides information on the estimated dollar value of volunteer time, the national value of each volunteer hour is $25.43. For Maine, the value is estimated at $23.12 per hour, which for our district translates to a monthly average contribution of $171,597 – or $1.7 million per school year.

But the true impact of their service is even greater.  Whether they’re parents supporting their children and schools, community experts, retired mentors or other volunteers, the Portland Public Schools would not be able to do everything we do for our students without volunteers. They teach so many lessons.

For example, Lincoln Middle School social studies teacher Alice Shea says a volunteer in her classroom “has helped students to build relationships with other caring adults in the community. Additionally, the support he provides as another literacy and writing coach is immeasurable.”

Deering High School math teacher Steve Rogers says, “Having professionals in to reinforce skills that are necessary in the adult world helps my students to make more meaning of their work in school.”

Many volunteers are students’ parents. Deering parent Kathy Buxton explains why she volunteers: “I think it’s important to be an involved parent. I know my children’s teachers, coaches, school administrators and teammates and they know me … I like to give back and hopefully I’m setting an example for my own kids to follow.”

Others are community members contributing their time, talent, and skills.

Allen Armstrong, a retired mechanical engineer, volunteers at our Portland Arts & Technology High School (PATHS), in the Manufacturing Technology program. He says, “Helping young people learn some new ways of solving problems, and perhaps earn a living, seems to be one of the most rewarding ways of [utilizing my skills] ... I’ve advised on machine setups, use of solid modeling (CAD), and engineering careers. I’ve designed and documented projects for the students, and repaired machine tools. Sharing my enthusiasm for all these things with students who are eager to learn is immensely satisfying.”

If you too are willing to share your time, talent and enthusiasm, please join our amazing group of  volunteers. Go to the “Community Engagement” tab on our website, www.portlandschools.org or to: https://www.portlandschools.org/community/support_our_schools

We strive to help our students become involved citizens. Our Whole Student goal says: “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 volunteers are outstanding exemplars of this goal that our students see in everyday life. Thank you to our great volunteers!





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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

My Monthly Column – April 2019


Indigenous Peoples Day just first step in history lesson
By Xavier Botana

As of this writing, state lawmakers have approved a bill designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day, and it’s awaiting the governor’s signature. As an educator and leader of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, I applaud this change. It’s the right thing to do.

For too long, we have taught our students about the “discovery” of America only from the viewpoint of Columbus and European settlers, not from the perspective of those already living here. Native Americans faced disease, warfare and mistreatment as the result of Columbus’ arrival, and the impacts reverberate to this day. We need to acknowledge that and include the voices of Indigenous peoples in the historical discussion.

The city of Portland – and the Portland Public Schools – have already joined other Maine communities making Indigenous Peoples Day part of the calendar. I hope the governor soon authorizes this change for Maine.

That is just a first step, however. Our district is doing even more to help our students gain a comprehensive understanding of history – by developing a Wabanaki Studies curriculum.

Teaching about Maine’s Indigenous peoples has been a state legal requirement since 2001, but with limited funding, the law isn’t consistently followed. We’re not adding Wabanaki Studies for compliance, but to help our students understand the history of Maine. 

Donna Loring, a former Penobscot Tribal Council member and now the governor’s senior advisor on tribal affairs, helped draft the legislation on teaching about Maine’s Indigenous peoples. In her book about being a tribal representative in Maine, titled “In the Shadow Of The Eagle,” Loring writes: “Let Understanding and Communication through education be the building blocks of a new tribal-state relationship, one that recognizes and honors the struggles and contributions of Native people.”

We are collaborating closely with tribal communities to ensure we develop a curriculum based on facts and truth telling. Recently, members of our academic team met with Maine tribal leaders at the Abbe Museum to discuss decolonizing curriculum content and pedagogical approaches to teaching about Indigenous peoples. 

Fiona Hopper, the district academic enrichment specialist leading the curriculum work, says, “Studying the colonization of Maine and the impact on native cultures through time is important so that our students can understand the foundational inequities on which our nation is built. As with all history, a study of the past can help us understand the present.”

The new curriculum will align with the goals of the Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan, and be designed to help students develop critical thinking skills and foster cross-cultural understanding.

It also will help make our non-Indigenous students more aware of our region’s complex history and the existence of Indigenous communities today, while helping our Wabanaki students and families feel their cultural identities are visible and valued.

We are working on establishing curriculum content and a timeline for a roll out.

In the meantime, our work continues. We’ll be hosting a community gathering for Indigenous families on April 25, and we’ll continue with teacher professional development. This summer, for example, with help from a National Education Association Foundation grant, James Francis and Chris Sockalexis from the Penobscot Nation Office of Historic and Cultural Preservation will be leading 25 of our teachers in an overnight summer intensive to engage in Penobscot culture, learn from tribal leaders, and increase awareness and understanding of Indigenous peoples in Maine.

Our goal is to develop a thoughtful and accurate curriculum for our students that can also serve as a model for other Maine school districts.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

My Monthly Column – March 2019


Belonging, engagement, joy are key to successful learning

By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli

This is the final column in the series I’ve been writing with Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, about the Portland Public Schools’ seven Core Beliefs about Learning.

To recap, our Learning Beliefs are:
·       All learners can rise to high expectations.
·       Learners have different strengths, needs and starting points, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced. They learn in different ways and timeframes.
·       Academics, work habits, and social-emotional skills are equally important in school and in life.
·       Students can learn better when they are empowered and feel capable.
·       Learning in diverse groups prepares students to thrive in an increasingly diverse, complex, and connected world.
·       Practicing and learning from mistakes are natural and necessary parts of the learning process.
·       Belonging, engagement, and joy help a learner achieve.

We now turn our focus to our seventh belief, that belonging, engagement, and joy help a learner achieve.

This belief underpins the other six. In order for students to succeed, they need learning environments in which they feel they belong and can experience ownership in their learning.

We have developed Core Teaching Practices that correspond to each Learning Belief. In this case, to help students experience belonging and engagement, we strive in our teaching to ensure each student has a meaningful relationship with an adult at school and to create learning experiences in which students solve relevant and real real-world problems together.

Students form meaningful relationships with not just teachers, but other adults in our schools. For example, Truc Huynh, a 2001 Portland High School graduate who today is a senior account executive at Unum and a restaurant owner, attributes much of his success to the relationships he developed at Portland’s public schools.

Truc called his “unsung heroes” the volunteer mentors who helped him learn English and also American customs when he was a little boy from Vietnam new to Reiche Community School. And to this day, Truc recalls the words of a high school coach who taught him to commit 100 percent whenever he tackles a challenge.

“I give a lot of credit to the teachers and the mentors and the coaches,” he said. (Read Truc Huynh’s story on our Portland Promise website at: https://www.portlandschoolspromise.org/story/truc-huynh/ )

Another example is Mulki Hagi, a 2018 Deering High School graduate. Her connection with Danielle Wong, her mentor in the Make It Happen! program, a college readiness program for our multilingual students, led to Mulki and Danielle in 2017 becoming a student-teacher pair in the Bezos Scholars Program. They participated in a yearlong leadership development program, including attending the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

Mulki then used a $1,000 Bezos Scholar seed grant to design and lead a Multicultural Youth Summit in April 2018 for Deering students and faculty. At the summit, students led TED-style talks about real-world issues of systemic racism, LGBT rights, mental health, and immigration and also facilitated small group dialogues.

Another great example of students actively engaged in learning and working to solve real-world problems together is the recent public policy roundtable discussion event that Lyman Moore Middle School seventh-graders held with state and local leaders. After weeks of research, the students presented their proposed solutions to challenges such as opioid addiction, homelessness, and air pollution to 30 leaders who attended the forum, including the state’s DEP commissioner and Portland’s mayor, city manager, police chief and me. We came away impressed.

These are the types of learning experiences we strive to provide for our students at the Portland Public Schools, guided by our Learning Beliefs.