Wednesday, November 20, 2019

My Monthly Column – November 2019

Developing a ‘vertical’ districtwide content vision for curriculum
By Xavier Botana

We’re working to realize the Achievement goal in our Portland Promise by strengthening core instruction through a quality curriculum, strong teacher leadership and sustained professional learning. One way we’re doing that is by going “vertical” when it comes to our curriculum.

This is the third of four monthly columns I’m dedicating to discussing four new initiatives in the Portland Public Schools’ 2019-2020 budget. The initiatives embody the goals in our Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan: Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. I’ve previously discussed our pre-kindergarten expansion initiative and our behavioral health continuum initiative.

This month, my focus is on how we’re working to strengthen core instruction. Research shows effective supports, quality curriculum, and collective teacher efficacy improve student achievement. This work is connected to not only our Achievement goal, but also our Equity goal.

Under the leadership of Melea Nalli, our assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, we have created Core Content Vertical Teams to enhance curriculum development. We began these teams last year in math and we’re adding English language arts, social studies, science and health vertical teams this year. By “vertical,” we mean that what students learn at one level – whether it’s at the elementary, middle or high school level – will prepare them for moving on to the next level.

This is a change because, in the past, we haven’t focused on curriculum development from a districtwide perspective. These vertical teams will now give us a bird’s eye view of our curriculum across all levels. That will allow us to develop a shared and coherent vision for instruction at all levels, based on current research and evidence-based practices, and mesh our districtwide content vision with school instructional visions. 

It also will help bring a lens of Equity and high expectations for all students to our current practices, and ensure we’re evolving to meet the needs of all our students in core content areas.  Additionally, we’ll be better able to share best practices, analyze curriculum and data, and look at instruction to inform decision making around curriculum, structures, professional development and policy.

In short, the vertical teams will help everyone at the elementary, middle and high school levels to know what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching it and what our instruction is telling us.

Another way we’re working to strengthen our core curriculum is by taking a critical eye toward content and perspective. We are taking such steps as diversifying materials and content, allowing students to demonstrate mastery in diverse ways, and ensuring what is being taught is relevant and engaging to all students. Research shows that this is a core strategy to improve outcomes for all our students and help realize our Equity goal. 

One example of this is the Wabanaki Studies curriculum we’re developing. The Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes are known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.” Some of our students are Wabanaki, but we consider teaching about Maine’s Indigenous peoples necessary to give ALL our students a comprehensive understanding of the history of our state and our nation. 

To ensure we’re creating an accurate, culturally responsive, Equity driven curriculum, we are partnering with the Abbe Museum and tribal leaders from across Maine. We are also using a decolonizing framework to help ask tough questions about what we teach, why we teach it, and whose perspective we’re uplifting. 

We’re also working to develop a social studies curriculum around holidays that focuses on more culturally appropriate ways of celebrating holidays in the diverse and inclusive setting of Portland’s public schools.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

My Monthly Column – October 2019

Behavioral health continuum helps all students
By Xavier Botana

This is the second of four monthly columns I’m dedicating to discussing four new initiatives in the Portland Public Schools’ 2019-2020 budget that embody our Portland Promise goals: Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. This month, my focus is on our initiative to create a robust behavioral health continuum.  This work is connected to our Whole Student, Achievement and Equity goals.

We want students to have a well-rounded education – which is why we have the Whole Student goal in the Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan. We are committed to not only teaching academics, but also to helping students develop socially and emotionally so they can attain the skills, habits and mindset for success in life. 

When it comes to academics, most of us are familiar with the idea of a “continuum” of student learning. At one end are students who need very individualized support, while at the other end are very advanced students who seek opportunities to accelerate their learning. 

The same is true about social-emotional development. We recognize that some students need higher levels of support, but we also strive to ensure healthy social-emotional development for all our students. That is why we are building a system of continuous support around behavioral health.

Social and emotional health goes hand in hand with academic learning. Teachers are very aware that one or two students with significant disruptive behavior can take an inordinate amount of time away from classroom instruction. Having clear expectations and making sure that everyone understands them is an important part of a high performing environment in all walks of life.  

The foundational component of the continuum of our behavioral health is the development of a school culture and climate that reinforces positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS).  This ensures that our teachers have the support they need to have students access learning opportunities.

Chris Reiger, our director of clinical and behavioral support services, who joined our team last year, leads our social-emotional development work.  We’ve added social workers and behavioral health professionals to help support this work. But building the capacity of all of our staff is the key to making this happen.

A significant part of our new budget initiative was the development of a behavioral health continuum in our schools.  This included reorganizing our former Bayside Learning Community to create more opportunities to support our students’ social-emotional needs.  

We’ve added programming for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities at Rowe and East End elementary schools and have strengthened existing programs at the middle and high school levels.  We still have a day treatment program – formerly Bayside Learning Community, now called the Breathe Day Treatment program. For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the program now is located at Lyman Moore Middle School and it’s at Portland High School for students in grades 9-12. These changes enhance our behavioral health continuum by allowing students to participate in school-based programming with non-disabled peers as appropriate, regardless of their service location. 

I’ll close by recognizing National Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.  Close to 560 of our students – about 8.2 percent of our total population – are Hispanic and I am too. Generations of Hispanic Americans have enhanced and enriched our nation and society. I want our students to know about our heritage and be proud.

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.