For Equity, be the change we wish to see
By Xavier Botana
Extreme challenges often drive difficult yet productive change. That thought gives me some hope as we all grapple with the outpouring of grief and outrage spurred by the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
I joined city and school officials in standing and kneeling with protesters at a recent peaceful demonstration to decry the deaths of Black Americans by police. However, as I said in a public statement, police aren’t the only problem. Racism is systemic and we are seeing firsthand the impact of injustice and inequality in all aspects of life. That includes our schools nationwide – and in Portland.
We have disparate outcomes for our students in the Portland Public Schools: a large achievement gap between white and non-white students, and discipline data showing our non-white students are disciplined more frequently and harshly.
I’m profoundly ashamed at how little progress we’ve made to reform our curriculum to give voice to the marginalized and underrepresented. We’re Maine’s largest and most diverse school district and our students deserve better. I’m disheartened by the lack of progress we’ve made in correcting the over-representation of students of color in our suspensions and discipline data and the under-representation of those same students in advanced course offerings.
It’s not for lack of want. As a proud member of the Latinx community and an immigrant to this country myself – my family left Cuba when I was a child to escape the Castro regime – I made inclusivity and equity central to our mission when I became superintendent four years ago. I’ve had strong support from staff and the Board of Public Education.
Maybe it’s for lack of urgency. But now is the time and opportunity to accelerate our work to realize the Equity goal in our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan. That goal commits us to rooting out systemic inequities in the Portland Public Schools.
A few examples of our ongoing efforts include our Equity Leaders Cohort, where staff members from each school lead equity training for our staff. We’re also focusing on our curriculum to ensure that what and how we teach is equitable and representative of all students. This work includes a focus on Wabanaki studies.
When it comes to disparate discipline, we conducted an equity audit to understand areas of strength and concern and create action plans on alternatives to traditional discipline. To have our staff better reflect the diversity of our student body, we’re deepening our efforts to hire diverse staff and support existing staff.
The Board also is renewing its commitment to Equity. The Board and I plan to read and discuss a book over the summer and engage in our Race in America class next year to grow in our understanding of race, racism, and white privilege. The Board’s Policy Committee is working on reviewing multiple policies from an equity perspective, including those involving the role of law enforcement in our schools.
I am encouraged by the diversity of voices in our community demanding an end to racial injustice in our schools. Too often, such calls come only from the marginalized, but I’ve been hearing now from white staff and parent allies.
If we are serious about change, we all must work to achieve it. I challenge our staff to work at the classroom and school level to recognize unjust practices and proactively strive to eliminate them. I also challenge everyone – parents, staff, students and other community members – to stand with me to advocate for Equity investments in our next school budget. Let’s be the change we all wish to see.