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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

My Monthly Column – November 2021

 Supporting PPS staff so they can best serve students and families

By Xavier Botana

Our Portland Promise commits the Portland Public Schools to realizing four goals: Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People. To succeed, we need to have our staff – our People – share fully in that vision. 

That’s why we’re prioritizing fostering a district-wide culture where staff members feel supported to grow professionally in ways that best serve students and families.

That’s just one of four teaching and learning priorities this school year. The other three are strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments; and enabling effective school operations.

I’m writing a series of columns about these priorities. This month, I’m focusing on our plan to deepen our professional learning culture. 

To begin this work, we’re asking all our educators to individually and collectively reflect on our current student outcomes – what students are expected to know or demonstrate when completing a course or a grade level.

Working together, we’ll use this to build a stronger, shared, instructional vision. This will help deepen our work to achieve equity and assist in providing professional development better aligned to our priorities and connected to our instructional materials and core practices.

This work will also elevate teacher leadership and help all staff collaborate more meaningfully. That will help foster a district-wide culture where people trust each other, work together and welcome feedback to grow professionally to better respond to our students’ needs.

Strategies to achieve this include building a common understanding of what we want students to know and be able to do as they move through the grades. We’re starting by developing a “portrait of a graduate” at the high school level – a vision for the skills, traits, and competencies that students need to succeed in college, career, and life. Educators across the district will develop the portrait to define exactly what we mean when we say that PPS students will graduate “prepared and empowered.”

Once we establish a clear portrait for our high school graduates, we’ll develop eighth-grade and fifth-grade portraits. These will help ensure a shared understanding of what elementary school students need to be prepared and empowered for middle school, and middle school students for high school.

We need all educators to deepen their shared understanding of and commitment to an equity-oriented vision for instruction. Our goal is to build trust, openness and appreciation for diverse approaches and opinions. That requires us all to be comfortable giving and receiving feedback in order to learn from each other and improve. To that end, we are including equity-literacy based language in our teacher evaluation system. 

We are committed to elevating and supporting our People who identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color by implementing key recommendations from our Educators of Color Report. That report, released last spring, gave us honest feedback from our educators of color about their work experiences and barriers to opportunities in our district. A survey of all our staff also showed lackluster coaching, career development and professional learning opportunities.

As a consequence, we’re focusing this year on creating support structures and career pathways that lead to teaching and leadership opportunities for all staff. Specifically, we’re creating support structures for teachers that want to become administrators and for educational technicians that want to become teachers.

Years of research show that organizations attain their goals when they achieve a truly collaborative professional learning structure where everyone feels they have something to learn and something to contribute. That is what we are committed to accomplishing through our focus on professional culture in our schools.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

My Monthly Column – October 2021

Fostering safe, equitable schools where all students feel connected 

By Xavier Botana

Eighteen months of remote and hybrid learning due to the pandemic has disconnected many of our students from school, their teachers and each other. That is why reconnecting our students is a key focus at the Portland Public Schools now that we have returned to full-time, in-person learning.

We’ve made creating safe and equitable school environments, where students feel a sense of belonging and connection, one of our district’s four teaching and learning priorities this year. 

The other three priorities are strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families; and enabling effective school operations. All four teaching and learning priorities are aligned to our Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

I’m writing a series of columns about these priorities. Last month, I wrote about strengthening core instruction. This month, my focus is on safe and equitable schools where students feel connected and engaged.

This priority is responsive to the needs of our students at the current moment. But we are also deepening work that has been underway for the past few years.

Having safe and equitable schools will help us realize our Whole Student and Equity goals. We know that if we prioritize authentic individual relationships with each student, clear and equitable expectations in our schools, and meaningful support structures district-wide, along with deep listening to what our students and families tell us they experience and need, we will create an environment where students feel valued and thrive.

However, just as achievement and opportunity gaps exist between student groups, not all students experience our schools in this way today. Too often, the ones who end up feeling less valued and disconnected from school are our most marginalized students – students who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, are English language learners, have disabilities and are LGBTQ. 

Strategies to address this include strengthening the implementation of having a “Portland Promise Point Person” for every student across all grades, and working with our staff to develop the skills and mindsets to use restorative practices and de-escalation to influence student behavior.

We’ll also be working to develop structures in our system that support the development of meaningful connections for students through our ongoing PBIS work – PBIS stands for positive behavioral interventions and supports and its focus is prevention, not punishment. We’re also implementing our newly revised anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy and focusing on critical times of transition in our system, especially from eighth to ninth grade.

Some of this work is already underway. Recently, Deering High School senior Balqies Mohamed shared with PPS staff how meeting with teacher advisors helped her during the past school year. “At Deering High School, advisory was not only a place for students to receive support but also for student-teacher collaboration,” Balqies said. She said she and other students worked with two faculty members to co-design lessons centered on equity and anti-racism, using dialogue and interactive activities. The result of the lessons, Balqies said, “was an increase in student engagement as well as, as a school, we took the first step to create an anti-racist and tolerant school culture.”

She added, “Undoubtedly students do look for an adult they can lean on for support, and advisory is a great way to foster those authentic student and teacher bonds.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

My Monthly Column – September 2021

 Strengthening core instruction to help students learn at high levels

By Xavier Botana

School this fall has not been the “return to normal” we all envisioned last June. We continue to battle this pandemic, and are currently focused on fine-tuning our health and safety protocols to protect our students and staff. At the same time, we are committed to realizing our goal of continuously working to improve the quality of education that the Portland Public Schools offers students.

That is why we have developed clear teaching and learning priorities for the 2021-2022 school year. Those priorities are aligned with the goals of the Portland Promise, our strategic plan: Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

Our four priorities this year are key to our students’ success. They are: strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments where students feel a sense of belonging and connection; fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families; and enabling effective school operations.

I’m writing a series of columns exploring each priority. This month, I’m focusing on strengthening core instruction, which aligns with our Achievement and Equity goals.

Looking at our achievement data across the district, we consistently see that we do an excellent job with some of our students – but not all of them. Yet we know that all our students have the potential to achieve at high levels and become fully prepared and empowered to pursue whatever their life goals might be.

We understand that we have work to do to change our systems, structures and practices in order to unleash all our students’ full potential. Our Equity goal commits us to addressing achievement and opportunity gaps for our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students, as well as those who are English language learners (ELL), have disabilities and are economically disadvantaged.

Strengthening core instruction is an important way to do that. We believe that exposing students to grade-level learning with appropriate support is key if we want all our students to learn at high levels.

Our strategies for strengthening core instruction include continuing our math and phonics curriculum work and launching new science and social studies units. For example, we’re implementing a new science unit about the Presumpscot River, including raising and releasing salmon. We’ll also hold professional development sessions for teachers on Wabanaki Studies throughout the year.

To help ensure instruction is equitable, we’ll ensure access to grade-level instruction and rigor for all students, taking such steps as reducing remedial pullouts and tracking. One focus will be supporting our ELL teachers, special educators and classroom teachers as they collaborate together to best meet students’ learning needs.

We’ll also promote inclusive practices and work to include the voices of traditionally underrepresented students and parents to ensure their needs and views are accounted for in our work.

Also, we want to ensure that all our educators experience a clear connection between our equity work and our instructional work. Everything we’re doing around developing curriculum materials, providing opportunities for professional learning and reimagining structures is rooted in our commitment to build a more equitable system where all students are held to high expectations and are supported to reach them.

Of course, everyone’s health and safety are our first responsibility, so we will adjust the cadence of our teaching and learning priorities as needed. Our goal is to balance reacting to the moment and following the steady course of continuous improvement to our teaching and learning that we have set for ourselves, and that our community deserves.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

My Monthly Column – August 2021

 Portland Promise is scaffold for teaching and learning priorities

By Xavier Botana

After more than a year of hybrid and remote learning, Portland Public Schools students will return soon to full-time, in-person instruction. We’ll welcome them back with clear teaching and learning priorities organized around the goals of the Portland Promise, our strategic plan. These teaching and learning priorities are key to our students’ success and aligned to the four Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

To help everyone understand what these priorities are all about, I’ll be writing a series of columns exploring each one in detail. This month, I’ll focus on an overview of what they are and why they’re important.

We have four priorities for this year: strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments where students feel a sense of belonging and connection; fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families; and enabling effective school operations.

Strengthening core instruction relates to our Achievement and Equity goals. Underpinning it is the idea that exposing all students to grade-level learning with appropriate support is key if we want our students to learn at high levels. 

Our strategies for strengthening core instruction include continuing our math and phonics curriculum work and launching new science and social studies units. To help ensure that instruction is equitable, we’ll reduce remedial pullouts and tracking. We’ll also promote inclusive practices and work to include the voices of traditionally underrepresented students and parents to ensure their needs and views are accounted for in our work.

Our priority of ensuring safe and equitable schools will help us realize our Whole Student and Equity goals. We know that if we prioritize authentic individual relationships with each student, equitable and transparent systems in our schools, and meaningful support structures district-wide, along with deep listening to what our students and families tell us they experience and need, we will create an environment where students feel valued and thrive.

Strategies to achieve this include fulfilling our commitment to have a “Portland Promise Point Person” for every student across all grades, working with our staff to build skills and mindsets to use restorative practices and de-escalation to influence student behavior and implementing our newly revised anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy.

Our priority for creating a district-wide culture where teachers and other staff feel supported to grow professionally relates to our People and Equity goals. We aim to create a professional learning culture throughout the district where our people trust each other and welcome feedback to grow professionally and better respond to student needs. 

One strategy is to improve our planning processes at the district and school level. We also will implement key recommendations from our Educators of Color Report – a study completed this past school year about the experiences of PPS educators of color in our schools. For example, we plan to establish pathways for advancement for them and improve recruitment of diverse staff.

Our last priority is focused on flawless operations in our school system in areas that include buildings, transportation, technology, finance, and nutrition to reduce time spent on operational issues by teaching staff. That will enable them to focus on what they do best. 

We are grateful for the opportunity to have students in school full time this coming year.  Our goal is to “build back better” by focusing on these four priority areas. I look forward to explaining our work in more detail in my coming columns this year.


Tuesday, July 20, 2021

My Monthly Column – July 2021

Food Service team essential to learning

By Xavier Botana

Our main job as a school district is to educate students, but they can’t do their best learning if they’re hungry. That’s why our Food Service team is such an integral part of our educational mission. 

More than half of Portland Public Schools students come from food-insecure families. They depend on the thousands of nutritious meals our Food Service team serves each day. School breakfast and lunch not only keep students’ hunger at bay, but they help them realize their full learning potential.

 The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how essential our Food Service team is.

Even when our buildings were closed, a herculean effort by this team ensured families could get a nutritious bagged breakfast and lunch each day at outdoor food sites. As our schools went hybrid, the team went hybrid too, serving students both in school and at pick-up sites. We can’t thank team members enough for their unflagging efforts to ensure our students didn’t go hungry.

This month, as I conclude my series about outstanding PPS staff, I’m recognizing Food Service team member Jessica Puzak. Jess, cafeteria team leader at Rowe Elementary School, exemplifies the dedication and service these crucial staff members bring to their jobs.  


Jess, who grew up in Massachusetts, completed several apprenticeships and internships on organic farms after graduating from college. She wanted to use her learning and experience with children, so she joined FoodCorps, a national nonprofit working with communities to connect kids to healthy food in school. In 2017, as a FoodCorps service member with Cultivating Community, Jess began teaching Rowe students about gardening, cooking and nutrition before becoming cafeteria team leader in 2018. In 2019, she also became the school’s garden coordinator, a position supported by Rowe’s PTO. Here’s more about Jess:

How did you get interested in growing food?

As a kid, I became fascinated with how you could put a seed in the soil and then something magical would grow. Also, my nana in New Hampshire had a beautiful garden. We were very close. She passed when I was in high school, and I became almost obsessed with flowers and growing vegetables.

What led you to join the Food Service team?

As a FoodCorps service member, I partnered with Food Service on taste tests and promoting the school lunch program. When the team leader job opened up, I decided that could be really cool because it’s an opportunity to continue some of the work I was already doing around food with school kids, and I could learn how school meals work in reality.

What do cafeteria team leaders do?

We’re responsible for providing meals that meet all the USDA requirements – students need a veggie, fruit, a grain and protein and they need milk available. I’m the point person for making sure that happens effectively and to safe standards, and also making sure school breakfasts are delivered to classrooms. There’s a lot of accounting and recording keeping, so it’s a very busy, nonstop shift.

How did COVID impact your job?

My goodness, it was really something how fast we had to completely restructure, but we did it. Something amazing came out of that experience this past year: it really highlighted how essential school food actually is.

What drives you?

What gets me out of bed every day is that there are hundreds of children counting on me to feed them. Also, if kids are hungry, there’s no way they’re focusing on their learning. In offering quality fresh food, we are inherently creating more equity in our schools. That’s motivating for me.


Wednesday, June 16, 2021

My Monthly Column – June 2021

School secretaries: the heart and soul of a school

By Xavier Botana

A school’s office is the center of the school, the place that enables the rest of the school to function. It’s where students, staff and families go to get a multitude of needs and wants met. That’s why the people who run those offices – our school secretaries – are truly the heart of each school.

This month, I’m recognizing our amazing school secretaries – also known as administrative assistants – as part of my ongoing series about our outstanding staff at the Portland Public Schools. Specifically, I’m giving a shout-out to Deb Kierstead, lead secretary at Casco Bay High School, whose work exemplifies just how vital the work of school secretaries is. Deb’s exceptional efforts were publicly recognized in 2018, when the Maine Principals’ Association chose her as Secretary of the Year.


Deb is retiring this month after 23 years with the Portland Public Schools, 16 of them as founding secretary at Casco Bay. We’ll miss her greatly, but we’re happy for her. Among her future plans is volunteering at her grandchildren’s schools.

Deb came to us from the South Portland schools. She worked at several of our buildings before joining Casco Bay Principal Derek Pierce to start that school in 2005. Pierce has said Deb “may be my wisest, best hire.”

Deb’s work over the years has included designing, overseeing and constantly working to streamline and improve the school’s office procedures, from finances to enrollment, and mentoring coworkers. Pierce also calls her the school’s “first and best ambassador” who treats students and families with caring and respect.

Here’s more about Deb, who grew up in Scarborough knowing her organizational and people skills were ideal for office work.

What drew you to work in a school?

I took my son to school when he was in kindergarten and was observing the school secretary and thought, “Wow, that would be a job that would be fun and part of the community.” I’m a people person. I love learning about people and working with people and helping people. I knew that early on, and knew I had to find a fit for myself – and what better fit than a school? People of all different levels need help – students, a staff person, a parent or someone from the community. 

What are some key aspects of your job?

Being part of different offices, I started seeing things we could do to help people more, whether it’s a student, a parent or a teacher. I like to say that whatever office I’ve worked in, it’s always an office that likes to put forward instant gratification, if at all possible. Also, sometimes, you’re the only person who might be in contact with that student who looks like they’re having a bit of trouble, and you alert someone at the school – a social worker, nurse or the principal – saying something is not right with this student. You see students and get to know their personalities and know when they’re just not themselves. Then they get help, or whatever little crisis they’re having gets resolved a lot sooner.

How did COVID impact your job?

We made a lot of phone calls home to connect with students and families, especially if they didn’t have the internet. It’s not the same thing as being in person, so I missed that a lot.

What drives you?

Knowing that what you do makes a difference, that what you do can make a person’s difficult day turn into a good day and, at the end of the day, knowing that you have done things that have a purpose.

 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

My Monthly Column – May 2021

Appreciating our EL teachers

By Xavier Botana


The first week of May was Teacher Appreciation Week. If you missed the chance to thank a teacher then – you’re not too late. It’s always an opportune time to express our gratitude to awesome educators who change the lives of students each day.


I’m recognizing teachers this month as part of my ongoing series about outstanding Portland Public Schools staff. I’m focusing specifically on educators who teach English language learner (ELL) students.


English Learner (EL) teachers are a very important part of PPS, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. Nearly one quarter of our 6,500 students this year are ELL students.


The main role of EL teachers is to evaluate, instruct, and improve students’ English language proficiency. EL teachers also provide an important cultural bridge for students, helping them to understand the United States’ cultural landscape while also being responsive to their students’ own cultures and languages. Teachers also have to be sensitive to the social emotional needs of students as they make their way in a new education system and society. 



One of our amazing EL teachers is Portland High School’s Rohan Henry. Rohan cares deeply about his students and understands what they’re going through – because he was an immigrant and ELL student himself. He now has a master’s degree in EL and special education. He’s also the author and illustrator of an award-winning book, “The Perfect Gift.” Here’s more about Rohan:


Can you tell us about yourself?

I was born in Jamaica and my family immigrated to the Boston area when I was 6 or 7.  Moving here was difficult because I had never really seen white people, except on TV. I’d never seen snow before, so it was just a 180-degree shift for me. I thought people here were speaking too fast because in Jamaica we speak what is called Patois. It’s more a creole, so I didn’t really understand what people were saying very well. You think it’s the same language but it actually isn’t.


What was your English learning experience like?

There was no such thing as an English language instructor then. People didn’t need to have credentials when it first started, so it was pretty sad the way the profession used to be. People thought I needed special ed because they couldn’t understand what I was saying. They just thought, “I can’t understand this kid. Maybe he has some sort of learning disability.” They never thought: “Maybe I should learn more about his language.”


How does that impact your own teaching?

I don’t stigmatize kids, I value them. I look at students who might not know English as assets, not that they have a detriment, and that’s a huge difference from how people looked at me. I say to my kids, “You are much more advanced than Americans who only have one language – you have three or four.”


How has COVID affected your job?

I’ve always considered the social emotional health of the students I serve. I have to, because some of them have been in refugee camps and some have had harrowing journeys to the United States. I have kids who have walked a thousand miles from Central America up through Mexico and across the border to get here. I have always used trauma-informed techniques when I teach, but COVID has increased that exponentially. So I go 150 percent into creating a therapeutic environment, where they feel welcome and safe.


What drives you?

There’s a song inside me that says that kid in front of me is my priority. That gets me out of bed and wakes me up.