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.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

My Monthly Column – April 2021

Assistant Principals Positive Problem Solvers

By Xavier Botana

Earlier this month, we celebrated National Assistant Principals Week, recognizing these essential school leaders at the Portland Public Schools. Many of us think of assistant principals as in charge of a school’s day-to-day operations, including being the “disciplinarian.” But today’s assistant principals are much more.

Working in tandem with principals, they’re an integral part of a school’s leadership team and play a key role in building the school’s culture and tone. They work closely with students and support and supervise school activities. They also look out for safety and wellness, and the traditional discipline of the past has evolved to a focus on positive behavioral support. They work with students and families to understand the circumstances behind student behaviors and develop plans to help students achieve their potential. 

As a former assistant principal, I deeply appreciate all our assistant principals do. This month, as part of an ongoing series about our outstanding PPS staff, I’m featuring one of these vital school leaders who exemplifies the modern assistant principal: Robyn Bailey at Lincoln Middle School. 

Robyn joined PPS in 1998 as an educational technician at Lincoln and has been there ever since, becoming a teacher and then assistant principal. She does amazing work at the school, including leading an effective intervention strategy to reduce student chronic absences. Here’s more about Robyn:

How did you get into this field?

Growing up in Portland, many people in my family were in education, but I always said I wasn’t going to be an educator. I went to school initially to be a nurse, but discovered that was not what I wanted. I graduated from college with a degree in linguistics and worked at a bank in their education department before deciding I wanted to be an educator. I was an ed tech, then realized I wanted to get my teaching degree. I taught math, English and science and then became an ELL teacher. I took on leadership roles while teaching, in the union and at the building level, and that influenced my decision to become an administrator.

How has your varied experience impacted your job now?

The most important thing you can do is make connections with students and families. Once kids trust you, they’ll work closely with you. Because I was in the classroom so long, I know that if a kid is doing something wrong, there are underlying reasons. Once you figure out what they are, you can usually make that connection with students. Very rarely do I have to discipline a student because they know me, they trust me, and when I ask them to address a behavior, they do it. With families, they have to trust you, they have to understand that you are there for all of our students to be safe and secure. I’m fortunate to have an amazing team supporting this philosophy.

How has COVID impacted your work around chronic absence?

I have a great team that supports the idea that we have to go to people’s homes to make connections. But now we do many porch visits, because we can’t go into homes. We really try to target why a student is having difficulty in coming to school and we make whatever adjustments we need to. 

What drives you in your job?

I want to do better everyday. I want to find solutions to things that aren’t working well. I want things to be systematized and predictable so that people here, whether adults or students, can anticipate what’s happening and know that they are going to be appreciated and have the opportunity to do well.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

My Monthly Column – March 2021

Ed techs punch above their weight

By Xavier Botana

Educational technicians – better known as ed techs – are the glue that holds schools together. I speak from experience: I started my career as an ed tech.

Principals and teachers rely on ed techs. The Portland Public Schools has 235 ed techs – almost one in five of our employees. Their titles give a sense of the range of work they do. We have regular classroom ed techs and also media/library, special education, functional life skills, computer, PATHS, and ELL ed techs, as well as med techs. In general, ed techs help students reach academic and behavioral goals, provide supervision, establish vital one-on-one relationships with students and collaborate closely with staff and parents. 

In short, ed techs punch well above their weight – and often don’t get enough recognition. That’s why this month, as part of an ongoing series about our outstanding PPS staff, I’m highlighting one of these exemplary employees: Roberto Keith. An ed tech at East End Community School and King Middle School, Roberto joined our district 24 years ago as an ed tech at Reiche Community School.

Like former PPS ed techs Suellyn Santiago, now principal of Lincoln Middle School, and Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, now Deering High School co-principal, Roberto is interested in moving up the educational ladder. He’s pursuing his teaching degree at the University of Southern Maine and plans on earning a master’s in education.

How did you get into this line of work?

I was born in Colombia and didn’t speak English when an American couple adopted me at age 7. I grew up in Boston and went to Johnson & Wales University to learn to be a chef. Even though I worked in wonderful restaurants under great chefs, the food you create – the customers eat it and it’s gone. I needed more recognition for what I can create, and when I started working with children in a Head Start program, I found my passion. 

Tell us about your job before COVID.

I work a lot with our Spanish-speaking students, interpreting, translating and reaching out to their families. I would begin with East End’s Rise and Shine before-school program. I did a lot of activities with kids: soccer, lacrosse, even sledding in the winter. I want kids to understand how wonderful it is to get outside. Then I went into the classroom and checked in with students and helped them to understand what they needed to learn to adjust to school.

How has COVID changed your job?

On the days the kids come to school, I want them to feel electrified and that they belong. I celebrate them showing up for school. Because of masks and social distancing, it’s a little harder. When I talk to a kid about a math problem or a book, I want to be right next to them. But I feel the same compassion and enthusiasm as before. With remote, some of my families don’t have a good understanding of technology. I feel so happy when we connect and I can see them on the computer camera. My families can call me 24 hours a day to answer their questions.

What inspires you about your job?

It’s great to get to see these kids go on to college and make a good career. I just talked to one who now has his own business and he told me, “Mr. Keith, do you know why I’m doing so good in life? It’s because people like you taught me to respect myself and never give up and how important it is to go to college.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

My Monthly Column – February 2021


Parent community specialists: Lifelines between families & schools

By Xavier Botana 

My columns this year are showcasing members of our outstanding Portland Public Schools staff. This month, I’m focusing on the vital work of our parent community specialists.

Parents are our partners. Research shows students do better in school when their parents are involved in their education. But it’s hard to engage with your child’s school when you’re new to this country and English is not your home language. That’s where our parent community specialists come in.

About one-third of our 6,500 students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – more than 60 different languages. Our parent community specialists serve as multilingual language and cultural liaisons to those families to help them develop strong relationships with our schools. 

Their jobs involve assisting families with their communication needs, serving as interpreters, translators and connectors in a wide range of situations that include registering children for school, parent-teacher meetings, IEP (individualized education program) meetings and school presentations and events.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, they also do much more. Our parent community specialists are lifelines to families needing assistance with not only educational issues like remote learning, but also with food insecurity, job loss, unemployment benefits, housing and health issues.

One of our amazing parent community specialists is Monique Mutumwinka, who speaks six languages: French, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Lingala, Swahili and English. Originally from Rwanda, where she was a dentist, Monique came to this country in 2010 and has worked for our district since 2013. Now a U.S. citizen and proud mom of three Deering High School graduates, she loves helping other families make successful new lives in our community. Here’s more about Monique:

Tell us about your job.
We are the bridge of communication between the schools and the families. For example, we do translations, we do intake when families arrive, we do meet and greets between parents and teachers and we do Special Education plans, explaining and advocating for parents of children with special needs. Sometimes, we go in the classroom with the students, spending hours or a day with them, just to get them adjusted to the first day of life in an American school. We are cultural brokers, explaining cultural differences. For example, when you talk about a learning disability, our families don’t understand. For us, a disability is a physical disability, so we need to be cultural brokers and explain to parents. Otherwise, their students don’t get the services they need. Also, in our culture, you don’t speak unless a teacher calls on you. Here, you need to speak up if you don’t understand. You have to advocate for yourself or you don’t get help.

How has COVID changed your job?
Now we play the role of connecting families with not only educational resources but also case management. It’s 24-7, because now the needs are greater. We help with social emotional needs for the parents, academic needs for students (“My son doesn’t know how to get into his Google Classroom”), how to get school meals and how and where to get a COVID test. Families think, “Monique has the language. She can help me.”

What inspires you about your job?
I love it because I feel a lot of satisfaction when I see a student graduate. You see them go from “A” to “Z,” from intake to graduation, and you see what they can do for themselves and future generations. You have helped them to have a new life and their parents are more independent and successful. You’re a problem-solver helping the community. It’s very satisfying.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

My Monthly Column – January 2021

Custodians among frontline heroes of this pandemic

By Xavier Botana

At the Portland Public Schools, we’ve always been grateful to our custodians for making sure the buildings we walk into each morning are clean and safe. Now, however, we are even more aware of how important their work is to safeguard the health of our students and staff. COVID-19 has made us value these essential staff even more. 

Their work to thoroughly clean and disinfect our schools helps enable our students to attend school in person – an experience increasingly important at this time for students’ learning and social/emotional well-being. Our custodians are among the frontline heroes of this pandemic.

This month, as part of an ongoing series about members of our outstanding PPS staff, I’m turning the spotlight on one of our exemplary custodians: James Benner, head custodian at East End Community School. 

James joined our district 14 years ago and is clearly a lifelong learner. He uses every opportunity at work to learn more about building systems to make sure everything runs smoothly, and takes Portland Adult Education classes in his spare time. A class on playing the piano has led him to take private lessons. Here’s more about James:

How did you get into this line of work?

Portland’s Teen Center helped me find a job at the start of my working career. They help kids get their foot in the door in a lot of places. I got a seasonal job grounds keeping, and then I got a job working at a hotel, mainly dishwashing, but I also was a prep cook and set up for banquets. I started with the school department after that. My mother is a custodian, she’s now head custodian at Lyman Moore Middle School, and she knew I was trying to get something with more solid hours and security.

What do you like about custodial work?

Jobs like dishwashing, you’re doing the same job over and over again, but there’s a lot of different tasks we do as custodians and you deal with different scenarios. I have an inquiring mind and I like puzzles. I enjoy the puzzle of trying to figure out all the different things that come up through the days and making everything work. I love the staff here and my custodial staff here is great. They’re an amazing team. 

How has COVID changed your job?

Ramping up to get school ready for the fall, there was a lot of figuring out. I was part of the Tiger Team, four head custodians who worked with our bosses and did a lot of studying about COVID-19 and cleanup procedures and helped create the guidelines we go by. We learned about upgrading HVAC systems and we were a huge part of setting up classrooms to make sure that everybody is maintaining distance. Cleaning became extra important, disinfecting and sanitizing specifically. And I like to think we played a pretty big role when staff came back into the building, helping to calm people and letting them know it was OK, things are staying clean and we have procedures in place to keep it as safe as possible.

What inspires you about your job?

I’m a custodial rep in my union, and I like working with union members and management to try to find a middle ground between everybody. I have a son, he’s a teenager, and even the kids have a stronger appreciation now of being in school. The school system is about teaching kids and I think that’s such important work, and it’s nice that my job has such a strong impact on keeping that going.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

My Monthly Column – December 2020

Bus drivers are key ambassadors for PPS

By Xavier Botana

The yellow school bus is an iconic symbol of public education. But those vehicles would have no meaning without the people behind the wheel: school bus drivers.

Our bus drivers typically are the very first Portland Public Schools staff that many of our students encounter as kindergartners. And each day, as they transport students in all kinds of weather, bus drivers are the first to greet our kids each morning, and the last to wave them safely off the bus to their homes.

In short, our hard-working, dedicated bus drivers are ambassadors of our schools. They are on the front line – and never more so than during this pandemic.

I’m writing a series of columns featuring members of our outstanding PPS staff – and this month I’m focusing on one of our valued bus drivers: Laura Whitmer. Laura, who transports Ocean Avenue Elementary School and Lincoln Middle School students, has been on the job just 10 months, but she exemplifies the best qualities of our drivers. She’s also fast building a student fan base.

Here’s more about Laura:

Tell us about yourself and becoming a bus driver.

I was born and raised in Portland. I worked in retail for nearly 30 years but I needed a change and the opportunity came up. I applied, interviewed and was hired in March.

What about driving a bus appealed to you?

I had thought about it for about the past 10 years. Some acquaintances are bus drivers and they said it’s a good job. The biggest vehicle I had driven before was my husband’s pickup, but I was like: I can do this. It was rewarding to study and take the permit test and the road test and get my license. I was pretty darn proud of myself! I love children. I have two grandchildren, who live in Cumberland and take the bus there. I love seeing all the different kids. They’re just so grateful when you pick them up and you take them home.

How has COVID-19 changed the job?

I started three days before our schools shut down, when I rode with different drivers, learning routes and the ropes, like securing wheelchairs. With COVID, a lot of things changed. There are a lot more protocols for cleaning, with a lot more time involved and you’re wearing masks and gloves. All summer long, I rode with another bus driver delivering school lunches to families who couldn’t make it to the meal sites. I was the one running the lunches out to the homes we stopped at. It was worth it, making sure that the kids had their meals.

Do masks for bus drivers and students impact communication?

In the beginning, it was tough. It was hard for some students to understand me and me to understand them, but we’ve built a relationship. We’re all good now. They know the protocols for getting on the bus – they have to use the hand sanitizer and wear their masks. They’re really good about keeping their masks on.

What do you enjoy about being a bus driver?

It’s rewarding. The kids are very thankful. One day, while cleaning the bus, I found a note where a girl was sitting that explained who she was and thanked me for bringing her home every day. I have it at the front of my bus on a little magnetic clip so she can see that I appreciate it. One little boy gave me a little paper flower. I have that hanging there in the front of my bus. It’s sweet.