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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

My Monthly Column – January 2023

My Tenure More than Payroll Issues

By Xavier Botana

After nearly seven years of writing here, this is my last column. When I became superintendent of the Portland Public Schools in 2016, I considered the role the capstone of my career. Now I have stepped down, with my last day in the office Jan. 13. 

I am very proud to have had this opportunity to serve Portland’s students, staff and families. I am also very grateful to the broader Portland community for consistently showing how much they value public education. While my tenure ends with significant challenges associated with our payroll, we as a community have achieved much during the course of my tenure. Here are some key examples: 

I started my leadership by working with the Board of Public Education and many members of our staff and community to revise our comprehensive plan to create the Portland Promise. The four goals of the Promise – Achievement, Whole Student, People and the central goal of Equity – have guided our work since then, particularly our policy and budget work. One measure of a successful strategic plan is the degree to which its principles and ideas become the language of the district. By that measure, the Promise has been a resounding success as it has become synonymous with, and shorthand for, our work as a district.

In our budgets, we have secured unprecedented funding for services for students experiencing opportunity gaps: English language learners, students with disabilities, and students who are economically disadvantaged or otherwise marginalized. We have invested in recruiting, supporting and retaining educators of color, so that our staff can be more reflective of our student body, the most diverse in Maine. We have diversified our curriculum and helped students see themselves in our classrooms and in our content. And we now have equity-focused leadership across the system.

On the policy level, we have created a more just and equitable framework for governing the district. We gave voice and place to traditionally underrepresented members of our communities in policy development. Whether in developing our policy against harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination, our gender expansive policy, our discipline policies or carefully threading the role of law enforcement in our schools, we have centered and lifted those voices.

We have brought to culmination a 20+ year process to renovate our elementary schools. City voters in 2017 overwhelmingly approved the four-school Building for our Future bond.  Lyseth Elementary was renovated in 2020 and now a second school – Presumpscot– will be done in a matter of weeks.  The remaining two schools – Reiche and Longfellow – are less than a year from completion.   

Working as a community, we navigated two-and-a-half years of pandemic instruction, making the best decisions we could with the information we had to keep students and staff safe. We leveraged unprecedented federal funding to create a financial cushion to weather challenging times down the road. 

I am proud to have brought stability to the superintendent role, which previously experienced frequent turnover. Now, new leadership will bring closure to our payroll challenges and work on rebuilding trust with our staff and community and passing the 2023-2024 school budget. I am confident that new interim co-superintendents Aaron Townsend and Melea Nalli – formerly our assistant superintendents – will ably lead that work until the Board selects a permanent new superintendent by June.

I wish nothing but the best for the Portland Public Schools and its people. I believe that the district can and will overcome its current challenge and return to stability and effectiveness – and be stronger for having done so.

 

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

My Monthly Column – December 2022

Awesome Wabanaki Studies learning at PPS

By Xavier Botana

A statewide report this fall praised the Portland Public Schools as an exception to the report’s conclusion that most Maine schools have not complied with a landmark 2001 state law requiring incorporating Wabanaki studies into the curriculum. “There are some successes, including Portland Public Schools, which have collaborated with Wabanaki tribes and experts to reconfigure their curriculum with Wabanaki Studies at the core,” stated the report, a collaborative effort between the Wabanaki Alliance, the Abbe Museum, the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

A team of PPS teachers has been working with tribal advisors, students, parents, and community partners to build a preK-12 Wabanaki Studies curriculum that weaves Wabanaki studies into varied subjects. The curriculum is being piloted this year, and is slated to be in all elementary classrooms in the 2023-2024 school year and all middle and high school social studies classes in 2024-2025. Meanwhile, learning about the “People of the Dawnland,” as the state’s Indigenous peoples are collectively known, is already underway in many classrooms. 

On Dec. 20, some of those students are combining that learning in a unique project in which Casco Bay High School ninth-graders read their original children's books about Wabanaki Studies to third-graders at Talbot Community School and third- and fifth-graders at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, who also have been engaged in Wabanaki studies. Matt Bernstein, CBHS social studies teacher, said, “We are eager to connect and discuss Wabanaki history and culture with our fellow PPS learners.”

Bernstein, recently named 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year, said the children's book project is the culmination of the “We Are On Indigenous Land” expedition at CBHS. The expedition is designed to spread more accurate and truthful information about the history and present of the land now known as Maine and the experiences of Indigenous peoples in this region.

All CBHS ninth-graders have studied Wabanaki history and culture for several months. “We have used a range of sources to unpack past and present Wabanaki experiences in Maine, we have dived deeply into understanding Wabanaki life before and after European settler colonists arrived and the ways that Wabanaki peoples have been systematically marginalized and oppressed since the arrival of settler colonists,” Bernstein said. “We have also celebrated the resistance, perseverance, and contributions of Wabanaki peoples in the face of inequity and attempted genocide.”

After building background knowledge, students chose a topic for deeper study. They researched their topic, analyzed professional children's books, and created storyboards. “Each student has created their own original children’s book about their topic,” Bernstein said. “Their goal is to use these books to contribute to the awesome ongoing Wabanaki Studies learning happening in PPS elementary schools.” 

The books include "The Ways We See the World" by student Reme Isgro, which focuses on unpacking the differences between common Wabanaki and settler colonist worldviews. Another book, "Erase," by student Aimen Ismail, focuses on the removal of Indigenous children from their homes to place them in residential schools and the foster system.

Jes Ellis, Talbot School third-grade teacher, believes the reading session with the ninth-graders will enhance her students’ learning. 

The district’s third-graders have been participating in the first Wabanaki Studies unit designed by district and tribal leaders. Ellis said the learning has centered around the role of the Presumpscot River in local ecology and history, emphasizing Wabanaki relationships with the environment. Students read books, looked at original sources, and investigated the role and impact of dams on rivers and fish populations, she said. 

Now that her students have built their own background knowledge, Ellis said. “I am excited to see how our students connect with the work of the Casco Bay students.”


Tuesday, November 15, 2022

My Monthly Column – November 2022

The Portland Public Schools Wants YOU!

By Xavier Botana

The iconic poster in which Uncle Sam urges service to our country by pointing a finger and saying, “I want YOU” is familiar to most Americans. In this column, I want to borrow Uncle Sam’s words and say: “The Portland Public Schools wants YOU – as substitutes, volunteers and regular employees like educational technicians, teachers and bus drivers!”

 As you know, we’re experiencing vacancies due to the labor shortages across Maine and country that make fully staffing all school districts, including ours, a challenge this year. We’re doing many things to address this problem. 

 We are asking our community to help too – by applying for jobs, volunteering and spreading the word about the opportunities at PPS. Do you have friends or family who would like to move to Maine? A well-paying job with great benefits at PPS could enable them to do that!

 One area of employment need is for ed techs. Nov. 16 is Education Support Professionals Day, a time to honor essential employees such as ed techs, who play a vital role in our students’ success. We are very grateful to our ed techs and are doing all we can to attract and retain more of them. 

 The Board of Public Education recently approved a new contract with our ed techs that increased pay, making us more competitive with neighboring districts. The contract includes annual wage and step pay increases that total 5.4 percent, 4.4 percent, and 4.4 percent over the three-year contract. The total increase over the life of the contract is nearly 15 percent. 

 The Maine Department of Education is moving forward with a program that will pay educational technicians in specialized programs such as our district Breathe, Bridge, and Beach programs an additional $2,500 if they participate in a five-week course. We hope to leverage this for recruitment and retention of ed techs in these programs.

We also held our second hiring fair on Nov. 4, focusing on ed techs and substitute teachers. Both that fair and another we held in early October yielded some badly needed candidates. We will continue holding monthly hiring fairs that focus on areas of employment need. The fairs are an opportunity for candidates to apply and interview in person. We are open to job shares for individuals who can only work part-time.

Substitute Educators Day is Nov. 18. We are always thankful for these employees, and especially so this year. We need more subs! To attract these critical staff, we have increased substitute wages on an interim basis for this school year. The daily pay rate for our long-term substitutes is $238; dedicated subs will get $175; state-certified substitutes will be paid $150; and bachelors-degree substitutes will receive $145.  Substitutes with lesser credentials will see an increase in their pay to $95 per day. 

As another hiring incentive, we are temporarily offering any of our staff who refer a candidate for an educational technician or teacher vacancy a $1,000 referral fee if we hire that person and they complete the school year with us.

We also need more bus drivers, food service staff and custodians, so that will be our next area of hiring focus. For substitute or permanent jobs of all types, go to our Human Resources employment page on our website, https://www.portlandschools.org/, to learn more and apply.

Our schools also need caring volunteers. Can you help out? Learn more on our Volunteer page.

Whether you can be a substitute or a volunteer – or can apply for one of the permanent positions – we need YOU to support public education in Portland!

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

My Monthly Column – October 2022

 School Board will be good fiscal stewards of school budget

 By Xavier Botana

I urge my fellow city residents to join me in voting YES on Question 5 to allow the Portland Board of Public Education to set the school budget before sending it directly to voters. 

Not only do our elected School Board members best understand the needs of students and schools, but they have proved themselves to be responsible fiscal stewards. In my seven years as Portland Public Schools superintendent, I have seen Board members consistently craft budgets that reflect what our students need to succeed while also being cognizant of the pressures we all face as taxpayers.

To give just one example, when our district received an additional $6.2 million in state funding last year, the board voted to use that money to address future budget challenges, which was very fiscally prudent. That extra funding was the result of a successful effort by Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature to boost state education aid to a voter-mandated 55 percent for the first time in Maine’s history.

In July 2021, our School Board wisely set aside more than half of that funding – $3.41 million – to create a debt service relief fund. We have since been able to use that fund to offset annual increases in the budget driven by debt service for the voter-approved $64 million bond for renovations to four of our elementary schools. 

The Board also allocated over half of the remainder of that funding to offset an increase in property taxes at a time when many city residents were grappling with economic hardship due to the pandemic. Their decision resulted in a 0 percent tax increase in Portland’s combined city and school budgets that year.

The state recently expanded districts’ ability to have unallocated reserves – essentially a rainy day fund. I’m happy to report we expect to be near the maximum allowable 9 percent. 

In short, thanks to our school board’s careful fiscal management, the Portland Public Schools is in a better financial position than ever before to meet further budget challenges, while also advancing our work to meet the Portland Promise. 

Question 5 opponents have made much of a recent city audit, which raised concerns about district finance department operations, of which staffing challenges and vacancies due to the current labor shortage were key factors. To remedy those issues, the Board moved swiftly in May to restructure our finance department to shore up our financial operation.

I’ll note that when this audit – which also raised some red flags about city finances – was conducted for FY21, the City Council was the authority that set the bottom line of the school budget. In light of that, the claim that the Council should remain as the arbiter of the school budget to prevent future audit issues rings hollow.

Question 5 doesn’t give the Board a blank check. If voters don’t like the Board’s budget, they’ll reject it. That’s a powerful check on the Board proposing a budget that’s out of step with voters.

Question 5 opponents contend voter turnout in June is too low to be meaningful, but even in years when other ballot issues draw more voters, the school budget wins handily. The higher the turnout, the better our school budget does.

City voters have the final say on the budget, and they have shown by wide margins each year that they prioritize investing in public education. Let’s give our fiscally responsible School Board the authority to use its educational expertise to craft the school budget – and then let’s trust Portland voters to decide whether to pass it. Vote YES on Question 5!


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

My Monthly Column – September 2022

Donating to United Way helps our community thrive

By Xavier Botana

 Portland frequently makes national lists as one of the best places to live and work, but that’s not always true for everyone in our community. Opportunity gaps lead to some students struggling to succeed in school, hardworking families can’t afford housing and other basic necessities, and many of our fellow citizens suffer from preventable health problems. Fortunately, Thrive2027, an effort led by United Way of Southern Maine, is a way for us to work together as a community to address these problems.

United Way of Southern Maine recently awarded more than $10 million in grants to a variety of programs and innovative initiatives across southern Maine, as a strategic investment in Thrive2027. That initiative, for which I serve as co-chair, is a collaborative community vision that centers on three 10-year goals for a measurably better community: giving students a strong start so they can succeed in school; ensuring all community members thrive, not just survive; and helping people live longer, better lives.

We at the Portland Public Schools are very grateful to be the recipient of some of this funding, which is made possible through the generous support of donors to United Way.

Talbot Community School, one of our district’s most diverse schools, has been granted a second-year $80,000 grant for academic and social supports for students and families. 

At Talbot, this funding will help the school to organize, coordinate and promote the assets of the entire community and provide academic enrichment services. The school will be able to continue to provide such after-school programming as choir, tutoring, drama, yoga and creative movement and cooking classes for students throughout the year. As Talbot Principal Ann Hanna has explained, these programs enable students to engage in a variety of activities that support their academic, physical, social, and emotional wellbeing in a safe environment, supported by positive adult and peer relationships. The overall effect will be to strengthen the entire Riverton community, where Talbot is located. 

Portland Adult Education (PAE) also will benefit from these grants. PAE has been awarded nearly $88,000 to help more students attain their high school diplomas and go on to college. In addition, PAE will receive more than $40,000 for the Street Academy, a program that works to ensure homeless youth in Maine have the opportunity to thrive, grow and become productive community members through education and workforce training. 

These grants are just the latest examples of the ways that United Way of Southern Maine helps our students and families succeed and prosper. Previous United Way funding has supported our outdoor education program; helped administer school vaccine clinics; and has seeded a new mobile makerspace – a recently launched STEM learning lab that will travel from school to school. United Way also has contributed to the Foundation for Portland Public Schools’ Families in Crisis Fund, which helps PPS families experiencing unemployment, illness, or other challenging situations so that their children can focus on learning.

We are fortunate to benefit from these resources, but please remember that United Way can’t provide them without the financial support of our community. It’s fall, which means that United Way’s annual workplace campaign is getting underway in the near future.

At the Portland Public Schools, we’ll soon be asking our staff members to donate to United Way as part of our Annual Appeal.  I would like to ask the whole Portland community to consider joining me in giving to the 2022 United Way campaign. Collectively, our donations help students, families and other community members thrive, not just survive.

Monday, August 22, 2022

My Monthly Column – August 2022

 Supporting students and staff for a successful new school year

By Xavier Botana

As August draws to a close, I’m hopeful that everyone got a chance to unwind this summer and is ready to start the new school year with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and purpose. At the same time, I’m also mindful that this year follows an incredibly difficult 2021-2022 school year. That’s why one of our key priorities this year will be redoubling our efforts to support the significant mental and behavioral health needs of our students and educators. That will help ensure a safe and successful 2022-2023 school year.

Challenges of the last school year included COVID surges, labor shortages that pushed everyone to the limit in their jobs, and middle school students giving voice to concerns about racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic experiences in our schools. Stress levels were high.

That’s why the Portland Board of Public Education on June 21 approved investing nearly $1 million in federal COVID-related funding for social emotional learning and supports for students and staff.

Among steps we are taking is responding to the clear feedback we have received from school staff that one of their biggest needs is the need for support for student behavior health. This fall, we’ll be expanding from two to four the number of the district’s full-time board-certified behavior analysts. Those professionals study the behavior of students – including those with developmental disabilities and emotional or social issues – and work with teachers and others to create plans to address those issues. 

We’ll also be adding social workers at East End Community School, Rowe Elementary School and Deering High School’s Breathe day treatment program and expanding the half-time social worker position at Deering’s program for recent immigrants with interrupted learning to full time. In addition, we are adding a clinical services director to supervise and support the district’s growing social work team so that they can most effectively do their work.

At our secondary schools, we’ll be doing additional training, consultation and coaching in multiple areas. They include positive behavior interventions and supports or PBIS, a proactive approach to improve school safety and promote positive behavior, de-escalation techniques, and restorative discipline practices. We also will continue working with Maine Seeds of Peace – a nonprofit that works with youth and educators to help develop skills and relationships to work across lines of difference to create more just and inclusive societies – to assist us in tackling the issues our middle school students protested last spring.

Our educators too are in need of support after this past difficult school year.  Our plan includes paying for educators to tap into a pool of resources to support their social emotional needs connected to their roles as educators. Examples could include The Healing Schools Project, which partners with schools and school districts to prevent burnout and improve working conditions; The Teacher Sanctuary, a virtual retreat center for educator restoration and reflection; RISE Kripalu, a program designed to impact individual and organizational performance through yoga and mindfulness-based practices; and other restorative experiences led by Portland Public Schools educators.

The 2021-2022 school year was very hard. I am grateful to our amazing staff for enduring endless shifts in direction, staff shortages and countless pressures of all sorts. I also want to appreciate the patience and grace of our families and students who also endured those same hardships from their vantage point. We got through it by working together. By continuing to do that, I know that we can make the 2022-2023 school year a successful one.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

My Monthly Column – June 2022

Ending this school year with gratitude

By Xavier Botana

The Portland Public Schools has just ended an incredibly challenging school year. On top of the everyday demands of running our schools, we had to cope with COVID surges and a labor shortage that stretched our capacity to run school buses and staff classrooms. Yet I am ending this year with a sense of gratitude – for a variety of reasons.

First, I’m deeply grateful to Portland voters for their decisive approval of our $133.1 million budget for the 2022-2023 school year, by a margin of 3 to 1. I'm so proud to live and work in a community that consistently shows it values public education.

I also am grateful to our staff and our Board of Public Education for working very hard over the past six months to bring forward this responsible FY23 budget, which balances the needs of our district and the economic realities we’re all facing. I’m very thankful as well to City Councilors and our mayor for supporting this budget. The approved budget retains current programs and services and covers increased costs for salaries, benefits and debt service. Most importantly, it ensures that our district maintains the equity investments we have made to support our students experiencing opportunity gaps.

I'm grateful too for the broad field of candidates who ran for three vacant Board seats June 14, because that shows community commitment to being engaged in public education. Congratulations and welcome to new Board members Sarah Lentz, Ben Grant and Sarah Brydon!

I also feel incredibly grateful to our amazing Portland Public Schools People for persevering through all the challenges we faced this year. No matter what came our way, their dedication to helping our students succeed never wavered. This school year has demonstrated the value of all us working together and supporting one another. 

We need to continue to do that in order to create a consistently welcoming, safe and responsive school experience for all our students. Our middle school students recently voiced complaints about disparate treatment of students of color and students who are LGBTQ+. These are problems that exist system-wide, and our data backs that up. 

At a June 7 Board workshop, we discussed steps we will be taking immediately, over the summer and into the next school year to support students and work with staff to ensure a more inclusive environment in our schools. I am confident that our Portland Public Schools People are determined and committed to meeting this challenge head-on. As an administration, we pledge to help them to develop their capacity to do so.

I also am grateful to be part of a community that came together June 11 for Portland’s March for Our Lives rally to advocate for gun reform. We called for change so that students, teachers and other Americans don’t become the victims of the gun violence that happens nationwide every day. In my remarks at the rally, I echoed the Board’s 2018 resolution against gun violence following the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. That resolution called upon Congress and state legislatures to prioritize the protection of students and school employees by passing legislation more effectively regulating access to firearms through such measures as closing loopholes in background checks, funding public health research on firearms-related issues and advancing mental health supports.

I am thankful Portland has a Board that is proactive on behalf of our students and staff. It is now up to all of us to make it clear to our elected leaders that gun violence must end now. As the March for Our Lives participants said: “Enough is enough!”