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!”

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

My Monthly Column – May 2022

 Class of 2022 earns an “R” – for resilience

 By Xavier Botana

High school graduation season is my favorite time of year. From their first day of preschool, our goal as educators is to ensure students succeed as learners. Seeing them graduate from high school is as gratifying to us as it is to them. I will be particularly proud to see the Portland Public Schools Class of 2022 graduate in June. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic upended much of their high school experience, this class has persevered with amazing determination to reach this milestone. 

Four years ago, members of the Class of 2022 were excited as they walked through the doors of our three high schools – Portland, Deering and Casco Bay – as freshmen. They looked forward to this new learning experience, not knowing at that time that a pandemic would make 2018-2019 their only normal year of high school.

They successfully navigated that first year to become sophomores. But COVID changed their lives abruptly in March 2020. Due to the pandemic, we suddenly closed our school doors that month for what we thought would be two weeks. Instead, our buildings had to stay shuttered for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year. The Class of 2022’s last day of traditional in-person school turned out to be Friday, March 13.

The class suddenly had to adjust to an immediate switch to remote learning. They had to forgo in-person connections with teachers and classmates and instead learn virtually through Zoom and Google Classroom. Words like “mask,” “social distancing” and “quarantine” became part of their everyday vocabulary.

Their junior year was similarly challenging. While many of our students at other levels had the opportunity of hybrid learning in the 2020-2021 school year, we had to provide our older high school students with instruction that was largely remote for much of that year, due to a variety of factors. It wasn’t until that April, as vaccines became more widely available, that we were able to resume some in-person classes for our 10th- through 12th-graders.   

We had hoped this 2021-2022 school year could return to normal. We resumed in-person learning for all students, but as variants led to a rise in cases at various times over this year, we still had to follow a number of COVID precautions, such as mandatory masking, to keep everyone as safe as possible. We made masking optional on March 14 but on May 12, returned to required masking due to cases increasing again.

The pandemic has caused the Class of 2022 to miss out on many of the social emotional connections and treasured rituals that are part of the high school experience. Throughout all these challenges, however, class members kept their eyes on the prize and continued successfully to complete their coursework to make it to graduation. Many also had outstanding achievements in academics, athletics and other activities.

At graduation in June, I’ll be congratulating the Class of 2022 collectively for a variety of accomplishments, including being accepted by many institutions of higher learning, including elite colleges and universities across the country and in Maine and winning a couple million dollars in scholarships and grants. 

But each and every individual in the class also has earned an “R” – for resilience – for the way they showed great fortitude in the face of unprecedented change to achieve their educational goals. Whatever they set out to do next, this trait will help them accomplish it.

Congratulations, Class of 2022! You’ve demonstrated that you’re prepared and empowered to succeed in the college and career paths that lie ahead. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

My Monthly Column – April 2022

 Time to celebrate school employees!

 By Xavier Botana

This time of year serves as a reminder that “It takes a village to educate a child.” That’s because April and May have many days and weeks designated to recognize and honor a wide variety of school employees. These employees’ jobs are very different, but what they all have in common is that each plays an essential role in helping our students succeed. 

For example, National Assistant Principal Week was in early April. A key responsibility of assistant principals is ensuring all students have someone that knows them well and understands their needs. Thank you to our amazing assistant principals for all they do to make sure our students connect and engage with school.

National School Librarian Day was April 4. We appreciate our librarians for not only creating welcoming learning centers with diverse resources but for being fierce guardians of access to appropriate literature that challenges students to think, question and grow. 

Paraprofessional Appreciation Day, honoring educators such as educational technicians, was April 6. We are so grateful to our ed techs for the wide variety of work they do to support students and teachers. They punch far above their weight!

April 27 is National Administrative Professionals’ Day. We deeply appreciate these vital staff members at our schools and other facilities, including Central Office. Our district simply could not function without everything they do, often behind the scenes. They’re the heart of our district!

April also is Occupational Therapy Month. We’re so grateful to our expert occupational therapists for all their work to reduce barriers to participation for our students and help them succeed!

School Principals Day is May 1. Principals shape their schools’ learning environments and climates through their support and guidance of teachers and other staff and the relationships they forge with students and families. The fact that we have great public schools in Portland is a testament to the amazing educators leading them!

May 2 through 6 is National Teacher Appreciation Week and May 3 is National Teacher Day. The pandemic has given us an even greater appreciation of teachers. We saw them transition to new ways of teaching and learning, and rise to the challenge of finding the best ways to connect with students and engage them in learning. We’re so grateful to our dedicated teachers for all they do.

National Interpreter Appreciation Day is May 4. Our deepest thanks to our multilingual parent community specialists, who assist our families as interpreters, translators and connectors in a wide range of situations, and also help families with food insecurity and employment, housing and health issues.  

On May 6, we celebrate School Lunch Hero Day. Through remote learning, hybrid learning and in-person learning, our Food Service team has made sure students always had access to school meals. Now they’re working with community partners to introduce culturally important foods to our school lunch menus. They truly are heroes!

National School Nurse Day is May 11. A huge shoutout to our school nurses for the pivotal and pressure-packed role they have played throughout this pandemic to keep students and staff safe and learning!

 Speech Pathologist Day is May 18. Thank you to our speech-language pathologists for their tireless work to help students with speech and language problems that can make it hard for them to succeed in school. 

Unfortunately, I don’t have space here to highlight all employee groups here, but please know I am deeply grateful to ALL our PPS People. Thank you to each and every member of our PPS “village” for what you do each day to help students succeed!

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

My Monthly Column – March 2022

Marking a Pandemic Milestone

By Xavier Botana

This week, almost two years to the day that we shut our doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing a mask at the Portland Public Schools became optional for our staff and students. This is a milestone moment for us, so I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight this and other changes in our health and safety protocols, acknowledge our staff, students and families for their patience and cooperation in helping us get to this point, and look ahead.

We feel safe going to optional masking at this point in time due to our data showing continued low cases district-wide, and guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and the Maine Department of Education, as well as that of our district medical advisers. 

March 9 was the date that the state set for recommending masks in schools be optional. We waited until this week to transition to optional masking in our district. 

We moved more cautiously and deliberately to ensure that we considered all health and safety factors in making this big change. We are still requiring masks in some instances. Staff and students who test positive will be required to wear a mask if they return to school before their 10th day of quarantine.

“Masking optional” means that staff and students can choose whether to wear masks or not. I want to stress that anyone who wants to continue to wear a mask at the Portland Public Schools should do so. It’s very important that everyone in our community be respectful of the personal choices that staff and students make when it comes to wearing a mask.

We encourage students and staff who have health issues personally or have someone in their immediate households who has health issues to consult with their doctors to seek guidance about wearing masks. We are able to help students obtain masks that are recommended by their healthcare provider.

In addition to optional masking, we have made some changes to our other COVID precautions. We have eliminated limits on indoor gatherings, so more school events can be held indoors instead of outdoors. We’re allowing for increased visitor access. Volunteers must continue to be vaccinated, but masking for them will be optional too. We’ve lifted our restrictions on classroom and lunchroom configurations. We will also be turning water fountains back on as soon as we can complete all of the required testing. Learn more details.

We will continue our pooled testing, hygiene and symptom checks and will keep on encouraging vaccination. All of these measures remain key tools that will allow us to continue to keep our schools safe. We will monitor federal CDC COVID-19 Community Levels, state wastewater testing, and our pooled testing to determine if we need to make any district-wide or school-specific changes to our mitigation strategies. Those could include returning to requiring masking in a specific school or district-wide. 

I am deeply grateful to everyone – staff, students and families – for all they have done to adhere to these and other protocols over the past two years. It has not been easy, but everyone’s collective efforts have helped keep our schools open.

Is this pandemic nearing an end? While the news is encouraging, COVID-19 has thrown us curve balls before. We celebrate this milestone, but we continue to exercise caution.

However, we have reason to hope. Daylight savings has begun, spring is around the corner and we are able to see the smiles of students in our classrooms for the first time in two years. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

My Monthly Column – February 2022

FY23 School Budget Goal: Keep Focus on Teaching and Learning

By Xavier Botana

In just one month, I’ll present my new school budget proposal to the Portland Board of Public Education. While we don’t have all of our numbers yet, steep increases in the cost of living and reduced state funding will make for a challenging road ahead as we plan the FY23 budget. 

Each year, our Portland Public Schools budget has a theme. Last year, the FY22 budget’s core theme was “Advancing Equity.” The theme for our budget for the 2022-2023 school year is: “Keeping the focus on teaching and learning.” This theme communicates our clear direction and that this budget will endeavor to maintain our momentum toward our Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student and People – which all center around our key fourth goal of Equity.

We are Maine’s largest school district and also the most diverse. Because we value that diversity, we have made it our mission to repay the educational debts and close the opportunity gaps between our economically disadvantaged students (who are mostly students of color, English language learners (ELL), and students with disabilities) and our more advantaged students in Portland (who tend to be white). 

Our FY22 budget contained a historic $3 million in equity investments. Those included hiring more ELL teachers, adding multilingual social workers and investing in multilingual family engagement specialists, increased staff diversity and inclusion efforts and the expansion of our prekindergarten program. Over the past five years, we have invested over $13 million dollars in these efforts. While significant, that’s a relatively small portion of our overall budget.

Our community faces fiscal challenges as we work to stay the course. 

We recently received our projected state and local contribution from the state Essential Programs and Services (EPS) formula, which the state uses to allocate education funds to Maine communities. Due to a variety of factors in that formula, Portland’s share of state education funding this budget cycle will be about $1.5 million less than we received for FY22. 

One key reason for the reduction is that EPS allots less state funding to communities that have high property valuation, expecting those communities to be able to contribute more locally to their students’ education. ​​Portland’s valuation is extremely high, so our share from the state is less. EPS also allocates more money to districts that gain students. Instead, our enrollment is down.

In addition to receiving less state aid, rising costs for all manner of goods and services and contracted increases for our Portland Public Schools People will contribute to making this another challenging budget year. Finally, our debt service is increasing as we bond the renovations to our four elementary schools that were approved by voters in 2017.

I am grateful we have a School Board, a City Council and a community that believe in the value of public education and in making that education accessible for all. I am also grateful that we have significant federal coronavirus-related funding to help to bolster our efforts.

The public plays a key role in our budget process, which includes multiple opportunities for public input and concludes with a voter referendum on June 14. We’ll start with a Zoom public budget forum on March 7 to discuss our goals for the FY23 budget in more detail and answer questions. I invite the Portland community to attend. Also, I hope you stay engaged and involved so we can work together to achieve an FY23 school budget that not only maintains current programs and services, but also the equity investments at the center of our work. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

My Monthly Column – January 2022

PPS aims to be a leader in teaching Black history

By Xavier Botana

In January, we observe Martin Luther King Day, honoring his life and legacy. Black History Month comes in February, a time to celebrate Black Americans’ achievements and recognize their central role in U.S. history. That makes this an opportune time for me to highlight the Black history curriculum that the Portland Public Schools is developing, and to share our vision around this work.

This curriculum will be essential to help our students gain a full understanding of the history of this country and Maine. This curriculum is being created with the recognition that Black history, achievements, excellence and humanity have all systemically been left out of the broad curriculum across the nation, including here at the Portland Public Schools.

The research is clear that it is important for students to be able to see themselves in what they learn in school. To date, our curriculum has done that much better for some students than others. As Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, incorporating Black history is part of our focus on equity, the central goal of the Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan.  

We’re in the early stages of creating this curriculum. This school year, a group of our teachers and Black education advisors are drafting an outline for a Black history curriculum for our students in preK through grade 12. Curriculum development will be in process during the 2022-2023 school year. We intend for this curriculum to offer opportunities for interdisciplinary learning across all content areas, not just social studies. Implementation of the curriculum will be supported by professional development for all teachers.

Our advisors have direct ties to Black communities and education needs. In response to their guidance, the curriculum we draft will not begin and end with slavery, as many curriculums do. Instead, it will focus on the humanity, resistance, advocacy and, above all, achievements of Black cultures from the ancient and the international to the contemporary and the local. 

The curriculum will use local history to contextualize and connect national and international histories, events, topics, and themes with Maine and New England. To aid in that, the group drafting the curriculum has partnered with the Atlantic Black Box project, a grassroots historical recovery project committed to surfacing New England’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade, while re-centering the stories of its racially marginalized groups. 

Our curriculum will strive to celebrate Black excellence, as defined by Dr. Bettina Love. It will serve as a mirror for Black students from diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and provide a window into that excellence for the rest of our diverse student body.

Our work dovetails with a new Maine education requirement that was signed into law in June.  The new law requires that African American studies and Maine African American studies be added to what Maine students learn in their American history and Maine studies courses.  

As with our Wabanaki Studies curriculum, our Black history curriculum work isn’t about compliance, but it positions us in an important leadership role in our state. Above all, it will help our students truly understand Maine’s history and its connection to the world and will allow them to see themselves in that history. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

My Monthly Column – December 2021

 All PPS staff play role in supporting teaching and learning 

By Xavier Botana

In my past three columns, I’ve written about the Portland Public Schools’ four teaching and learning priorities for this school year. All the priorities are aligned to our work of realizing our Portland Promise goals of Achievement, Whole Student, People and Equity.

I’ve already detailed three of these priorities: strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning; creating safe and equitable school environments; and fostering a district-wide culture where staff members feel supported to grow professionally in ways that best serve students and families.

The final priority – enabling effective school operations – is the subject of this column.

This fourth priority is designed to elevate and position the work of everyone in the system toward the three other priorities. It is about enabling our teaching and learning staff to focus on that work by minimizing the distractions that keep them from doing that. Creating safe, clean and well-functioning learning environments and effective and responsive support systems help reduce time spent on operational issues by teaching staff, so they can do what they do best.

Everyone in our organization – no matter what their job – has a role in enabling effective school operations because that will advance the other priorities.

For example, all of us have the responsibility of following our health and safety protocols that allow our schools to function in the midst of COVID-19.

The mitigation measures in place this year, including masking, pooled testing and vaccines, have meant fewer students have had to quarantine and lose instruction. Staff members at all levels of the organization – including custodians, bus drivers and nurses – are making sure these measures are followed. By doing that, they play a vital role in ensuring the majority of our students remain able to learn.

Our social workers, Community Partnership Team and Food Service staff work together to get school meals to students who need to quarantine or isolate.  Along with community agencies such as the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, they established a group of 35 volunteers to drive meals to the homes of quarantined students. This ensures our students don’t go hungry because they can’t be in school.

School bus transportation continues to challenge our district, due to an acute bus-driver shortage. We’ve had to cancel buses when we don’t have drivers. I am grateful our community has been able to largely meet the transportation needs through a variety of means. I am also so very grateful to all our staff who have found ways to support our cancellations by organizing walking school buses and driving students to school.  We continue to explore contractual relationships and work to procure smaller vehicles that don’t require a commercial driver’s license to drive.  We are also recruiting volunteers to help with our walking school buses when we cancel buses. Anyone interested in volunteering should fill out an application at this link

We have three schools undergoing major renovations under the Buildings for Our Future program and over $9 million in additional construction and renovation efforts. Making sure we keep our facilities in good working order while not disrupting our students’ learning is the challenge facing our facilities and maintenance staff and something we are tracking carefully.

To sum up, the expression “it takes a village” applies to all four of these priorities I have written about in the past few months. All of us at the Portland Public Schools doing our part will enable us to strengthen core instruction; ensure our school environments are safe and equitable; and deepen our professional learning culture.