Tuesday, December 19, 2017

My monthly column – December 2017

Inclusivity, Diversity for the Holidays
By Xavier Botana
When I was growing up, I took the Christmas holiday for granted. The only debate was what to eat with my family’s traditional roast pork. Should we have Cuban dishes, such as yuca and black beans, or Spanish dishes like besugo al horno (roast snapper), favored by family members from Spain?
Over the years, my world expanded beyond my own childhood experience. I came to realize that not only do different families have different holiday traditions, but also that many of us don’t celebrate the same holidays. Today, as superintendent of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, it is important for me to ensure that any holiday observances in our schools reaffirm the Portland Public Schools’ commitment to our great diversity and affirm our respect for different traditions.
Portland’s public schools are a microcosm of today’s global world. One-third of our students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – a total of 61 languages district wide. Our schools reflect an increasingly diverse society with many religious, ethnic and cultural traditions and beliefs that are meaningful to our students and their families and other members of the Portland community.
We do our best to accommodate the diverse religious beliefs of our students. Because of the traditional school schedule, school vacation coincides with many Christian holidays. For students from other traditions, some religious holidays may require students to miss school, and those are excused absences. We provide schools with a list of different faiths’ major religious holidays each year, and ask our educators to not schedule important school activities or exams on those holidays.
The diverse holidays and traditions cherished by our students and families provide opportunities for learning, further creating awareness and sensitivity to our diverse society. However, our responsibility as educators is to ensure that any holiday observances have an educational purpose. We also must take a thoughtful approach to such lessons in the classroom.
For example, we must ensure that lessons don’t make any students feel excluded or forced to identify with a religion that is not their own.
Recently, the Maine Department of Education recognized the importance of being sensitive to our growing diversity by sharing information with school districts. We recently shared with our schools an article that highlights other considerations educators need to take into account at holiday times.
One key point is that we need to consider educational goals when celebrating a holiday or tradition. Is our goal to have students learn about different cultures or traditions, for example, or simply to add some fun to the classroom? Are we accomplishing those goals when some students can’t participate? Some cultures and religions don’t celebrate Halloween or Christmas, for example. Are there other, more inclusive ways to accomplish our goals?
Holiday decorations for the sake of decoration are discouraged. Symbols or artifacts of any holiday should be used as educational resources in the teaching-learning process.
We also need to include diverse voices in planning holiday or cultural observances. If everyone at the table is of the same tradition, it makes it more likely we could overlook sensitive points important to others.
Columbus Day is one example of that. When the Portland Board of Public Education sets the district’s calendar for next school year, the board will consider following the example of the Portland City Council regarding that holiday. The council has voted to designate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.
For years, we’ve seen the Columbus story only from the viewpoint of the European settlers who “discovered” America, and not from the perspective of those who were already living here. Native Americans were decimated by disease and warfare as the result of Columbus’ discovery, and we need to acknowledge that.
This change is not about excluding Italian Americans. Many Italians past and present have made tremendous contributions to society and are worthy of recognition. This is about including the voices of indigenous people in the historical discussion.
I’ll close with this: Christmas is an important part of my family’s tradition. To those who also celebrate it, merry Christmas. To everyone else, happy holidays – whenever and however you celebrate them.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

My Monthly Column – November 2017

The Future is Now for PPS Elementary Schools
By Xavier Botana

Thank you, Portland voters, for making your commitment to quality education in modern facilities so clear at the polls!

On Nov. 7, Portland voters overwhelmingly voted to approve a proposal to renovate four aging elementary schools: Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche. The voters’ approval authorizes the city to bond $64.3 million to fund these renovations. These buildings have been part of a plan called “Buildings for Our Future,” which was launched in 2014 to address their significant deficiencies. Now, thanks to Portland voters, we are in a position to upgrade these facilities. These upgrades will enable all elementary students in the district to attend safe schools designed for 21st century learning.

Portland’s public schools are unique in Maine. That’s not just because we’re the largest and most diverse school district in the state, but also because of the tremendous commitment by our community to its schools. Portlanders are generous with their schools because they recognize that great schools are inextricably linked to our community’s vitality. As a school leader in this state, I don’t take this for granted and I am deeply grateful to live and work in this amazing community.

Renovations at Longfellow, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche are necessary to transform these schools into the kind of modern learning environments that will best prepare our students for college and career success in the 21st century.

These renovations are critically needed now because of accessibility and safety issues. Problems include asbestos and auditoriums that don’t meet modern safety codes, and heating systems and windows that are outdated. Several of the schools are overcrowded.

We strive to make improvements to our school buildings each year, prioritized based on the needs of each facility and available funding in the budget, but we haven’t been able to make significant capital investment to these schools since they were built 40 to 65 years ago. Last year, we completed a comprehensive analysis of all our facilities. This study shows that we have deferred and expected maintenance costs of $321 million in the next 20 years.

Renovating our elementary schools will help us fulfill the Portland Public Schools Promise.

As I discussed in detail in last month’s column, we have promised the Portland community to prepare and empower our students for their future by working to realize the four goals established in our Comprehensive Plan – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity, and People.

As part of the Portland Promise, we’ve also begun a community campaign to highlight the unique educational experience that Portland’s public schools offer and illustrate why our district is a great choice for families. Our updated school buildings will help convince even more families that Portland is right for them.

Now that the bond package has been approved, we can begin the process for proceeding with the work to renovate the four schools.

The next step is to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for architectural work.

We also will engage with the Portland Board of Public Education, staff, families and the community concerning the order in which the projects will proceed. That process will include the sequencing of the projects and the specific timeline for initiating and completing each renovation. We look forward to the day when all four of these elementary schools are finally up to 21st century learning standards.

It takes a community to ensure that we meet our commitment of preparing our students to succeed in college and career.  Thank you once again, Portland, for being that generous and supportive community!

I’ll close with just a few words about Veteran’s Day, which was this past Saturday, Nov. 11, and observed by many on Nov. 10. Our armed forces are an important and respected institution and this day was set aside to celebrate the service of all U.S. military veterans. Let’s all take the opportunity this month to acknowledge the contributions of our veterans. I especially want to recognize members of our school community: staff, parents and graduates who are veterans or are currently serving in the military. Thank you all for the sacrifices that you have made to serve our country.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My Monthly Column – October 2017

Our Promise to the Portland Community
By Xavier Botana

Earlier this month, the Portland Public Schools launched “The Portland Public Schools Promise” – our pledge to the community that our graduates will be prepared and empowered to succeed. The Portland Promise is our assurance to our students, their families and our stakeholders about what they can expect from their district.

Our district is the largest and most diverse in Maine. More than one third of our students come from homes where a primary language other than English is spoken. That means that in our classrooms, students learn side by side with students who have different worldviews and experiences. Together, they build new knowledge by challenging each other to think beyond their specific experiences and conditions.

Portland residents support their city’s public schools because they recognize that the vitality of their community is inextricably linked to quality schools.

Portland residents also recognize that our diversity is one of the greatest attributes of our school system. 

Another reason Portland residents support their public schools is because they believe – as our Founding Fathers such as James Madison did – that education and the preservation of our democracy are intertwined. 

The Portland Promise is the result of the work of the Portland Board of Public Education, Portland Public Schools faculty, staff and students and parents and partners – all working together to determine how to best fulfill our school district’s unique potential.

Through this initiative, we promise to prepare and empower our students for their future by working to realize the four goals established in our updated Comprehensive Plan – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity, and People.

I’ve discussed these goals here previously, but here’s a brief summary and our five-year targets for these goals:

·      Achievement: Every student will have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed at the next level and be empowered with a plan for what to do with that knowledge. Five-year target: 92 percent of our students will graduate college and career ready.

·      Whole Student: We do more than teach academics.  We are responsible for exposing students to a well-rounded education that connects them to their diverse talents and helps them develop the skills, habits and mindset for success in life. Our five-year target: 95 percent of our students will feel valued and connected to a caring adult at our school.

·      Equity: Our data shows that our financially advantaged students compete favorably with students from other school districts. Research suggests that, in fact, they’re better off because they learn in the diverse environment that is the Portland Public Schools. However, our data also shows that our financially disadvantaged students do not have the same outcomes. We are not alone in this challenge.  A recent report by the ACLU of Maine found that Maine students who are immigrants and members of minority groups experience harassment and discrimination in schools throughout the state. While Portland is a leader in providing safe and inclusive learning environments, there still is significant work to be done. As a district – as a community – we cannot allow factors such as zip codes, family income or education level, race or native language to define our outcomes. Our five-year target: a 50 percent reduction in academic achievement and opportunity gaps.

·      People: Without the most talented and diverse staff working as one to achieve the other three goals, we won’t be able to achieve them. We are committing to providing a work environment where our staff members have the skills and support that they need to realize expectations. Our five-year target: 95 percent of staff members are satisfied and engaged in the work that they do.

Our Portland Promise campaign is now underway. We’ll be communicating its message to the community through such means as posters on buses, banners on city streets, and announcements on the district’s website and in the community.

The campaign will showcase a number of our successful graduates who are doing amazing things in our community. Their experiences make it clear that the Portland Public Schools is a great choice for families and deserving of community support.

You can read about our graduates and learn more about the Portland Promise on our new webpage: http://www.portlandschoolspromise.org

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My Monthly Column – September 2017

Portland Public Schools Supports Dreams of All Students
By Xavier Botana

It’s a new school year and our classrooms at the Portland Public Schools – Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – are filled with “dreamers.” I consider all our students to be dreamers because they all want to achieve the American Dream of getting a good education that prepares them for success in college and career. Our school district strives to encourage, nurture and support the future dreams of all our students, regardless of their immigration status.

Recent events – such as the racist-inspired violence in Charlottesville and the decision to end the federal “Dreamers” program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children to continue to live, work and study here – make this a good time to reaffirm the Portland Public Schools’ values.

At the Portland Public Schools, we recognize that our diversity is our greatest strength. For that reason, it is important for all of us to celebrate, respect, and honor our differences; promote practices that advance inclusion, and affirm our commitment to equity and social justice as part of the Portland Public Schools experience. We affirm that no one in our school community should fear for their safety because of their country of origin, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion – or immigration status.

This past March, the Portland Board of Public Education passed a resolution underscoring that our district is a safe and welcoming community for all.

The board’s Resolution Affirming its Commitment to the Education of All Children & Making Portland Public Schools a Safe Haven for Students and Families stresses that our district is committed to following a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that no public school district can deny students an education based on their immigration status.

The resolution states: “The Board declares Portland Public Schools to be a safe haven for students and families threatened by immigration enforcement or discrimination, to the fullest extent permitted by law.”

This also is the time of year to recognize and celebrate the contributions, heritage and culture of Hispanic Americans, during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Hispanics and Latinos constitute the second largest racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

They also account for the vast majority of Dreamers – recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That 2012 program has allowed nearly 800,000 people to live and work in the U.S. without fearing deportation. Now, Washington plans to stop renewing DACA work permits. The program ends in March unless Congress enacts a legislative solution.

Nearly 80 percent of Dreamers come from Mexico, a country right on our border. Those Dreamers included a young man who recently gave his life while trying to save fellow Texans from the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. News reports say Alonso Guillén, 31, a radio station host, died when his rescue boat struck a bridge, throwing him into the floodwaters. Guillén had been in the U.S. since he was 15.

As Maine Sen. Susan Collins recently tweeted, Dreamers were brought to the U.S. as children and in many cases know only our country as home. Sen. Collins says Congress must act quickly to protect the Dreamers. I agree.

The Dreamers’ dilemma resonates with me because I was brought here as a child from Cuba. My family had to leave our homeland because of Castro. We were fortunate to enter the U.S. legally. However, as a 2-year-old, I had no say in the decision to become an immigrant, just like the Dreamers of today.

When my family came from Cuba, this country welcomed us with open arms. We've worked hard to repay that welcome. Dreamers also study and work hard. Their professions include being teachers and nurses, business owners and employees of Fortune 500 companies, and they also serve in our military. Dreamers are valuable and productive members of our society. Alonso Guillén serves as just one example of their contributions to this nation.

Our district’s policies, values and commitments require us to stand up against those who would intimidate and exclude, rather than nurture and include. This is what we believe; this is what we teach; this is what we defend.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My Monthly Column – August 2017

Welcoming Students, Families Back to School
By Xavier Botana

August is a time to savor the last weeks of summer. It’s also a time to for students – with help from their parents – to start getting ready for the new school year.

Those two statements aren’t contradictory. There are a few simple things that students and parents can do to help make the transition to school easier while still allowing time for summertime fun. They range from making sure students are registered before the first day of school to gradually switching to school sleep routines a week before school starts.

In Portland, the first day of school for students in grades 1-12 is Wednesday, Aug. 30. There is no school on Friday, Sept. 1, so everyone can enjoy a long Labor Day weekend. Then school resumes on Tuesday, Sept. 5, for all students, including pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Sept. 5 is their first day.

To view the Portland Public Schools’ 2017-2018 calendar, go to our website, http://www.portlandschools.org, and click on “News & Calendars.”

If your child is new to the district and not yet registered for the new school year, please make an appointment at your neighborhood school to enroll your child. For more information, go to “School Enrollment” under the blue “Parents” box on our website.

Please don’t wait for the first day of school to register your child. It’s difficult for our schools to plan if they don’t know how many students they’ll have in the fall.

Also, many of our schools hold back-to-school barbeques, ice cream socials and other welcoming orientation events before the first day of school. You don’t want your child to miss out on those! Familiarizing students with their school and teachers beforehand helps quell first-day-of-school anxiety. Also, families are our valued partners when it comes to educating our students, so we look forward to meeting students’ families!

To find out about the events at your child’s school, go to that school’s website. You can link to school websites from the district website under the “Schools” tab.

I’d also like to remind parents of a new addition this year to the immunizations that Maine state law requires for students. Effective for the 2017-2018 school year, all Maine students entering seventh grade will need to receive one dose of Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine before attendance is allowed. Pertussis (whooping cough) is a very contagious and potentially serious disease, so this new requirement will protect your child and others.

Also, families should be aware that this year’s ninth-graders will be the first to comply with a new state’s new proficiency-based high school graduation requirements. The Class of 2021 must demonstrate proficiency in language arts, math, science, and social studies.

This year, all high schools in Portland will align to common baseline expectations related to moving in the direction of a proficiency-based system. To facilitate that transition, we have decided that course grades and report cards won’t change. Instead, ninth-grade teachers will keep track of students’ mastery of graduation performance indicators in a system that parallels the traditional grade reporting.

I’ll be explaining this transition in more detail in an upcoming letter to parents. I want to stress here that we see great value in a proficiency-based learning model – which ultimately is about being clear about what our students need to know and be able to do in order to graduate from high school.

Finally, as the new school year begins, I want to remind parents how important it is that students attend school, starting from the first day. The start of school is a critical time when students and teachers get to know one another, build relationships and establish important classroom routines.

Students also need to continue attending throughout the rest of the year. According to Count ME In, the Maine affiliate of the national organization Attendance Works, “students who miss school frequently are less likely to read proficiently by third grade, more likely to fail in middle school and eventually drop out of high school. Missing school, even in kindergarten, has consequences.”

Schools, students, families and the Portland community: Let’s all work together to have a great start to the new school year!