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.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

My Monthly Column – November 2020

Curriculum coordinators are leaders in learning

By Xavier Botana

To help our students succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world, the Portland Public Schools constantly works to improve what we teach and how we teach it. Our curriculum coordinators lead this work, developing instructional materials, making sure they meet standards and helping bring curriculum to life by supporting teachers. 

This month, as part of an ongoing series in which I’m featuring members of our outstanding PPS staff, I’m focusing on one of our curriculum leaders: science teacher Brooke Teller

Brooke is not only our STEM Coordinator but took on the role of Outdoor Learning Coordinator during COVID-19. Under her leadership, our district has developed such a successful outdoor learning program that it has drawn wide-ranging media attention, including from The New York Times, NBC News and U.S. News & World Report. 

Brooke joined our district in 2007 as Casco Bay High School’s founding chemistry teacher and was Cumberland County’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.

Here’s more about Brooke:

Did you always want to be a teacher?

When I graduated from Smith College with a biology degree, I was actually thinking about becoming a physician’s assistant. But I ended up in the alternate route teacher certification program in Connecticut, where I grew up. I went back and taught at my high school and then at two different start-up schools in Connecticut before moving to Maine. I think I’ve always been a teacher. I spent summers in high school and college teaching swim lessons to young swimmers and coaching swim teams, and I’ve always loved doing something outside from my time as a kid at the nature center or playing outside. The science and teaching aspects were always part of who I am.

How did you become both our STEM and outdoor learning coordinator?

I was at Casco Bay for 11 years and then applied for a sabbatical to work with elementary teachers on science. I became STEM coordinator in 2019 to continue that elementary science work and start looking at our 6-12 science curriculum. Then, in our planning for this fall, it became clear that being outside was safer in terms of transmission of the virus. It was a role that needed to be filled and I stepped in to do that. 

Are STEM and outdoor learning related?

I’m seeing a lot of intersections between outdoor learning and science. For example, in our science curriculum, we’re starting to look at phenomena – something for students to notice, look at and wonder. When students are outside, they might notice that the leaves are turning colors, and then teachers can use that to teach science concepts because students have had a chance to think about what’s going on and hypothesize. They can figure out what happens to the pigments in the leaves and why they’re falling off the trees. 

What are examples of what an outdoor learning coordinator does?

I was able to organize outdoor learning training opportunities for teachers before school started. I can’t be at every school at once, so I helped to recruit building liaisons that I’m in contact with about outdoor learning. I was able to coordinate support from so many community partners, like the City of Portland, that really helped with tree stump seats, and many local businesses.

What drives you?

It’s all about our students – what I can do to give them the best experience they can have. Like right now, I’m working on making sure students have hats and gloves to be warm when they’re outside – so they have the opportunity to look around, be curious and ignite the scientist inside of them.


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

My Monthly Column – October 2020

PPS is grateful for our school nurses

By Xavier Botana

I was thrilled this month when Talbot Community School teacher Cindy Soule was selected as Maine’s 2021 Teacher of the Year. But I wasn’t surprised that a Portland Public Schools educator won such an honor – because we have so many exemplary staff members. 

The People goal in our Portland Promise commits us to attracting and retaining the best and the brightest. Our staff members are dedicated and passionate about helping our students succeed. They deserve our gratitude. That’s why in the coming year, I’ll be featuring the voices of individual staff members telling why they do the work they do, why it’s important and what they find most rewarding. 

This month, I’ll highlight the importance of school nurses – particularly during this pandemic – by introducing Lizzie Nalli. She’s a skilled and caring nurse in her second year serving students at Deering High School. Lizzie grew up in Cumberland, graduated from Greely High School and earned a nursing degree from Georgetown University and a master’s in public health from George Washington University. After working in Washington, D.C. and New York City, Lizzie and her husband returned to Maine about seven years ago to raise their children. 

Why did you become a nurse?
I was one of those people who applied straight to nursing school from high school. I always felt I’d be a good fit. I liked science and those types of subjects in school and I really like people. I enjoy the diversity of what you can do with a nursing degree, working in different locations and specialties.

Your work has included many different types of nursing, including working in the ER. What drew you to school nursing?
I wanted to work in preventive health and health care promotion and I didn’t want to leave patient care. In a school, there’s a lot of room for health promotion and interacting with students. 

What was a typical day for you at DHS before COVID-19? 
I would see a fair number of kids each day who came to the office or when a teacher called me to a classroom. The complaints could range from an emergency – like a seizure – to a stomachache or a student needing help getting eyeglasses. Deering has a student-based health center and I work as a team with a health assistant, making sure students have vaccines and teaching them how not to be intimidated by the health care system.

How has your job changed with COVID?
With fewer kids in the building, we have a lot less traffic in the office. Now, it’s a lot of tracking kids out sick to see if they have COVID symptoms, making sure they’re getting tested and have notes from a doctor before coming back to school. I also do health screenings to make sure no one with COVID comes into the school and I make sure people are up to date with vaccines. Kids with non-acute needs email me or call me.

Why did you make videos for students before school started, demonstrating mask wearing, hand washing and physical distancing?
I wanted to give a warm, enthusiastic welcome to kids coming back and also pass on information of what to expect. I also didn’t want students to think I hadn’t been thinking about them over the summer!

What keeps you motivated?
The people – the staff and the students – make Deering a really rewarding place to work. I also like knowing that I have a role in helping students come back to school and making sure it’s done in the safest possible way.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

My Monthly Column – September 2020

 Working together, we can make change succeed

By Xavier Botana

By the time you read this, the first day of school for Portland Public Schools students – Monday, Sept. 14 – will be behind us. At the time of this writing, our plan is to open in hybrid mode, with a mix of in-person and remote learning. But one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that we have to be ready to change as circumstances dictate. 

It has been six months – yes, half a year! – since we closed school on Monday, March 16. The Friday before that turned out to be our last day of in-person school as we’d always known it. Our plan then was to close for a couple of weeks, but that had to change as it became clear that there was community spread of COVID-19 in our county. The closure extended for months, to the end of the school year, because it just wasn’t safe to return.

Even before the school year ended, our Reopening Planning Team started planning for the 2020-2021 school year. Again, because of the possibility of changing circumstances associated with this pandemic, we had to plan for three very different scenarios for the new school year: a full reopening of school; a hybrid scenario; and full remote learning. Then we had to wait until later in the summer to learn more about COVID-19 public health restrictions and Maine Department of Education (MDOE) guidance before we could present a clear recommendation – for the hybrid model – to the Portland Board of Public Education for a vote.

MDOE this summer decided it would use a color-coded classification system to rate each county every two weeks on its COVID risk. The state has coded Cumberland County “green” since they began the system at the end of July. Green means a relatively low risk of COVID-19 spread and that schools can implement in-person learning, with safety precautions that include masks, symptom checks and physical distancing in place. 

Our county’s green rating factored into the Board’s unanimous decision to approve our hybrid learning plan on Aug. 19. But built into the plan they approved was a provision that recognized circumstances could change. Part of that plan is that we will switch to remote learning if the state changes its classification of Cumberland County to “yellow” or “red.” 

A yellow designation would mean our county has an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread. Although the state allows school districts to continue with hybrid learning with extra precautions under a yellow classification, we plan to have all students learn remotely, in an abundance of caution. 

The same of course would be true if the state classifies Cumberland County as “red.” Red would mean there is a high risk of COVID-19 spread and that in-person instruction is not advisable.

Fortunately, as I write this, Cumberland County is still green and we expect hybrid learning to move forward. I’m hoping that our county and community remain low risk so that we don’t have to change our plan.

Change is hard and unexpected change even harder. The Portland Public Schools community has already faced great change. It was extremely challenging for students, families and staff to suddenly switch from in-person to remote learning this past spring. I’m proud of everyone for working together during that time to make that change as successful as possible.

Let’s all continue to work together and support each other. And let’s help keep our community’s COVID risk low by wearing masks, washing our hands and watching our distance. That will help ensure a successful school year – no matter what.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – August 2020

 Congratulations to the Class of 2020 – and their teachers!

By Xavier Botana


Commencement this month for our approximately 500 graduating seniors was two months late and held outdoors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the drive-in ceremonies at Ocean Gateway for Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools were as inspirational as graduations every year – maybe even more so.


I’ve spoken at commencements for four years now, ever since these seniors were freshmen and I was in my first year as Portland Public Schools superintendent. This year held special meaning for me because the Class of 2020 is the first class I’ve seen through to graduation.


The Class of 2020 is a standout class for many reasons – but most of all for its resiliency during this unprecedented time. The class had to quickly adjust when our schools shut down in March. They soon realized they’d miss out on many cherished senior-year rituals. But these students rallied. They studied hard to make it to graduation, and pitched in to creatively plan safe, alternative ceremonies.


The Class of 2020 proved they’re resilient human beings. I’m proud to have watched them grow over the past four years and I can’t wait to see their future achievements.


Commencement isn’t just about the graduates – it’s also a time to recognize those who helped them reach that milestone. Class of 2020 speakers said high school staff members were the wind beneath their wings.


“It’s very important that we acknowledge the people who have shaped us into who we are and what we have achieved today,” Deering High School Student Body President Ladislas Nzeyimana said. “These words of gratitude go to all the members of the faculty.”


He told faculty: “Your impact does not end here, for you have shaped and inspired leaders that will change the world in all forms of life, through the knowledge and wisdom you have transmitted to us.”


Casco Bay High class speaker Joshua Mutshaila said school faculty “are always concerned about you. The teachers make time for you. They are special human beings.” He said staff “encouraged me to be the best version of myself.”


Portland High School Class President Erin Chadbourne said remote learning was tough for staff too. “Our teachers and staff put in endless hours working to ensure that we finished the year strong, all the while juggling their own situations at home,” she said. “On behalf of the Class of 2020, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ for your dedication and commitment to seeing us through to the end.”


Portland Public Schools educators are dedicated and passionate about teaching our students and deserve our gratitude. This fall, I plan a series of columns featuring the voices of individual staff members telling the story of why they chose the work they do, why it’s important and what they find most rewarding about it. Stay posted!


I’ll end with a reminder that the Portland Board of Public Education holds a workshop and vote Aug. 18 on my recommendation for a hybrid model for school this fall – a mix of in-person and remote learning. Students would start Sept. 14. 


With input from the community, the Board faces a critical challenge: making a decision that threads the needle between full remote learning, with its drawbacks for families and students, and a full return to the classroom, which increases COVID risk. Choosing between problems for families with remote learning and the risk for more COVID are choices we’d rather not make. I’m grateful for the Board’s thoughtful approach and the hundreds of individuals throughout the community who have weighed in throughout our planning process.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

My Monthly Column – July 2020

SRO Decision the Result of Lessons Learned
By Xavier Botana

I fully support the Portland Board of Public Education’s recent decision to discontinue police school resource officers in our schools. That’s a statement I would not have made as recently as last fall, when we first started discussing the SRO issue.

What started as a recommendation for SROs to wear body cameras evolved into a larger conversation set against the backdrop of the nationwide movement to recognize how law enforcement and other institutions in our society – including our schools – perpetuate systemic racism. As our conversation expanded and deepened, so did my understanding.

I have learned a great deal over these past months. I’d like to share my learning with you.

I began our SRO conversation by glowingly citing SROs value as first responders, crime deterrents, adjunct administrators, mentors and police public relations officials. I was thinking not only of our Portland Police Department SROs, but also of my friend Dion Campbell, the current police chief of Michigan City, Ind. Back when I worked there, Dion, who is African American, a graduate of the local high school, a star basketball player and an ordained minister, was our outstanding SRO.

But as I listened and learned – through multiple conversations with Board members and staff, familiarizing myself with local and national data, reading scores of emails and letters from community members on both sides of the issue and listening carefully to hours of public comment – I realized I had missed some things regarding the impact of having police in our schools.

First, I missed the troubling array of our current policies that provide the police extensive and largely unwarranted access to our students, including their educational records, camera footage and the results of administrative searches. It’s too easy for law enforcement to reach our students at school and to obtain their information. 

On the national level, schools have come to rely on police as the quickest way to enforce behavior norms. We, too, sometimes call police to help us manage the difficult conversations that we should be addressing ourselves. 

I know some of our students feel a sense of security seeing a police officer in school. But I missed the fact that others – particularly students of color – feel the opposite way. At a time when Black Americans suffer disproportionately the impact of police violence, we should not discount those students’ fears.

The resolution that the Board approved to end our use of SROs now seeks to address those issues. It directs me to engage in a thorough revision of our nine policies regulating the district’s relationship with law enforcement.  

If you have ever had any question about the caliber of Portland Public Schools graduates, please listen to the hours of testimony on the SRO topic on the district’s YouTube recordings of the June 30 Board meeting

I feel proud and fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from thoughtful young advocates on both sides of this issue, and look forward to working with members of the Portland Public Schools community to create a plan that prioritizes the voices of students of color and meets the safety and educational needs of all of our students.

I hold that Portland is exceptional in many ways. The Portland Public Schools now has an opportunity to lead New England in creating a different approach for ensuring that our schools are safe and welcoming places for ALL of our students. I believe that we will emerge better and stronger from the difficult conversations around this issue.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

My Monthly Column – June 2020

For Equity, be the change we wish to see
By Xavier Botana

Extreme challenges often drive difficult yet productive change. That thought gives me some hope as we all grapple with the outpouring of grief and outrage spurred by the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

I joined city and school officials in standing and kneeling with protesters at a recent peaceful demonstration to decry the deaths of Black Americans by police. However, as I said in a public statement, police aren’t the only problem. Racism is systemic and we are seeing firsthand the impact of injustice and inequality in all aspects of life. That includes our schools nationwide – and in Portland.

We have disparate outcomes for our students in the Portland Public Schools: a large achievement gap between white and non-white students, and discipline data showing our non-white students are disciplined more frequently and harshly.

I’m profoundly ashamed at how little progress we’ve made to reform our curriculum to give voice to the marginalized and underrepresented. We’re Maine’s largest and most diverse school district and our students deserve better. I’m disheartened by the lack of progress we’ve made in correcting the over-representation of students of color in our suspensions and discipline data and the under-representation of those same students in advanced course offerings.

It’s not for lack of want. As a proud member of the Latinx community and an immigrant to this country myself – my family left Cuba when I was a child to escape the Castro regime – I made inclusivity and equity central to our mission when I became superintendent four years ago. I’ve had strong support from staff and the Board of Public Education.

Maybe it’s for lack of urgency. But now is the time and opportunity to accelerate our work to realize the Equity goal in our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan. That goal commits us to rooting out systemic inequities in the Portland Public Schools.

A few examples of our ongoing efforts include our Equity Leaders Cohort, where staff members from each school lead equity training for our staff.  We’re also focusing on our curriculum to ensure that what and how we teach is equitable and representative of all students. This work includes a focus on Wabanaki studies

When it comes to disparate discipline, we conducted an equity audit to understand areas of strength and concern and create action plans on alternatives to traditional discipline. To have our staff better reflect the diversity of our student body, we’re deepening our efforts to hire diverse staff and support existing staff. 

The Board also is renewing its commitment to Equity. The Board and I plan to read and discuss a book over the summer and engage in our Race in America class next year to grow in our understanding of race, racism, and white privilege.  The Board’s Policy Committee is working on reviewing multiple policies from an equity perspective, including those involving the role of law enforcement in our schools.

I am encouraged by the diversity of voices in our community demanding an end to racial injustice in our schools. Too often, such calls come only from the marginalized, but I’ve been hearing now from white staff and parent allies.

If we are serious about change, we all must work to achieve it. I challenge our staff to work at the classroom and school level to recognize unjust practices and proactively strive to eliminate them. I also challenge everyone – parents, staff, students and other community members – to stand with me to advocate for Equity investments in our next school budget. Let’s be the change we all wish to see.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – May 2020

FY21 school budget still must address growing opportunity gap 
By Xavier Botana

Much has changed since I presented my proposed FY21 school budget to the Portland Board of Public Education on March 10. Titled “Addressing the Opportunity Gap,” that budget called for investments to mitigate gaps in achievement and opportunity experienced by our economically disadvantaged students, students with special needs and English language learner (ELL) students.

Fast forward two months and a pandemic. Schools are closed and we’re in the midst of an unprecedented experiment in remote learning. One thing hasn’t changed, however: the need to address those opportunity and achievement gaps for our most vulnerable students. The gaps are growing even wider, because the students that lack ready access to the internet and technology, and whose families’ struggle to meet basic needs for food and housing, are those same students. 

Our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan, has four goals– Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People – to help prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

Equity – reducing the achievement and opportunity gaps between our students – is the centerpiece of those goals. We already had a long way to go to reach Equity, even before COVID-19. Comparing the data of our non-economically disadvantaged students with those of our least-advantaged students, students of color and ELL students, we see great disparities.  Portland cannot be satisfied with those outcomes, especially with this pandemic only enhancing the problem. 

Our FY21 budget must continue to make investments to reduce these inequities. However, recognizing the new economic reality confronting our city and state in this crisis, my proposed budget is now lower than in March. It is now nearly $3 million less, calling for a tax rate increase of  .5 percent instead of 3 percent. 

This budget excludes most of the original equity focused investments for improving our ELL program, enhancing special education services, scaling up curriculum to sustain and deepen core instruction and enhancing our district website to improve communications.  

We are committed to funding those investments within the proposed budget.  Some areas include tightening our athletics and co-curricular budgets; reductions of planned cost of living allowances for staff (These would have to be negotiated with bargaining units.); staffing reductions (holding off hiring for vacant positions or eliminating those positions and layoffs and/or furloughs).  

I am seeking the flexibility to look for these reductions based on the circumstances facing us as a result of the pandemic.  There is much that we do not know about what next school year will require from us.  For example, if we are not learning remotely, we will need larger investments in technology and curriculum and less resources devoted to transportation and maintenance.   If the fall sports season is canceled we would be in a position to eliminate coaching stipends.

I recognize that any of these will entail sacrifices, but our students must come first.  Falling further behind now could profoundly impact a generation of students for years.

Ordinarily, the school budget would have gone to Portland voters in the June primary, but the state has moved the primary to July 14. The Board plans to vote on the budget on May 26 and send it to the City Council, which sets the bottom line of the school budget. See the full budget calendar.

The next step is a Board workshop, public hearing and first read of the budget on Tuesday, May 19. I encourage everyone to join us for that 6 p.m. Zoom meeting and share your thoughts on how to best meet all our students’ needs.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

My Monthly Column – April 2020

We empathize with families on remote learning challenges 
By Xavier Botana

As you now know, the Portland Public Schools won’t be re-opening our buildings for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Instead, we’ll continue to deliver learning remotely through the end of the year.

We based our decision on a recommendation by Maine’s education commissioner that school districts should continue remote learning to keep students and staff safe during this COVID-19 crisis. I believe our decision was the right one – but it was a painful one.

While everyone at the Portland Public Schools is working incredibly hard to make remote learning a success, we know it doesn’t replace the classroom experience.

Remote learning also creates so many challenges for our families, particularly those also coping with issues such as job loss, dislocation or illness. 

I am very fortunate my family is together and that we have the flexibility of being able to work mainly from home. However, I see firsthand in my daily conversations with staff who have different circumstances just how taxing those can be. They, like many of our parents, must juggle working from home with providing childcare and managing school expectations.

Remote learning is not easy for students, either. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual meeting with youth leaders from one of our great community partners. 

As we discussed their experiences with remote learning, these amazing young people spoke about how different circumstances make it challenging for them. They talked about not being able to work at their after-school jobs, needing to pitch in to take care of younger siblings, the grief of losing out on school rites of passage and the sense of social isolation that comes from home confinement. We often think of young people as living primarily on their phones, but it turns out they miss actual social interaction as much as adults do.

Many of our students and families are experiencing anxiety and distress – normal reactions in these difficult times. Help is available. The district’s school counselors and social workers are ready to assist students and to aid in connecting families to community and national resources. You can find a letter from them on our website (in English and seven other languages) that tells how to contact them and also how to support your family’s mental health. Find the page with the letter HERE.

Also, after April break, we plan to hold a virtual Parent University session for families on the topic of maintaining social/emotional health during this time. We’ll post the details on our website soon.  

Across the country, some districts have opted to work through the April vacation. However, along with most Southern Maine districts, we have decided to maintain our scheduled break because we believe everyone needs a respite from the tremendous initial effort to launch remote learning. Following the break, we will hopefully be more restored to finish out the school year.

I’ll close with the news that the Portland Board of Public Education on April 7 unanimously approved the appointment of Alyson Dame and Abdullahi Ahmed as co-principals of Deering High School.

The two were serving as interim co-principals while we conducted a nationwide search for a permanent school leader. Based on their achievements over the past year and their unique qualities, our search ended up confirming that we already had the best people in place at Deering.

Interim Assistant Principal Jim Moses also will continue to provide his steady leadership in that same role at Deering next year.

I’m pleased that these accomplished school leaders will be able to provide continuity to Deering in these uncertain times.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

My Monthly Column – March 2020

PS families: Social distancing critical to keep everyone safe
By Xavier Botana

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is evolving rapidly, and the Portland Public Schools has closed all its facilities until March 30. We are transitioning to remote learning and have arranged for the distribution of school meals. I’m writing here now with another important message: It’s critical for families and students to also do their part during this crisis to help keep everyone safe.

We recognize the hardship that the school closure represents for families and our staff. I didn’t make the decision to close lightly – it was an extremely difficult choice but we determined that it is the most responsible one to protect everyone’s health. Our students and families also need to take this situation very seriously. Everyone should understand the very real potential for additional community spread of the virus if they don't practice “social distancing.” 

It’s important that families don’t think of this closure as a series of “snow days” in which students are free to indulge in any social activity they want because the learning will be made-up at a later date. Activities like gathering in groups, holding sleepovers, going out to eat or have coffee with friends and roaming the neighborhood will potentially add to community spread of the virus. . Parents, I’m asking you to please take responsibility for suspending these activities and limiting your family’s social contact as much as possible!

Social distancing is  socially responsible during this crisis. Please read: “Social Distancing: This is Not a Snow Day,” by Dr. Asaf Bitton.

Families, please also make clear to your children that this is not a holiday from learning. Remote learning begins Wednesday, March 18. Schools will be taking attendance and we are establishing expectations for work completion.

I sent a letter to families on March 16 that details how families will be able to access learning materials and tech devices.  The letter also details how our Food Service Department will begin distributing meals starting March 18 to students 18 and under at these sites: Riverton, East End, Presumpscot, Rowe and Peaks Island elementary schools, King and Lyman Moore middle schools and Deering High School. Families should go to the site most convenient for them.  

When picking up food at our distribution sites, we encourage families to continue to be proactive in reducing the risk of COVID-19 by not congregating at the sites
once meals have been distributed. Also, to maximize social distancing, families are asked to only come to pick up learning materials at distribution sites/your child’s school if your child is not able to access the materials online. Please only pick up tech devices if your child doesn’t have an alternate device at home.

I will add here that, given the challenges around the COVID- 19 crisis, I have withdrawn from my recommended FY21 school budget a proposal to implement a reconfiguration of our elementary schools. I feel it’s responsible to take a step back and work on an implementation plan with a longer timeline. With public meetings curtailed because of the virus, it would be difficult to have a meaningful public discussion about the proposal at this time. I propose implementation in the 2021-2022 school year, which will give us time to engage the community in this important step towards a more equitable system.  

The evolving nature of this pandemic is uncharted territory. However, we will be able to confront the challenges it poses if we all pull together as a community in support of our students. Stay safe.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

My Monthly Column – February 2020

Equity Drives the Portland Public Schools
By Xavier Botana

I’m delighted the Portland Board of Public Education began Black History Month by voting to rename a school for Portland civil rights icon Gerald Talbot. That Feb. 4 vote means Riverton Elementary School will become the Gerald E. Talbot Community School, starting this fall.

This exceptional community leader’s list of accomplishments is long. He’s an educator, author, historian, civil and human rights activist, founding president of the Portland NAACP branch and Maine’s first African American legislator. He helped pass the Maine Human Rights Act and establish the Maine Human Rights Commission.

In short, Gerald Talbot has long been a champion of equity for all. It is fitting to name a school for him because – as Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – Equity is the foremost goal of the Portland Public Schools. And as we begin our 2020-2021 school budget process, we must continue to prioritize our investments to advance our Equity goal.

In 2017, our district set an ambitious agenda for improving education in Portland with the Portland Promise, our strategic plan. It has four clear, measurable goals– Achievement, Equity, Whole Student and People – to help prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

Equity – reducing the achievement and opportunity gaps for our economically disadvantaged students and students of color – is the centerpiece of our four goals. However, we have a long way to go to reach Equity. When we compare the data of our non-economically disadvantaged students with those of our least advantaged students and students of color, we see great disparities.  

As a world-class progressive city, Portland cannot be satisfied with those outcomes. I know I’m not. To make progress on this front, our FY21 budget must continue to invest in programs, services and initiatives designed to reduce the persistent opportunity gaps between students.

The state’s school funding formula gives less state aid to districts with high valuation, like Portland, because we’re expected to contribute more locally. The state aid outlook is more positive for Portland than we initially projected, but our district still receives only about 15 percent of its revenue from the state. About 80 percent of our funding comes from local property taxes and 5 percent from federal or other sources.

Like any organization, we have rising costs for salaries and benefits every year.  With limited revenues and increasing costs, we must ask ourselves: How do we best manage our priorities to continue to have quality schools and also provide our least advantaged students with the support they need?

Portland taxpayers have consistently supported their schools, but simply adding to the budget to cover increased costs and make necessary investments yields a high burden on local taxpayers.  That is why we are looking for ways to make room in our budget for equity-focused investments, such as improved opportunities for English language learners and students with disabilities.

During the Board’s budget planning process this fall, Board members expressed willingness to consider revisiting existing programs and activities if needed to make room to advance our Equity agenda. Options could include moving from the current K-5 model to a primary/intermediate school model and evaluating programming such as co-curriculars and elementary school world languages, alongside our annual right-sizing staffing ratios across our schools.

The budget process is just beginning. Our annual public budget forum is on Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. at East End Community School, before I present my budget proposal to the Board on March 10. I look forward to hearing everyone’s ideas on how we can provide a quality education for all of our students.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

My Monthly Column – January 2020

A regional approach to challenges will help Portland schools thrive
By Xavier Botana

Mainers strongly identify with the cities and towns they live in. We Portlanders, for example, are very proud of our great city and all it has to offer. But Portland didn’t become great all by itself. Portland is the seat of Cumberland County and its success is linked to the success of other cities and towns within our region.

Thrive2027 is an initiative seeking to capitalize on what Portland and the other communities in our region can do if we work together collectively, instead of in our “silos.” Launched in 2016 by United Way of Greater Portland, Thrive2027 is built around three ten-year goals to make Cumberland County better and stronger in the areas of education, employment and health.

As superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, I strongly believe in the value of a regional approach to address educational and other challenges, so I have become a member of the Thrive2027 Council. The Council is made up of leaders from government, corporate and nonprofit sectors throughout the county who advise and oversee Thrive2027 to ensure its success.

Cumberland County is Maine’s most populous county and is already a great place to live for many. However, the three Thrive2027 goals, created by and for community stakeholders, are designed to make it stronger for ALL residents in the 28 communities of our county: Baldwin, Bridgton, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth, Casco, Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, Frye Island, Gorham, Gray, Harpswell, Harrison, Long Island, Naples, New Gloucester, North Yarmouth, Portland, Pownal, Raymond, Scarborough, Sebago, South Portland, Standish, Westbrook, Windham and Yarmouth. 

The three goals are to ensure that:
  • More kids have a strong start in school so that they’re reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
  • More people have the education and employment opportunities needed to afford to live and work in Cumberland County – to thrive, not just survive.
  • More of our neighbors live longer, healthier lives.

When it comes to our children’s learning, the first goal is vital. Research shows that third-grade reading ability is a key indicator of future academic success. In the 2017-2018 school year, 59 percent of the county’s children read proficiently at the end of third grade. By 2027, the goal is to hike that to 70 percent.

Strong pre-kindergarten programs can help students reach that goal. My column in September was about the Portland Public Schools’ plan to expand our pre-K program over the next five years in an effort to eventually offer pre-K to all Portland 4-year-olds. Any efficiencies and savings that might result from a regional approach to pre-K expansion would benefit everyone.

The second and third Thrive2027 goals might not seem to be education related, but they are. With the prices of homes and rents rapidly increasing in Cumberland County, schools in Portland and other communities are serving an increasing number of homeless students. In 2017, just 65 percent of households in the county paid less than less than 30 percent of their income for housing. Boosting that number to 70 percent by 2027 will help ensure more youngsters have a stable home environment, making it more likely they’ll succeed in school.

And doing more to promote the health and well being of families also leads to better educational outcomes. 

The idea behind Thrive2027 is collective action. By bringing people together around a common goal, all working at it from different vantage points, I believe we’ll be exponentially successful. In the end, we’ll get more than the sum of our individual efforts to help Cumberland County communities thrive.