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.