Tuesday, March 16, 2021

My Monthly Column – March 2021

Ed techs punch above their weight

By Xavier Botana

Educational technicians – better known as ed techs – are the glue that holds schools together. I speak from experience: I started my career as an ed tech.

Principals and teachers rely on ed techs. The Portland Public Schools has 235 ed techs – almost one in five of our employees. Their titles give a sense of the range of work they do. We have regular classroom ed techs and also media/library, special education, functional life skills, computer, PATHS, and ELL ed techs, as well as med techs. In general, ed techs help students reach academic and behavioral goals, provide supervision, establish vital one-on-one relationships with students and collaborate closely with staff and parents. 

In short, ed techs punch well above their weight – and often don’t get enough recognition. That’s why this month, as part of an ongoing series about our outstanding PPS staff, I’m highlighting one of these exemplary employees: Roberto Keith. An ed tech at East End Community School and King Middle School, Roberto joined our district 24 years ago as an ed tech at Reiche Community School.

Like former PPS ed techs Suellyn Santiago, now principal of Lincoln Middle School, and Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, now Deering High School co-principal, Roberto is interested in moving up the educational ladder. He’s pursuing his teaching degree at the University of Southern Maine and plans on earning a master’s in education.

How did you get into this line of work?

I was born in Colombia and didn’t speak English when an American couple adopted me at age 7. I grew up in Boston and went to Johnson & Wales University to learn to be a chef. Even though I worked in wonderful restaurants under great chefs, the food you create – the customers eat it and it’s gone. I needed more recognition for what I can create, and when I started working with children in a Head Start program, I found my passion. 

Tell us about your job before COVID.

I work a lot with our Spanish-speaking students, interpreting, translating and reaching out to their families. I would begin with East End’s Rise and Shine before-school program. I did a lot of activities with kids: soccer, lacrosse, even sledding in the winter. I want kids to understand how wonderful it is to get outside. Then I went into the classroom and checked in with students and helped them to understand what they needed to learn to adjust to school.

How has COVID changed your job?

On the days the kids come to school, I want them to feel electrified and that they belong. I celebrate them showing up for school. Because of masks and social distancing, it’s a little harder. When I talk to a kid about a math problem or a book, I want to be right next to them. But I feel the same compassion and enthusiasm as before. With remote, some of my families don’t have a good understanding of technology. I feel so happy when we connect and I can see them on the computer camera. My families can call me 24 hours a day to answer their questions.

What inspires you about your job?

It’s great to get to see these kids go on to college and make a good career. I just talked to one who now has his own business and he told me, “Mr. Keith, do you know why I’m doing so good in life? It’s because people like you taught me to respect myself and never give up and how important it is to go to college.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

My Monthly Column – February 2021


Parent community specialists: Lifelines between families & schools

By Xavier Botana 

My columns this year are showcasing members of our outstanding Portland Public Schools staff. This month, I’m focusing on the vital work of our parent community specialists.

Parents are our partners. Research shows students do better in school when their parents are involved in their education. But it’s hard to engage with your child’s school when you’re new to this country and English is not your home language. That’s where our parent community specialists come in.

About one-third of our 6,500 students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – more than 60 different languages. Our parent community specialists serve as multilingual language and cultural liaisons to those families to help them develop strong relationships with our schools. 

Their jobs involve assisting families with their communication needs, serving as interpreters, translators and connectors in a wide range of situations that include registering children for school, parent-teacher meetings, IEP (individualized education program) meetings and school presentations and events.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, they also do much more. Our parent community specialists are lifelines to families needing assistance with not only educational issues like remote learning, but also with food insecurity, job loss, unemployment benefits, housing and health issues.

One of our amazing parent community specialists is Monique Mutumwinka, who speaks six languages: French, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Lingala, Swahili and English. Originally from Rwanda, where she was a dentist, Monique came to this country in 2010 and has worked for our district since 2013. Now a U.S. citizen and proud mom of three Deering High School graduates, she loves helping other families make successful new lives in our community. Here’s more about Monique:

Tell us about your job.
We are the bridge of communication between the schools and the families. For example, we do translations, we do intake when families arrive, we do meet and greets between parents and teachers and we do Special Education plans, explaining and advocating for parents of children with special needs. Sometimes, we go in the classroom with the students, spending hours or a day with them, just to get them adjusted to the first day of life in an American school. We are cultural brokers, explaining cultural differences. For example, when you talk about a learning disability, our families don’t understand. For us, a disability is a physical disability, so we need to be cultural brokers and explain to parents. Otherwise, their students don’t get the services they need. Also, in our culture, you don’t speak unless a teacher calls on you. Here, you need to speak up if you don’t understand. You have to advocate for yourself or you don’t get help.

How has COVID changed your job?
Now we play the role of connecting families with not only educational resources but also case management. It’s 24-7, because now the needs are greater. We help with social emotional needs for the parents, academic needs for students (“My son doesn’t know how to get into his Google Classroom”), how to get school meals and how and where to get a COVID test. Families think, “Monique has the language. She can help me.”

What inspires you about your job?
I love it because I feel a lot of satisfaction when I see a student graduate. You see them go from “A” to “Z,” from intake to graduation, and you see what they can do for themselves and future generations. You have helped them to have a new life and their parents are more independent and successful. You’re a problem-solver helping the community. It’s very satisfying.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

My Monthly Column – January 2021

Custodians among frontline heroes of this pandemic

By Xavier Botana

At the Portland Public Schools, we’ve always been grateful to our custodians for making sure the buildings we walk into each morning are clean and safe. Now, however, we are even more aware of how important their work is to safeguard the health of our students and staff. COVID-19 has made us value these essential staff even more. 

Their work to thoroughly clean and disinfect our schools helps enable our students to attend school in person – an experience increasingly important at this time for students’ learning and social/emotional well-being. Our custodians are among the frontline heroes of this pandemic.

This month, as part of an ongoing series about members of our outstanding PPS staff, I’m turning the spotlight on one of our exemplary custodians: James Benner, head custodian at East End Community School. 

James joined our district 14 years ago and is clearly a lifelong learner. He uses every opportunity at work to learn more about building systems to make sure everything runs smoothly, and takes Portland Adult Education classes in his spare time. A class on playing the piano has led him to take private lessons. Here’s more about James:

How did you get into this line of work?

Portland’s Teen Center helped me find a job at the start of my working career. They help kids get their foot in the door in a lot of places. I got a seasonal job grounds keeping, and then I got a job working at a hotel, mainly dishwashing, but I also was a prep cook and set up for banquets. I started with the school department after that. My mother is a custodian, she’s now head custodian at Lyman Moore Middle School, and she knew I was trying to get something with more solid hours and security.

What do you like about custodial work?

Jobs like dishwashing, you’re doing the same job over and over again, but there’s a lot of different tasks we do as custodians and you deal with different scenarios. I have an inquiring mind and I like puzzles. I enjoy the puzzle of trying to figure out all the different things that come up through the days and making everything work. I love the staff here and my custodial staff here is great. They’re an amazing team. 

How has COVID changed your job?

Ramping up to get school ready for the fall, there was a lot of figuring out. I was part of the Tiger Team, four head custodians who worked with our bosses and did a lot of studying about COVID-19 and cleanup procedures and helped create the guidelines we go by. We learned about upgrading HVAC systems and we were a huge part of setting up classrooms to make sure that everybody is maintaining distance. Cleaning became extra important, disinfecting and sanitizing specifically. And I like to think we played a pretty big role when staff came back into the building, helping to calm people and letting them know it was OK, things are staying clean and we have procedures in place to keep it as safe as possible.

What inspires you about your job?

I’m a custodial rep in my union, and I like working with union members and management to try to find a middle ground between everybody. I have a son, he’s a teenager, and even the kids have a stronger appreciation now of being in school. The school system is about teaching kids and I think that’s such important work, and it’s nice that my job has such a strong impact on keeping that going.