Award honors 'barrier-busting' Portland school program

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PORTLAND — Making sure the voices of students and parents are not only heard, but also reflected in the day-to-day practices of the city’s schools, has helped Portland Empowered win the Distinguished Service Award from the Maine School Boards Association.

Portland Empowered was recognized for its “outstanding work in helping families engage in their children’s education and for championing the role of parent and student voices in improving educational outcomes,” a School Department press release said.

Portland Empowered is part of the Youth and Community Engagement Program at the Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

“Students and families are the beneficiaries of our education system and a critical part of reshaping what education (needs to) look like to meet 21st-century needs,” Emily Thielmann, director of Portland Empowered, said. “We believe that in order to design an education system that works for all, we need the perspectives of those who the system is not working for (now).”

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana called Portland Empowered “one of our most valued community partners,” and said “its work makes a vital difference to Portland Public Schools families and students.”

For instance, he said, a recommendation from Portland Empowered was behind the implementation of the district’s new School and Family Partnership Policy, which “has helped (us) better engage all families, including those who speak languages other than English at home.”

Through its Youth Engagement Partners Program, Portland Empowered serves as a training ground for students to hone their leadership skills, Thielmann said.

“Our student group has advocated for student-led changes in their schools, working closely with school and district partners,” she said. And, most recently, they developed an app called “Powerful and Educated.”

Thielmann said the goal of the app is to “support students in identifying opportunities to participate in student government, share their voice in school decision-making, and understand the policies that impact their (overall) school experience.”

She said Portland Empowered became a program of the Cutler Institute in 2014, but the group has its roots in a parent organization that was first created by Portland’s Office of Refugee Services and the local chapter of the NAACP.

Throughout its relatively short history, Portland Empowered has consistently worked to promote “equity and excellence for all learners across racial, cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic and other backgrounds,” the organization’s website states.

“Mostly,” Thielmann said, “we are barrier busters.”

“Research (shows) that children do better in school when their families are engaged in their education,” she said. But there are real barriers that can prevent participation, including parents working multiple jobs, having transportation or childcare issues, and not speaking English.

“It is essential to address those barriers in meaningful ways in order to build spaces where families can truly be involved in education,” Thielmann said. “Portland Empowered has proven that with support, families can and will show up to discuss important education matters.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Parents taking part in a Portland Empowered session designed to train them to be better advocates for their children’s educational needs.

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