I recently gave the State of the Schools address to the Portland City Council. It is a yearly opportunity to inform the community of how we are doing as a school district and where we are headed.
Overall, the Portland Public Schools are in good shape, and we have plans to make them better. The superintendent and School Board are working well together toward clear, measurable goals, and we seek greater community involvement in that work.
Our first priority is to increase student achievement so that all students graduate prepared for college, careers and citizenship. In the past few years, we have made dramatic progress at three elementary schools with high poverty rates: Riverton, East End and Presumpscot. Our focus on writing at the elementary level has helped boost test scores across the district through eighth grade.
But we still face many challenges. Our high school students are achieving below state averages in critical reading, mathematics and writing. The Portland Public Schools’ graduation rates last year fell nearly 7 percent below the state average.
We are responding by strengthening the core academic program. We are providing support for learners all along the spectrum, from students identified as gifted and talented to those who receive student support services. We have commissioned the first-ever audit of the district’s program for English language learners and we will use it to implement changes.
We also are working to make the district a hub of innovation. We are providing more ways for students to explore science, technology, engineering and math fields. We are giving students opportunities for extended learning beyond the school walls, and we are challenging high school students to take dual enrollment classes that earn college credit. We are among the first districts in Maine to offer world languages such as Arabic and Mandarin.
The Portland Public Schools leads the state in sustainability efforts such as serving nutritious, local foods in our cafeterias, composting food waste and using buses fueled by natural gas in our transportation department.
The board is working to manage district finances as prudently as possible. To that end, we created a task force to explore ways that we might generate non-tax revenue to support our schools. The task force has proposed starting a nonprofit educational foundation that would use professional staff to raise private funds for critical “non-core” elements of the school system. Many other districts have had success with such foundations.
We also are working with our partners at the city to plan for infrastructure improvements. During the next year, we will focus on the needs of our mainland elementary schools.
We are working hard to involve the community in our district’s challenges and in helping us to find solutions. We invite and encourage all Portland residents to visit our schools and to get involved. That includes people without children and retirees whose children long ago graduated from our schools.
We need people to read with our elementary students, to mentor our high school students and to tutor new Mainers in our adult education program. We need businesses and community organizations to provide job shadowing opportunities and internships. You can find out how to get involved by going to our website, portlandschools.org, and clicking on the “Support Our Schools” link.
Portland residents have proven time and time again that they strongly support public education. We need your active involvement to help prepare our young people to become the next generation of Portland leaders.
Sarah J. Thompson is chairwoman of the Portland Board of Public Education.