Forecaster Forum: Quality schools vital to Portland’s success

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I recently gave the annual State of the Schools report to the Portland City Council. The report provides an opportunity each year to let the community know how we’re doing as a school district and where we’re headed.

This year, I began the report with an important premise: The quality of our schools matters greatly to everyone in the city of Portland.

Obviously, quality schools matter to our students, whom we are preparing for college and career. They matter to the parents of those students, who have hopes and dreams for every child.

But quality schools also matter to taxpayers, who invest in our schools and want to see our city grow and attract new families and businesses that will keep Portland vibrant and an affordable place to live. Schools matter to our city’s businesses, whose success increasingly depends on having a pool of well-educated, skilled workers.

In short, whether we have children in the Portland schools or not, we all have a stake in the quality of our schools.

That’s why I’m pleased to report that the Portland Public Schools are in good shape and getting better all the time.

The School Board and superintendent continue to work well together, maintaining stability and continuity and sharing a commitment to be the best small urban school district in the country by 2017.

We’re committed to accountability and transparency. For example, we have an annual District Scorecard that uses data from multiple sources to show where students are making progress and where they’re not doing as well as we’d like – areas where we plan to make investments to help students improve.

Another example is the parent/student survey we conducted last year, which had very positive results. We’re conducting another one this year.

We also reach out to the community in a variety of ways. Our Principal for a Day Program pairs business leaders with local principals so the business leaders can gain real insights into the challenges facing school leaders. The program has fostered strong relationships and ongoing partnerships with area businesses.

And we just relaunched Let’s Talk Portland, the district’s online, 24/7 tool for ongoing, productive conversations between residents and the schools.

We’re also partnering with the community through the district’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives. Those have included the Portland Public Schools’ first STEM Expo at Ocean Gateway last November. The event, held in partnership with EnviroLogix, drew about 1,000 students and other visitors who came to see the special exhibits our students had created.

Also, IDEXX Laboratories donated $18,000 and 300 hours of volunteer time to Lyman Moore Middle School, giving school classrooms a “Super Science Makeover” that added new technology such as Smart boards and digital teaching microscopes.

Our outstanding staff continues to win awards and recognitions. For example, Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce won the Nellie Mae Foundation’s Third Annual Larry O’Toole Award last fall, which is given to a school leader who exhibits innovation in student-centered learning approaches. Pierce won $100,000 that will go toward benefiting students at the school.

And we were very proud to see King Middle School language arts teacher Karen MacDonald honored by President Obama as Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year at a White House ceremony this past May.

We’re also committed to ensuring our facilities are safe, efficient and conducive to learning. Our Building for Our Future initiative affirms the community’s commitment to equity across its schools and continues to address significant needs at our older elementary schools.

We’re also investing in strategies to increase learning. They include adding 20 more minutes of instruction time to each school day starting this fall, investing in early education, continuing to extend the school year for students in primary grades who are reaching towards proficiency, and increasing high-school graduation rates.

The fiscal year 2016 school budget that Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk has recommended to the School Board is designed to enable us to continue in this positive direction. The budget is austere and modest, but it ensures that all students have a pathway to success.

Sarah J. Thompson is chairwoman of the Portland Board of Public Education.