Forecaster Forum: The state of Portland schools

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On Oct. 17, I gave the annual State of the Schools address to the Portland City Council and the public. You can read the full speech on the Portland Public Schools’ website, or view it on YouTube. I’ll summarize my key points here.

At the Portland Public Schools, we are working together to meet not only the needs of students, but also to make a positive lasting difference for each child, every family, and our entire community.

We are Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, with close to 6,800 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. More than half our students qualify for free or reduced school lunch.

Currently, about 33 percent of our students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – a total of 60 languages district wide.

Through Portland Adult Education, we served more than 4,000 adults last year, in academic, English language learner, enrichment and job skills classes.

A mid-October data snapshot shows we have strong accomplishments and points us to areas where we need to invest strategically to improve student outcomes.

For example, our reading progress on the Northwest Evaluation Association test has been steady over the past four years in grades 3, 5 and 8. These improvements are powered by significant gains for our African American/black and economically disadvantaged students and by important gains by our English language learner  students in the lower grades.

Looking at our high school students this past year, 32 percent of our 11th and 12th grade students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. Also, 58 percent of those students scored a 3 or better on their AP exams.

We are now preparing our current eighth-graders to receive “Proficiency-Based Diplomas” when they graduate from high school in 2021. Our graduation rate for the 2015 cohort is 84 percent, a substantial increase over the 79 percent rate of the past few years.

We are aided in our efforts to improve graduation rates and student achievement by a variety of community partners. Our partnerships are invaluable to our work.

The Portland Public Schools offers unique learning experiences. For example, students can access experiential learning opportunities from elementary through high school with Casco Bay High School, King Middle School and Presumpscot Elementary School.

We’re proud that Casco Bay’s principal, Derek Pierce, was selected this spring as Maine’s Principal of the Year for 2016.

We also work to grow our world language programs each year. All our students begin our foreign language program in third grade.

Our Spanish immersion program at Lyseth Elementary School is the first of its kind in Maine. We expanded Mandarin Chinese classes at Deering and Casco Bay high schools this year. Also, Deering High School has been offering an Arabic language program since 2013.

In addition, Portland Public Schools grew its education regarding various career options through our Portland Arts and Technology High School and other programs.

Thanks to the City Council and Portland voters, our $103.6 million fiscal year 2017 school budget was approved in May. Despite a drastic reduction in state education aid, the budget we crafted puts students first, values our employees, and respects taxpayers.

The School Board voted unanimously to endorse “Stand Up for Students,” a state ballot initiative that would generate about $157 million more in state funding. If Question 2 passes Nov. 8, Portland stands to receive approximately $11 million in additional state aid that is critically needed.

We hope to start construction in June on a new Hall Elementary School, and open the school by fall 2018. The state will cover more than 95 percent of the $29.7 million cost.

Four other elementary schools also have urgent infrastructure needs: Longfellow, Reiche, Presumpscot and Lyseth. The city’s School Facilities Ad Hoc Committee is studying a $70.6 million bond proposal to renovate those schools and plans to send a recommendation to the school board in November.

In conclusion, as we reflect on the present and look toward our future, we are completing our new Comprehensive Plan to guide our work. We remember that all of our children and adult learners deserve the best we can offer. Their success means we all succeed.

Marnie Morrione is chairwoman of the Portland School Board.

Marnie Morrione

Marnie Morrione

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