Portland School Board member up for $100K prize

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PORTLAND — An organization run by a School Board member is in the running to win $100,000.

Pious Ali, of the community youth group Portland Empowered, was nominated for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s 2015 Lawrence W. O’Toole Award, which gives a $100,000 grant to a school, organization or district to continue advancing student-centered learning.

The award is given to a New England educational organization based on public online polling. Voting began Sept. 8 and ends at noon Sept. 30. Votes can be cast at studentsatthecenterhub.org/award-nominees/.

Ali has been on the School Board since 2013. He was nominated for his work in community organizing and helping students and parents transition to student-centered learning.

Portland Empowered is run through the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Ali said the organization has two branches.

The first develops “emerging student leaders” from under-served communities to help them develop a voice and have a role in decision making.

“It’s looking at what needs changing and how they can change it,” he said.

The other branch involves increasing parent engagement.

To do that, every month the organization hosts what’s called the Shared Space Cafe, where parents can come and speak with school faculty. Ali said these usually break out into small groups, with many languages spoken and interpreted.

Becca Matusovich, a policy associate at the Muskie School, said the goal of this branch is to create an opportunity for shared conversation.

“There’s are not very many opportunities for people to sit and talk as a group who care about school success,” she said.

Ali, a community and engagement specialist, said if he wins the award his plan is to create a kind of computer-coding summer program for under-served and minority students going into high school. He said he came up with the idea several years ago, but put it on a back burner when he ran for School Board.

He said award would be the perfect way to bring it back.

Ali said a program like this is a way to bridge the gap to jobs and skills the students will need in the near future.

He said the nomination “shows we’re doing the right thing” for students and parents in the under-served communities by giving them platforms to speak and creating relationships between them and the schools.

Matusovich said she thought Ali’s work and dedication had a lot to do with the nomination.

“What they’ve seen is what Pious has been able to inspire in the community,” she said, adding his ability to bring visibility to these issues is “powerful.” She said people take notice and get involved when they see how passionate he is.

Ali said it had more to do with everyone involved than with just him.

“It’s a team effort,” he said.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is the largest philanthropic organization in New England with a focus on education. It first awarded the O’Toole prize in 2011. Last year, Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce received the award, a first in Maine.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Pious Ali of Portland has been nominated for the Lawrence O’Toole Award, a $100,000 grant he would use to start a summer program to teach computer-coding skills to underserved students.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.