Superintendent's Notebook: Achieving equity in Portland schools

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I’m using my monthly column to explore the four goals in the Portland Public Schools’ new Comprehensive Plan. Last month, I wrote about our Whole Student goal. This month, I’ll talk about our Equity goal.

February is an opportune time to talk about equity because it’s Black History Month. It’s a time to celebrate how the contributions of African Americans have helped make our country great. It’s also a time to pay tribute to the generations of black Americans who have struggled to achieve equity in American society – a fight still ongoing today in such areas as education.

As Maine’s largest and most diverse school system, equity for all students is an extremely important goal for us.

Our Equity goal states: “The Portland Public Schools is vigilant in supporting each and every student’s particular path to achieving high standards, rooting out systemic or ongoing inequities.”

Currently, we recognize that as a school district, we have not yet attained that goal. Our state assessment and other data show that our results with students are uneven. There is a performance gap between some groups of students – such as members of racial minority groups and economically disadvantaged students – and their more advantaged classmates.

We do a great job with many of those advantaged students. However, there is a tremendous amount of work we need to do as a system to help the students in our district who don’t have the same level of opportunity in their lives. Many of our students face a variety of challenges. For example, they may not speak English as their first language or their families may be grappling with poverty and even homelessness.

When we look at our district, we can see a pattern of systemic and ongoing inequity regarding the outcomes for those students.

Let me give you a few examples from the district’s most recent state test scores, which the state released in December. When we look at our district as a whole, our performance largely mirrors the state average when it comes to the percentage of our students meeting or exceeding state standards.

However, as we drill down, the data shows we have a stark achievement gap between students who qualify to receive a free or reduced-cost school lunch and students with family incomes high enough so they don’t qualify for such lunch assistance.

When you compare our non-FRL students to students statewide, our students significantly outperform similar students. But when you compare the scores of our FRL students to statewide scores, our FRL students do not perform as well. That pattern holds against other comparison sets, such as neighboring districts and districts with similar demographics.

About 55 percent of our students are FRL students. By setting an Equity goal, we’re making a commitment to work together to break that pattern and help those students improve their learning.

We have a number of strategies for doing that.

One is to strengthen family partnerships by improving communication and by building authentic opportunities for families to participate in the learning process. We’re already moving toward action on this. A Parent Partnership Policy Ad Hoc Committee has been working since early fall on developing a new district family engagement policy, which the Portland Board of Public Education is expected to vote on soon.

We also want to expand student-learning opportunities. We want to ensure that all students have access to higher-level classes such as advanced placement and our talented and gifted programs. We also want to ensure that we have appropriate representation of students in our special education programs.

To this end, we are committed to reviewing current policies and practices that create unintended barriers to equity, to access and root out whatever stands in the way.

We plan to build a transparent and collaborative equity audit system, which will be used to identify best practices and areas for growth and act on them. We’ll report on our findings publicly.

One of the ways to ensure the success of these strategies is by attracting and retaining the most talented and diverse staff possible. That’s our People goal. I’ll be talking about that goal and our Achievement goal in upcoming columns.

Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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