Superintendent's Notebook: Class of 2018 is prepared, empowered

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At the Portland Public Schools, our goal is to prepare and empower students for what comes next. “Prepared” means students have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. “Empowered” means that they know what to do – that they have a plan.

I’m satisfied we’ve met that goal with the Class of 2018.

This month, after participating as superintendent in the commencement ceremonies of Portland, Deering and Casco Bay High Schools, I feel confident our future is in good hands with these 500 new graduates of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district.

I know these graduates are prepared because of their many accomplishments in academics and sports, the millions of dollars in scholarships and grants they’ve received and the approximately 260 colleges and universities to which they’ve been accepted.

And, judging from the impact these graduates have already made while still in high school, I have no doubt that the Class of 2018 is empowered.

As just one example, members of that class were among our students who made their voices heard during the National School Walkout in March. They took a stand to call for measures that keep students safe at school, limit access to weapons and provide mental health care to those in need.

Also, Deering High School Class of 2018 member Mulki Hagi, who won a prestigious Bezos Scholar award that took her to the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, organized and oversaw a “Local Ideas Summit” this spring. The summit covered such topics as gender expansiveness, domestic violence, Islamophobia and affordable housing.

Deering students learned from each other on these topics, which are representative of the difficulties we face as a nation. These difficulties will only be resolved through the Kesho Wazo – Swahili for “tomorrow’s ideas” – of empowered young people like our graduates.

Two other Deering Class of 2018 members, Alex Fitzgerald and Izzy Smith, helped develop the Portland Board of Public Education’s new Transgender and Gender Expansive Students policy. As part of their work with the Deering Gender and Sexuality Alliance, not only did they shape the policy, but they also helped us train staff at every Portland public school. Deering’s GSA also led a successful effort to allow students to wear whatever color graduation gown they choose at graduation, independent of gender.

Another example was at Casco Bay High School, where the Class of 2018 took what they learned in social studies about the power of rhetoric to exercise their free speech rights. On First Friday in May, they literally took to their soapboxes, standing atop them in Monument Square to voice their beliefs and passions.

At Portland High School, class members embraced their tradition and their diversity. They weren’t content with the status quo and engaged with faculty around issues of concern to them. Those conversations weren’t always easy, but they prompted us to listen and reflect. Portland High School is a better school, and the Portland Public Schools a better district, because of their efforts.

In short, it’s clear that the Class of 2018 has a powerful voice that has already effected change. I’m hopeful these graduates will continue to take to their soapboxes in the next chapter of their lives.

Of course, students don’t become prepared and empowered on their own. Portland Public Schools administrators, teachers and other school staff have done a great job of educating our graduates.

That includes not only high school teachers and staff but those at our elementary and middle schools too. They should take great pride each graduation season, because their work at the lower levels is the bedrock of our graduates’ education.

I’ll conclude by thanking Portland voters for resoundingly approving our $110.6 million fiscal year 2019 budget on June 12. We are deeply grateful to the community’s consistent commitment to quality education for all our students.

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

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