Superintendent's Notebook: Diversity an asset in education, business

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Our nation’s top colleges and universities are working very hard to achieve something the Portland Public Schools already has: diversity.

These institutions of higher learning aren’t trying to look more like us to be “politically correct.” Instead, they know that diverse campuses are educationally beneficial for students.

BestColleges.com, a college-ranking site,  sums up the benefits: “Studies have shown that interactions among racially and ethnically diverse groups result in positive learning outcomes. Effects include enhanced cognitive skills and self-motivation, a greater sense of purpose, and a higher measure of personal growth.”

Colleges and universities also know that experience with diversity helps prepare students for careers. Diversity is an asset in the business world, research shows. A Harvard Business Review article titled “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,”  says that “striving to increase workplace diversity is not an empty slogan – it is a good business decision. … Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance.”

At the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, we believe that learning in diverse groups prepares students to thrive in an increasingly diverse, complex, and connected world. In fact, that belief is the fifth of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about learning.

I’m writing a series of columns about our beliefs, in collaboration with Melea Nalli, our assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. This month we’re focusing on how our schools’ diverse learning environments benefit students.

One-third of our approximately 6,800 students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – a total of 67 languages. Nearly 44 percent of our students are students of color and about 56 percent are white. We’re also socio-economically diverse. Half our students qualify for free or reduced school lunch, while half do not.

Our students benefit from learning side by side with people who are different from them – who by their very presence challenge their assumptions and beliefs and help them see the world in a different way.

But diversity also can be an empty promise, if students don’t interact with classmates who are different from them. That is why we strive to ensure that our students interact with each other in meaningful ways throughout their academic lives.

At Riverton Elementary School, for example, first-graders learn to embrace their differences. Students are encouraged to share personal experiences, and greet one another in their native languages during morning meeting. The students also were visited by representatives from The Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness, who taught them about “abilities” and helped them begin to see each other from different perspectives.

A recent learning expedition at King Middle School, where about 25 percent of students were born in other countries, focused on immigration as a social and geographic phenomenon. Students explored the history and impact of immigration in this country and the voluntary and involuntary reasons people migrate. Students learned to take a deeper look at how people are different, but also how they’re alike.

Portland High School student leaders conduct school-wide courageous conversations on a variety of topics, including classroom experiences and social interactions with peers. These discussions create opportunities for students to share their perspectives in their diverse school community. That contributes to greater understanding and a broader awareness of the diversity of students’ experiences.

At the Portland Public Schools, we consider diversity one of our greatest assets as we strive to prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

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

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