Superintendent's Notebook: Education key to the American dream

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July marks my one-year anniversary as superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. As my family and I enjoyed the city’s fireworks display on the Fourth of July, I thought about how much I have come to love this community. Thank you to all who have made me feel welcome and supported here.

The celebration of America’s birthday also is a good time to remember the importance our founding fathers placed on education. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to.” Jefferson was convinced an educated public was necessary to preserve liberty.

I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of education in my own family’s life when I addressed Portland Adult Education graduates receiving their high school diplomas in June. Many PAE graduates came here from other countries and overcame many obstacles to further their education.

My family also came to this country looking for safety and opportunity. Like the PAE graduates, we understood the importance of an education. My grandparents attended an adult education program, laboring to learn English so they could become American citizens. For us, education was the gateway to the American dream.

Now, I am proud to lead Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. We strive to provide a quality education to all our students – whether they were born in this country or not. We want all our students to succeed in college and career so they can realize their own American dream.

I am grateful that the Portland community, which has supported and sustained a public education system for more than 270 years, has once again voiced its commitment to education for all in Portland through the overwhelming approval of our school budget. Clearly, the people of Portland reflect the timeless values of our founding fathers and our most recent immigrants.

As I look back over this past year, I’d like to highlight some achievements that will help guarantee our community has the great schools our students deserve.

One key achievement was updating our Comprehensive Plan, a road map aligning our district’s work with our mission and vision. Last fall, teachers, administrators, community partners and experts worked together to establish four goals – Achievement, Whole Student, Equity and People – that are designed to help us ensure that our students are prepared and empowered to achieve. We also developed key strategies for meeting those goals and refined the ways to measure and report our progress toward them. The Portland Board of Public Education approved the plan in January.

We are already taking steps to realize the goals. One example is our Equity goal. Our district data shows we have a stark achievement gap between students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost school lunch and those who do not qualify.

About 55 percent of our students are FRL students. We’re committed to achieving equity by helping those students. To do this, we are working to strengthen family partnerships and ensuring that all students have access to higher-level classes, such as advanced placement and our talented and gifted programs. We’re also reviewing current policies and practices to make sure we don’t have unintended barriers to equity.

Our People goal will help ensure the success of these strategies, by attracting and retaining the most talented and diverse staff possible.

As part of that goal, a joint Portland Public Schools-University of Southern Maine four-week summer program is now underway – designed to create a pipeline of diverse educators who more closely reflect the diversity of our students.

About 45 participants have enrolled and are experiencing teaching firsthand as interns in our classrooms this summer. They’re also earning college credits, tuition-free, by attending an introductory education course at USM.

Portland is an amazing and supportive community that believes in education. Partnerships with the Portland community and its world-class educational institutions are key to achieving our Comprehensive Plan goals. This year has been a wonderful opportunity to meet and begin to work with all these partners. I look forward to many more years working to advance education for all here in Portland.

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

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