Superintendent's Notebook: Grant opens a world of possibilities for Portland schools

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It’s hard to keep a secret, especially one with great news for the thousands of young people who attend Portland’s public high schools. But that’s what I had to do for two, long months.

We got word in mid-December that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation had awarded a multi-million dollar grant to our school district and several community organizations, including Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, LearningWorks and the city of Portland’s Refugee and Immigrant Services. Out of 48 applicants, Portland is one of only four communities throughout New England to receive a grant.

Last week, we finally completed all of the preparation necessary to go public. What an amazing opportunity this represents for our students, staff and entire community.

The grant, totaling $5 million over 3 1/2 years, will allow us to implement a student-centered model of education at Portland High School, Deering High School, Casco Bay High School and Portland Arts and Technology High School, as well as Portland Adult Education. Our district recently approved a comprehensive plan framework that calls for tailoring teaching to individual needs, and the grant will allow us to speed up its implementation.

We will be able to provide more learning opportunities that help students master both the academic knowledge and the critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills that they need to thrive beyond high school.

Students will be tested on their proficiency, rather than merely having to fulfill credit requirements. Those who are struggling will get more support.

All students will have the opportunity to do internships and other learning activities outside of the classroom. Teachers will have access to more professional development on topics such as multi-disciplinary teaching.

In addition to our community partnerships, we also will work with Project Zero at Harvard University on a pilot project about preparing students for their roles as global citizens.

We’ve spent three years preparing for this initiative. A year ago, we received a $200,000 planning grant from NMEF that helped fund that effort.

Our principals and staff are eager to dive in and make changes that will benefit students. We will be working over the next 18 months to involve more parents and community members in the initiative. Please check the Portland Public Schools website for updated information.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation is the largest charitable organization in New England that focuses exclusively on education. The foundation strives to reshape public education in the region to work more equitably and effectively in order to ensure that all learners, especially those who are under served, graduate from high school prepared for success.

We are incredibly fortunate that the foundation has chosen our city to receive this magnificent gift.

Thank you, Nellie Mae.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at