Superintendent's Notebook: Lessons learned as the finish line approaches

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It’s time to say farewell.

As I prepare to leave the Portland Public Schools next month, I am thankful that this former Portland High School dropout had the opportunity to give back to the city of my birth, and thankful to the staff that helped me along the way.

My first speech three years ago told how we would make a difference by focusing our work on the needs of students, and how we would right the educational mission of this great city.

Did we accomplish all that we hoped?  Certainly not. But what we did accomplish will outlive my tenure as superintendent.

Early on, I distinctly remember a two-hour tour of Hall Elementary School with Principal Kelly Hasson. She and her staff were so welcoming and the students were so polite and engaging. I thought, Wow, if all of Portland’s schools are this amazing, then coming back to Portland after 35 years is going to be a joy.

I also remember the dismal state of the Hall building, a schoolhouse designed to temporarily house children of World War II veterans. I later learned that half of Portland’s elementary schools needed serious work. The state is providing no funds in the near future, but Hall now appears on the city of Portland’s draft capital improvement project list. Lesson learned: the city is ready to rise to the challenge.

I also received a warm welcome from the principal and staff at Riverton Elementary School. Talking to teachers, I learned that different math texts were being used in different classrooms – a problem that existed throughout the system – and I wondered how that might negatively impact student performance.

Three years later, Riverton students’ performance has improved dramatically due to an aligned curriculum, early childhood programming, intense professional development and a commitment by the staff to act in concert with one another. Lesson learned: a consistent curriculum taught by a committed staff generates greatly improved test scores.

I remember my first visits to King Middle School and Casco Bay High School, because I had never heard of expeditionary learning. King Principal Michael McCarthy and CBHS Principal Derek Pierce, along with their staffs and students, taught me about this model approach.

I became an enthusiastic supporter of expeditionary learning because students are challenged academically while pursuing authentic learning. Regardless of poverty, gender or the country of origin, students can perform at the highest levels. Lesson learned:  using a model to theme a building creates cohesion and common purpose that improves student engagement and performance.

I remember the mess of the district’s finances when I arrived. The staff had the best intentions, but did not have the professional capacity to manage a $100,000,000 budget. Proper accounting procedures, protocols and controls all were weak.

During my tenure, we hired experienced and qualified staff to bring the financial house in order. In the latest independent review, Portland Public Schools received a clean audit report.

I was pleasantly shocked by my first meetings with the union leadership. Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa stated that union members wanted to be engaged in problem-solving and to assist in developing solutions.

She was as good as her word. The PEA agreed to a ground-breaking contract that extended the school year and they settled a three-year contract in which they took no pay increase for doing so. The Portland Administrators Association and other unions proved equally progressive. Lesson learned: unions can be powerful allies in change.

I count among our accomplishments in the past three years passage of the Comprehensive Plan Framework, creation of a multi-year budget and partnerships with City Hall, nonprofits, the Portland Regional Chamber and local businesses.

Portland was my childhood home and I’m pleased to have partnered with so many to accomplish so much so quickly.

Thank you, Portland.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. This is his final monthly column. He can be reached at morsej@portlandschools.org.

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