Superintendent's Notebook: Portland schools brighten darkness with light of understanding

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December can be a very dark month. It’s the time of the winter solstice, when we experience the longest night of the year. What brightens the month are the holidays of the season. And, with the Portland Public Schools being Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, our students and their families celebrate a variety of holidays.

Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are three of the best-known examples of holidays observed this month. Another example, because it falls on Dec. 24 this year, is Eid Milad ul-Nabi, which celebrates the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

All these holidays are very different and celebrated in a variety of ways. Still, they all have something in common: They are characterized by giving and sharing and also by cherishing and respecting others.

At a time when there is much darkness in our world – with terrorist attacks and a refugee crisis impacting nearly every nation, including our own – let’s use this holiday season to shine a light on those shared values. Let’s focus on what we have in common and work to foster harmony and understanding, not divisiveness and misinformation.

Doing that is particularly important for our Portland Public Schools community because our school district has so much diversity.

Currently, 36 percent of our approximately 7,000 students come from homes where a total of about 60 languages other than English are spoken. In its linguistic, ethnic, religious, racial and cultural diversity, the Portland Public Schools can be considered a kind of microcosm of our great country.

Like our country, our district values our diversity and believes it makes us better and stronger. I am so proud of our students and staff for all they do to embrace the wonderful diversity of our school district and to send the message that bias and harassment will not be tolerated.

For example, Lyseth Elementary School fifth-graders this fall led a successful effort to get not only their school but also the city of Portland to celebrate an anti-bullying Unity Day. Also, a group of Lyman Moore Middle School educators has spearheaded the startup of the school’s first Civil Rights Team in years. And the already strong Civil Rights Team at Riverton Elementary School is focusing this year on using a variety of means – including sports, arts and crafts, a newsletter, a culture club, theater and mentoring – to get the group’s message out.

The Riverton team is planning a Civil Rights Week to be celebrated in February. Also, an arts and crafts project that teams members are working on will be displayed in the hallways of the school to capture the essence of the CRT message: “Celebrate differences! Find things that we all have in common! Make everyone feel welcome and that they matter!”

Another example is at the high school level. Deering High School students recently hosted a student-led dialogue session to share and discuss perspectives on topics related to the world refugee crisis. Deering, a very diverse high school, partners with the Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network, working to develop interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning that emphasize global competence.

The recent dialogue was facilitated by students in Seeds of Peace, a group of high school students from across Maine who participate in a leadership training program that promotes peace. The lead organizer was Salim Salim, Seeds of Peace member and Deering senior class president. His goal was to get a diverse group of people with differing opinions, ages, ethnicities, races and backgrounds in one place to talk about the immigrant crisis in a facilitated discussion.

About 70 students and teachers from Portland and beyond (some came from as far away as Lewiston) participated in the dialogue, according to Deering teacher Sarah Shmitt, who helped facilitate the event. “The discussions were rich and wide-ranging, respectful and stimulating,” she reported.

Let’s not focus on the darkness. Instead, let’s use this season as a time to celebrate our richly diverse Portland community. And let’s continue to work to ensure that our schools remain a haven of harmony, respect and safety for our youngest and most vulnerable community members, who are entrusted to our care.

Jeanne Crocker is interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. She can be reached at