Superintendent's Notebook: Portland schools on a path of continued success

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After three years as superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, I’m headed “home” to Kentucky to lead the 40,000-student Fayette County Public Schools.

I consider Kentucky home because I have a personal connection to the state. My grandfather moved there in search of the American dream. He and his brother were among black Americans who became coal miners there. And my father was born in Kentucky.

I recently got married, and now my wife and I welcome the opportunity to start our new life together in a state that is my father’s birthplace and where my grandfather found his piece of the American dream.

This move is a good fit for me personally and professionally, but I will miss Portland. However, I feel confident that I am leaving the Portland Public Schools – Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – fiscally and academically stronger than when I arrived in 2012.

In the past year, we’ve forged collective bargaining agreements that put students first, value employees, and are fair to taxpayers. Also, our district of approximately 7,000 students now has a balanced school budget that allows for fiscally sustainable growth in future budgets, with little or no impact on the tax rate.

Academically, our achievements include an annual District Scorecard that helps us pinpoint how best to deliver on our promise that all our students graduate prepared for college and career. We’ve also instituted more research-based interventions for students across schools, and we’ve increased our efforts to ensure our gifted and talented students have individual learning plans.

We launched Maine’s first public Spanish immersion program at Lyseth Elementary School last fall. We’ve done work across our high schools to deepen and intensify science and math learning. And, with the first audit of our English language learner program recently completed, we now have a road map to help students achieve proficiency faster.

The district also has instituted organizational changes that include adding the positions of director of school management, who supports and supervises school principals, and a coordinator of talent development, to help district staff realize their full potential.

The district also added a coordinator of family and community engagement to better engage families and community members with the schools. Other family outreach efforts have included a Parent University, Learning Guides for Families and a Parent Survey.

And we’ve put diversity initiatives in place. Starting this fall, teachers’ professional development will include a course on race bias and equity. Portland High School students, working with Seeds of Peace, the King Fellows and the NAACP, in May did a presentation on racism, bias and equity for staff, and shared how they are creating safe space for dialogue on those issues. Also, the Portland Public Schools on June 20 was an official participant in Portland’s gay pride parade for the first time, sending an important message of inclusion, safety and respect for all.

All this has been accomplished in partnership with the Portland Public Schools’ outstanding staff and others, such as the School Board, Portland’s mayor and City Council, and members of our Congressional delegation.

Thanks also to the many stakeholders from the Portland community and beyond, such as the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which partner with the district to help close the opportunity gap and ensure that students’ demography doesn’t equal their destiny.

For example, Portland ConnectED this summer is partnering with the district in the “Portland Summer Success – Feeding Bodies & Minds” program, through which youngsters can boost their learning and get free meals, so that kids who depend on school lunch don’t go hungry because it’s summer.

And Southern Maine Community College is offering its MySuccess program again this year. The program, funded by the John T. Gorman Foundation and SMCC, provides extra support in the summer and school year to Portland Public Schools’ graduates who attend SMCC, to ensure they succeed in college.

In my time here, I have achieved my goal of leaving the district better than I found it, and on a path of continued success for years to come. And as Maine’s first black superintendent, I hope my example has opened the door to more leaders – and teachers – of color in this state.

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at Read his blog at