Superintendent's Notebook: Portland schools strive for education equity

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I know something’s important when it keeps me awake at night. Here’s the challenge that I wrestle with in the wee hours: How can we create a school system that helps all children succeed to their full potential?

Every child deserves an excellent education. That includes students who traditionally have been treated as less than equal: African-Americans, Native Americans, recent immigrants, students with disabilities, and children who are gay, lesbian, or transgender.

The Portland Public Schools has been a leader in Maine in creating a safe, inclusive school climate. But we still have a long way to go.

I recently presented the first Portland Public Schools District Scorecard. The scorecard draws on state assessment results, graduation rates and other important data to paint an overall picture of student performance.

The scorecard shows clearly that children living in poverty, those with limited English proficiency and minority students – especially Black/African-Americans – are falling far behind their peers. That is true consistently across grade levels, in nearly every category measured.

For example, 62 percent of students in the district read proficiently on the third-grade state assessment, according to their average scores during the most recent two-year period. That compares to only 46 percent of students from economically disadvantaged homes scoring proficient during the same period (2011-2012 and 2012-2013).

Third-grade reading ability is considered a key indicator of future academic success. The scorecard includes many more examples of such discrepancies.

We need to do much better. We have a moral responsibility to help all of Portland’s students succeed, regardless of their race or economic status. And we can do so while still providing an excellent education to students who already have achieved proficiency.

I am appointing a group of community leaders to a new Equity for Excellence Council. The council will identify how we can provide more support for struggling learners while making our schools more welcoming and respectful of our students’ diverse cultures.

Council members will review data, including a first-ever audit of the district’s English Language Learner program. They will hold meetings to gather input from the community.

They also will consider how we can expand on successful strategies already underway, such as offering summer learning opportunities and holding parent academies to strengthen the connection between home and school.

The council will work with me and my senior leadership team to develop Equity for Excellence strategies that will be folded into the district’s Comprehensive Plan Framework. Acting on those strategies will help us achieve our goal of becoming the best small urban school district in the country by 2017.

Nelson Mandela, the late South African leader, said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Now is our opportunity to show that we care deeply about the future of all of Portland’s children.

We live in the oldest state in the country. Soon, Mainers in their 60s will outnumber those in their 20s to mid-30s.

As the baby boom generation retires, we need every available young person to enter the workforce and build our economy. The students now in Portland’s elementary schools will be our future doctors and nurses, business owners, civic leaders and all of the other professionals who make our city thrive. They need to graduate with the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for college, careers and life.

Let’s commit ourselves to helping them do so.

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