Superintendent's Notebook: Public education is a unifying force

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This week is American Education Week. It’s a time each year to celebrate public education and honor those who ensure that every child receives a quality education.

Thomas Jefferson saw public education as vital to the success of our democracy. “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” he said. “They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Today, our public schools remain one of the few common democratic institutions that bring us together. Public schools are where all students – regardless of socio-economic, racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds or gender or sexual orientation or physical or mental disability – come together to learn.

The Portland Public Schools – Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – serves as a wonderful example of this.

About 33 percent of our approximately 6,800 students speak a primary language other than English at home. A total of about 60 different languages are spoken. We’re teaching new Americans about our country’s values, while at the same time building a new Portland community that is all the richer for the diversity these students and their families bring to it.

Every day in Portland, children from many different backgrounds work and learn together. These lessons give hope for the enlightened future envisioned by supporters of universal public education.

American Education Week started through a collaboration of two rather diverse groups – the National Education Association and the American Legion. Both were concerned in 1919 that 25 percent of the country’s World War I draftees were illiterate, so they began to seek ways to generate public support for education.

Today, cosponsors include the U.S. Department of Education, the National PTA, the American Legion, the American Legion Auxiliary, the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American School Counselor Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National School Public Relations Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The NEA, at the time American Education Week was established in 1921, called for it to be a week “observed in all communities annually for the purpose of informing the public of the accomplishments and needs of the public schools and to secure the cooperation and support of the public in meeting those needs.”

That resolution is reflected in this year’s theme for American Education Week: “Great Public Schools: A Basic Right and Our Responsibility.”

Supporting our public schools is part of our civic responsibility, and it’s clear Maine voters agree. In 2004, they overwhelmingly approved a referendum requiring the state to fund 55 percent of the cost of public education. That commitment has never been met.

However, it now appears that Maine voters at the polls Nov. 8 approved “Stand Up for Students,” a citizens’ initiative designed to make that 55 percent funding happen by generating about $157 million in additional state education funding for all Maine school districts, including Portland. I look forward to state lawmakers implementing this initiative.

I’ll note also that Education Support Professionals Day is Nov. 16, and Substitute Educators Day, Nov. 18. My gratitude to our school support staff and substitutes. We all play a role in ensuring our students receive a quality education, and yours is essential. We couldn’t do it without you.

Also, November is National Family Literacy Month. I encourage families to start a habit of keeping everyone in your family engaged in reading on a regular basis. Do such things as having adults read a favorite story from their childhood and then read their children’s favorite bedtime story. By modeling good reading habits, adults can show the importance of strong reading skills to children.

Finally, Nov. 11 was Veterans Day. Some of our great Portland Public Schools’ employees are veterans. I want to express my gratitude to them – and all veterans – for their sacrifices for our country.

Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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