Superintendent's Notebook: School system structural changes lead to new expectations

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My first year as Portland’s superintendent of schools is done, finis, completed. It’s been an adventure, a challenge and a thrill to be home again in Portland, working on behalf of my 1973 classmates’ grandchildren (ouch) as well as all of the other children attending the Portland Public Schools. We’re striving for equity and excellence of programming and services, and we’re building a truly student-centered organization.

The Portland School Committee set high expectations for me. Committee members wanted accurate and complete information and thoughtful discussions that would result in meaningful change. We worked incredibly long hours together forging a new approach for Portland’s schools. From laptop computers for our high school students to staffing issues at our middle schools and renovation of our elementary buildings, committee members examined every issue thoroughly and through the lens of equity.

The staff has been receptive and responsive to my leadership. They’ve embraced an absolute focus on the needs of students. All of our discussions, deliberations and decisions have been based upon respect, inclusiveness and collaboration. As one example, the staff at Portland High School wrote a comprehensive federal grant proposal in record time. Sadly, we were not awarded the funding. But the grant proposal laid the foundation for an incredible strategic plan for PHS.

Portland’s parents, leaders and community members gave me a warm welcome. Representatives from throughout the city joined me last December to help build a vision for the Portland Public Schools through a process called Future Search. Their work helped shape the development of the district’s 2010-2011 budget, and it continues to influence the School Committee’s priorities.

During the past year, we improved our district’s accountability on a number of levels. We spent less than the approved budget, creating the first surplus in three years. We set a goal of lowering the dropout rate, and we did so. We sought alternative funding sources, generating more than $900,000 for the district. We reframed the central office mission to focus on academic support and building support. We added foreign language instruction back into the elementary program in order to make our graduates more competitive when they enter the workforce.

My first year was both productive and exhausting. The hours are long, the days turn into nights while I’m still at work and the work never ends. But I also had a lot of fun visiting the schools and spending time with students, parents and staff. I will share just a few of many examples:

I saw Riverton Elementary School students receive college scholarships for their essays about their future plans. I witnessed East End Community School building the most amazing playground with a dragon sculpture. I attended the recognition ceremony for the Hall Elementary School teacher who was the semi-finalist for Maine Teacher of the Year. I spent time with parents at Peaks Island Elementary School, visited classrooms of English language learners at PHS, toured the exhibits at King Middle School’s Celebration of Learning, attended the Portland Arts and Technology High School fashion show and participated in all of our district’s spring graduation ceremonies.

During my first year as superintendent, I focused on building structures that support a systemic approach to all that we do. In the year ahead, I will devote myself to creating system-wide expectations and standards to which all are held accountable. As we strive to make Portland’s public schools the best in Maine, I look forward to the excitement of teachers and students arriving for the 2010-2011 school year.

It is great to be back home.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.