Superintendent's Notebook: Why I'm retiring

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As a young man, I thought life had nothing to offer me. At age 15, I sat on the steps of Portland City Hall, despondent and in tears, believing that my destiny was to be a drunk, a drug addict or in prison. I believed that I would die young and that nobody would notice.

But life sent me down a different path.

I found my calling by pursuing a career in education. As a school superintendent, I have advocated for all children – the gifted and the troubled, the academically capable and those who struggle, the athlete and the budding thespian.

I helped design Maine’s first public residential charter school, led a central Maine school system during a time of great progress and returned to the city of my birth to lay the foundation for a revived public school system.

Now I want to explain why I’ve decided to retire when my contract ends next June.

When I arrived as superintendent, Portland was still reeling from an overspent budget and the community’s loss of trust in the school system. Conversations were almost exclusively about budgetary controls.

The Portland Public Schools needed to adopt systems that placed children at the center of all decisions. Before that could happen, dramatic changes needed to occur in very short order.

By moving to Portland, I separated myself during the work week from my wife and extended family. I knew that I would need to commit myself to extended workdays of 10, 12, 14 and even 16 hours to accomplish the work expected of me by the Portland School Board.

My wife, also a school administrator, accepted my decision, as she always has. I was hopeful in my first year that she might seek employment in southern Maine. But her family roots are in central Maine and, in the end, those hopes died away.

For more than two years, I worked tirelessly to right the Portland Public Schools ship. Professionally, it has been hard work. We needed to create structures to support students and staff in order to make a difference in their education and work life. We needed to make schools accountable to the needs of children across the district, rather than having them accountable largely to themselves. Policies and procedures needed to be adopted and implemented that would assure Portland’s students were front and center in all conversations.

I had partners in this work. The School Board pushed me, pulled me and challenged me to do my best work. They forced me to capture my thoughts and actions in writing. They asked for the relevant research and they supported bold moves.

Portland unions wanted their school system to succeed. The unions believed in the work that I was doing and supported the direction that I was taking the system. The result was real understanding and guidance rather than resistance and confusion.

Portland’s administrators were directly impacted by the shift to systems thinking and accountability for their school’s performance, and they also were supportive. Business leaders, nonprofits and city officials became vital partners. Parents appreciated the new focus on students.

Research shows clearly that the agent of change is unlikely to be the same person who continues to operate the system he or she has changed. I now understand why. The decisions made have been bold, the time lines intense, the workloads heavy and the separation from family hard.

Thank you, Portland, for believing that I was the man to do the job.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on theforecaster.net. He can be reached at morsej@portlandschools.org.

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