Leaders Reflect on Leadership

By Jeanne Crocker

June 2016

June is transition time in a school district. We’re ending the schoolJeanneCrocker.ScreenShot year, applauding our graduates and already putting plans in place for when students return in the fall. This year, the Portland Public Schools also will have a leadership transition: our new superintendent of schools officially starts July 1.

I extend a very warm welcome to Xavier Botana as the new leader of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district! The Portland Board of Education selected him after a nationwide search, saying his qualifications match what families, district employees and the Portland community all said they want in a superintendent.

Xavier cites his family’s experience immigrating to the United States from Cuba when he was boy as the motivation for his work in education. He began his educational career as an ESL teacher and worked his way up to a variety of leadership roles, most recently as associate superintendent of a school district in Indiana.

As he begins his new role, I asked Xavier to share his thoughts on what it means to be a leader. PPS also has many school leaders, so I asked two of them to weigh in as well. One is Renee Bourgoine-Serio, who has taught in a number of our schools and is now finishing her first year as teacher leader of Peaks and Cliff island elementary schools. The other is Ben Donaldson, the new principal of Lyman Moore Middle School as of July 1. Ben was a Casco Bay High School teacher and ninth-grade team leader until June 2015, when he become assistant principal at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland. We welcome him back!

What inspired them to become leaders? All three cited personal experience.

“I’ve always been the type of person that wanted to understand things globally. As a child, I always chafed at ‘because I said so’ as an explanation. As an adult, I dislike lack of agency more than just about anything,” Xavier said. “That attitude thrust me into roles where I was always going deeper than many wished to go. I think that’s what made me always wind up in leadership roles.”

Ben said being a teacher led him to leadership. “Teaching is a really challenging job,” he said. “As a classroom teacher, my students and I benefited tremendously from the support we received from school leaders. I hope to provide this same support.”

Renee also said teaching was an influence. “The most important work in the world is what happens between a teacher and group of students in a classroom,” she said. “Since my return from teaching in an international school in China in 2012, I have been thinking more and more about how people lead/guide this important work.” She joined the Leaders for Tomorrow’s Schools cohort at the University of Southern Maine to help answer that question.

Leadership is rewarding, the leaders said, but also challenging.

Xavier summed it up: “It’s challenging because most significant decisions have pros and cons. Very rarely does everyone agree with a decision. So, my approach is to try to make sure that people feel that I listened to them, explain to them how and why I made the decision and feel good that I made the best decision with the information that I had at the time.”

All three stressed that good leaders don’t operate alone.

Renee said, “I love building and supporting a team. I really love it when the group comes up with a solution that no individual member of the group could come up with alone.”

Ben said, “The best leaders I know continue to work hard and learn as they go, and are not afraid to ask for help or consult with others when faced with a challenging situation.”

Xavier said, “Being a leader is also about being able to follow. Often, being a leader means that you have to empower others to lead the way and support them to see the matter through to its conclusion. Being a leader is also about being willing to revisit a matter based on new information, and recognizing that you may not have gotten it right the first time around.”

The Portland Public Schools is very fortunate to have such thoughtful and inspirational leaders!

Celebrating Our Graduates

By Jeanne Crocker

May 2016

It’s almost graduation season, one of my favorite times of year as an educator. Graduation is an occasion for great excitement and joy but also a time to wipe away a few tears. It marks both an end – saying goodbye to classmates and teachers – but also a new beginning. Our graduates are about to embark on new experiences, in college and career.

This year, as interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, I will have the honor of speaking at five different graduation ceremonies.

I’ll be addressing the graduates from our district’s four high schools – Portland, Deering, Casco Bay and the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS), a regional high school for students from Portland and surrounding Maine communities. I also will speak at the Portland Adult Education (PAE) graduation ceremony, congratulating PAE graduates for either attaining their high school diplomas or passing a high school equivalency test.

At all the ceremonies, I look forward to congratulating our graduates for having reached this milestone in their lives. I’ll also be celebrating the unique paths they all took to arrive at this juncture.

The May 20 PATHS graduation is one example.

Our approximately 200 PATHS graduates will get their high school diplomas at the graduation ceremonies of their sending schools. What they’ll receive from PATHS at the ceremony is a certificate of completion in the arts or technical education field they chose to pursue. Students also will receive national certifications, if their program offers them and they’ve earned them.

The nearly 20 programs PATHS offers are as diverse as automotive technology; commercial art; culinary concepts; early childhood occupations; fashion marketing; health science occupations; manufacturing technology; new media; marine systems; and plumbing and heating. All PATHS programs are designed to reflect the region’s business and industry needs and incorporate changing technology.

Our PATHS graduates deserve our applause for making a smart choice to augment their high school education with significant skills that will enable them to enter the job market or pursue post-secondary education. Many of these students have won awards and scholarships too.

I’ll also be speaking at graduation ceremonies for the more than 500 graduates of our district’s other high schools. Portland High School’s ceremony will be on June 8 at Merrill Auditorium; Deering’s on June 9 at the Cross Insurance Arena; and Casco Bay’s ceremony also on June 9, at Merrill.

It is always so moving to see our students stride across the stage in their caps and gowns as their names are called and proudly grasp their diplomas. They should be proud; they’ve successfully completed 12 years of schooling, with all the hard work and challenges that entails. For example, one challenge many students in our diverse district have successfully surmounted was learning to read, speak and write the English language along with all their other studies.

A number of those students – and our other students – also have earned accolades, awards and scholarships. Also, some graduates this year will receive STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) diploma endorsements – recognizing them for their extensive STEM-oriented work.

My final address will be at the PAE graduation on June 16 at Merrill. That ceremony is always a very special one. These graduates haven’t taken the usual route to complete high school.

PAE graduates can range in age from their late teens to retirement age or beyond. They haven’t previously finished high school for reasons such as illness; disability; working full-time to support their families; moving to new country where they didn’t speak the language; homelessness and even war.

Often, PAE diploma students have already completed high school or even college, but in another country and in another language. Congratulations to those graduates for the determination to start all over again in this country.

I’ll finish by saying “congratulations” to all our graduates, not just in English but in some of the most common of the approximately 60 languages spoken by our students and families: wapwoyo yele (Acholi); félicitations (French); hambalyo (Somali); felicitaciones (Spanish); parabéns (Portuguese); xin chúc mừng (Vietnamese); and also Arabic:

نبارك لكم نجاحكم

Graduates: You have demonstrated your will to learn – and I hope you make learning a lifelong habit!


It’s Time to Celebrate our Teachers

By Jeanne Crocker

April 2016

What special day do more than 30 countries around the world observe each year – nations as diverse as the United States, Afghanistan, China, India, Mexico, Peru, Russia and Yemen? The specific date may vary from country to country, but they all celebrate a Teacher Day.

In our country, National Teacher Day is on May 3 this year. That dovetails with National Teacher Appreciation Week, which runs May 2-6. The National Education Association (NEA) and the National PTA encourage us to use that time as an opportunity to honor teachers and thank them for the lasting contributions they make to our lives. Let’s all make a special effort to do that this year.

Why do teachers deserve our praise and support? The short answer is because they play such a key role in our society.

“Every day in schools across the country, teachers touch the lives of millions of children, and their work and impact extends far beyond the boundaries of the classroom,” according to the National PTA.

Think about it. If asked to name the top three or four people who most influenced our lives while we were growing up, many of us would include the names of one or more teachers.

Doing what teachers do is not easy. U.S. teachers, on average, work more than 52 hours a week, including 30 hours on instruction and 22 hours on tasks like preparing lessons and grading papers, the National PTA says. And we all know teachers who dedicate even more time to helping their students.

In fact, Maine Sen. Susan Collins praised teachers for their “tireless efforts” last May as she helped introduce a bipartisan resolution in the Senate to recognize and thank the nation’s teachers. “America’s teachers are among our most dedicated public servants,” Collins said then.

President Obama, in a teacher appreciation proclamation he issued last May, said, “Our best teachers are role models who … encourage our children’s passions, inspire their imaginations and help them realize the best versions of themselves.”

At the Portland Public Schools we have many such inspirational teachers. We are so grateful for everything they do to ensure our students are prepared for success in college and careers.

I don’t have space here to list all our great teachers, so I’ve chosen two by way of example. One is a relatively new teacher – Lyman Moore Middle School ELL teacher Tyler Jellison, who joined our district four years ago after spending four years teaching English in Cambodia. The other is English teacher Sandra Guerra, who is retiring this summer after 45 years at Portland High School.

Lyman Moore Principal Stephen Rogers said, “Tyler is everything you want in a teacher. He has a positive, can-do attitude that is infectious – and crucial for working with middle level students. He holds very high standards for behavior and academics, while providing scaffolded systems to assure that all students will get there with varying degrees of support. He also contributes beyond the classroom, by giving time to whatever is needed for students, in programs such as Model UN.”

PHS Principal Deborah Migneault said that in more than four decades as an educator, “Ms. Guerra never lost her passion for teaching nor her deep commitment to students.”

One of Guerra’s colleagues, David Levasseur, cluster coordinator for the PHS English Department, said, “Sandra Guerra has long been recognized as an outstanding teacher in the Portland area and throughout Maine. … The positive impact she has had on the city of Portland will last for years.”

What fuels these teachers in this demanding profession?

Guerra said, “Most rewarding is seeing my students realize their dreams and go on to do wonderful things with their lives.”

Jellison said, “The biggest reward is seeing a student grow from a child that is completely consumed by their little bubble of a world to a young adult that is concerned about the larger world around them. My greatest moments are when I see that lightbulb go on and that young adult sees that they are important and part of something bigger. Those small moments make all the other struggles and frustrations go away.”


School Budget Is More than the Bottom Line

By Jeanne Crocker

March 2016

It’s budget time at the Portland Public Schools and my team and I have spent a lot of time crunching numbers. As we worked, however, we didn’t see just the numerals on the balance sheet. We also saw the faces of the students, staff and city taxpayers those sums will impact.

Crafting a school budget is a balancing act. I believe that the new school budget proposal currently under review in mid-March by the Portland Board of Public Education achieves such a balance for all stakeholders in Portland, Maine’s largest school district.

The proposed $103.6 million school budget for the 2016-2017 school year that the school board’s Finance Committee recommended at its March 17 meeting puts student learning first, invests in staff and respects the support of city residents. It also keeps the Portland Public Schools on the strong positive trajectory that the district has set for itself.

First, a big thank you to the taxpayers of the city of Portland, who so willingly support the city’s public schools every year. This budget is cognizant of you. It’s lean – it contains an expenditure increase of $826,227 or .8 percent.

Initially, when I presented my budget to the school board on March 8, Portland had been told it would experience a devastating $2.7 million loss in state revenue – which shifts the burden directly onto local taxpayers. The good news is that since I presented my budget proposal to the school board, state lawmakers and Gov. LePage have agreed to allocate additional education funding to Maine communities.

Portland will be getting $1.34 million more in state aid than what was included in my proposed budget. That is still about $1.4 million less than the current school budget, and it requires a tax rate increase of just 2 percent, instead of the 4.5 percent initially called for in my budget proposal.

However, please remember that a school budget is about more than just the bottom line. It represents our community’s values and its hopes and dreams for the future of Portland’s children and also of the city itself. After all, Portland’s youth are its future leaders, job creators and workforce.

The path to success for Portland students begins early in life. That is why we have a pre-kindergarten program. This budget calls for a continued expansion of that program, adding another class so that more families can take advantage of this valuable learning experience for their children. Even in this difficult budget time, we still need to grow and support our initiatives that increase student achievement.

To address the projected shortfall in state aid, we have proposed cuts – but very strategic ones that minimize the negative impact on teaching and learning.

Also, with invaluable input from our building leaders and Central Office team, we call for realigning and repurposing some resources to realize efficiencies and savings and continue to have close-to-ideal class sizes.

During budget time, school districts look to do more with less while at the same time honoring our nation’s values when it comes to public education, engendered by our founding fathers.

Thomas Jefferson said our government couldn’t function properly “unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.”

Public education is the cornerstone of what has made America great. That thought needs to figure significantly in every school budget review.

Portland’s school board and then the City Council will consider the budget and vote on it over the coming weeks before it goes to Portlanders for a vote May 10.

We want to hear from you during the process, which will include opportunities for public comment. The voices of our parents, staff and community members will help pass a budget that ensures all Portland students receive the high quality education they need to prepare them for success in the 21st century.

To learn more, go to the “Budget” quick link on our website, www.portlandschools.org.


Culture Club Portland: Creating a Community that Embraces the Arts

By Jeanne Crocker

February 2016

I have a “secret” to share: Culture Club Portland, a unique collaboration with our city’s cultural institutions to bring the arts to all Portland Public Schools’ students, is so successful it’s worthy of national replication. CultureClubPortland.screenshot.logo

But before that happens, I want to make sure everyone in Portland knows about Culture Club Portland. The program, generously funded through an anonymous donor, is now in its fourth year of delivering outstanding arts and cultural opportunities to thousands of our students. Surprisingly, however, many of our community members – and even some school staff – don’t know much about it.

That’s why we’re now trying to raise awareness about Culture Club Portland. It’s a collaboration between four arts organizations – the Portland Museum of Art, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Portland Stage and Portland Ovations – and the Portland Public Schools, along with the Portland Education Foundation.

Culture Club Portland’s goal is to ensure that each student in the Portland Public Schools – from kindergarten through grade 12 – will participate in at least one program per year offered by each of the four member organizations. That means each student in our district getting four unique cultural experiences every year.

The private, philanthropic donor has contributed a total of $650,000 over four years to provide these fantastic opportunities for our students at a time when tight budgets have meant a reduction in public funding for the arts.

Now, however, we are at a point where we need to focus on how to sustain and grow this wonderful program.

To help do that, the Portland Board of Public Education recently approved the establishment of a Culture Club Portland Ad Hoc Committee. The committee is charged with making recommendations for sustainability and growth, including how to expand and diversify the program’s funding.

“We have this amazing donation that comes in, but we’re at a point in time where that donation needs to be met by other sources so that we can keep and grow the program and the investment in the Portland Public Schools,” said Kate Snyder, executive director of the Portland Education Foundation (PEF), which administers the program.

Snyder said PEF will launch a fundraising campaign this spring, and will be looking to the community for support.

Carolyn Nishon, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, said she has “been able to see and experience firsthand” how Culture Club Portland impacts our students.

One reason the program works so well is that our city is just the right size for it.

As Nishon noted, “We live in a city that is brimming with cultural institutions” almost right around the corner from one another. To have a world-class symphony, art museum, stage and presenting company in such close proximity “provides such a unique opportunity for our Portland Public Schools’ students,” Nishon said.

Because Portland isn’t a huge metropolis, it’s easy for our students to get to these institutions. Some can even travel there by bus, because the successful new transportation agreement between the school district and Greater Portland METRO provides our high school students with free passes to use their buses not only for school but at any time.

Culture Club Portland also brings programs directly into the schools. For example, professional actors from Portland Stage put on an abridged version of “Romeo and Juliet” this fall for eighth-graders at Lincoln Middle School. The students said that short version made them eager to see the whole play.

Inspiring our students to immerse themselves in the arts and build a lifelong relationship with them is a great benefit of Culture Club Portland. Students create a habit or tradition of going to the art museum or a concert or play and may encourage others in their families to do the same.

The program also fosters students’ involvement in the arts as artists themselves. That’s a boon to our many students with extraordinary artistic talent.

The importance of the arts is underscored in our nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA. Art and music, alongside math and language arts, are part of its definition of a “well-rounded education.”

Culture Club Portland is creating a community that values and embraces the arts. That’s well worth our support!


School Board Members Deserve Appreciation

By Jeanne Crocker

January 2016

Did you know that school boards are so vital to our public education system that their history predates our nation’s founding? January is School Board Recognition Month, so it’s a great time to recognize school boards in general – and the Portland Board of Public Education in particular. I want to thank these dedicated citizens for all the time and effort they devote in support of teaching and learning in the Portland Public Schools.

School Board.2015-2016.1.ScreenShot

Portland Board of Public Education

According to the National School Boards Association, school board history dates back to the 1600s – Colonial times. “Local democratic control of public education was a strongly rooted tradition in our country long before it became an independent nation,” the NSBA says.

Why are school boards so important?

“School boards … represent the community’s beliefs and values. Who better than these community representatives to shoulder the responsibility for preparing children to live productive and satisfying lives?” the NSBA says.

A school board’s myriad duties are summed up in a proposed joint legislative resolution declaring January 2016 as School Board Member Recognition Month in Maine. Sen. Rebecca Millett, who represents South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and part of Scarborough, hopes to introduce the resolution on Jan. 21. The resolution expresses lawmakers’ appreciation of Maine school boards and urges local communities to recognize their dedicated board members.

Among the work school boards do is articulating a vision for their school systems, setting high academic standards and hiring staff, the resolution states. Their work also includes setting policies and procedures and adopting budgets. And they work closely with administrators, teachers, parents and the community to do all that.

Yet, as the resolution notes, they’re volunteer community members “who put in countless hours in meetings and in their communities advocating for their schools.”

Connie Brown, the executive director of the Maine School Boards Association, describes school board members as “often the unsung heroes in their local areas.”

“It’s a challenging role,” she said.

It’s one to which Marnie Morrione, voted in as the new chair of Portland’s school board on Dec. 7, has devoted seven years of her life and counting. Her current term as the District 5 representative expires in 2017. Why does she do it?

“Coming from a family of educators, I know what an important role our schools play in our individual and collective future,” said Morrione, whose family members are in academia. “Our schools must do the best job possible to prepare our children to lead successful lives of personal and social meaning.”

Morrione said the board’s job is to “represent the community.” She said board members must “ensure decisions are transparent and accountable with high standards. By overseeing the superintendent’s work, setting priorities and establishing policies, board members can give a district direction for academic achievement. Also, board members serve as watchdogs to make sure tax dollars are being well spent and used for the best education for all students.”

Portland has nine elected school board members: Marnie Morrione; Sarah Thompson; Pious Ali; John Eder; Anna Trevorrow; Jenna Vendil; Holly Seeliger; Laurie Davis; and Stephanie Hatzenbuehler. The board also has four student representatives chosen by their peers at each of Portland’s high schools: Portland High School’s Ludiya Abdalla; Deering High School’s Blaize Vail; Casco Bay High School’s Matthew Suslovic; and Kevin Segal, who represents the Portland Arts and Technology High School or PATHS.

Morrione said the students are an integral part of the board.

“Our work revolves around students and without their voices, we would not be very successful,” she said. “Not only do board student representatives have an opportunity at each meeting to share information about their high schools, but also they vote and can comment on an item during the meetings and workshops. Board members listen closely to the student representatives and value their input greatly.”

CBHS junior Suslovic said the schools “are ground zero when it comes to the impact of the decisions our school board makes. And so it is my peers’ and my responsibility to bring our unique perspective as students and members of the next generation to the table.”

Portland is very fortunate to have such thoughtful and dedicated community members guiding our schools. Thank you, school board members, for all you do!


Brighten Darkness with Light of Understanding

By Jeanne Crocker

December 2015

December can seem like a very dark month. It’s the time of the Winter Solstice, when we experience the longest night of the year. What brightens the month are the holidays of the season. And, with the Portland Public Schools being Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, our students and their families celebrate quite a variety of holidays. JeanneCrocker.ScreenShot

Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are three of the best-known examples of holidays observed this month. Another example, because it falls on Dec. 24 this year, is Eid Milad ul-Nabi, which celebrates the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

All these holidays are very different and celebrated in a variety of ways. Still, they all have something in common: They are characterized by giving and sharing and also by cherishing and respecting others.

At a time when there is much darkness in our world – with terrorist attacks and a refugee crisis impacting nearly every nation, including our own – let’s use this holiday season to shine a light on those shared values. Let’s focus on what we have in common and work to foster harmony and understanding, not divisiveness and misinformation.

Doing that is particularly important for our Portland Public Schools community because our school district has so much diversity.

Currently, 36 percent of our approximately 7,000 students come from homes where a total of about 60 languages other than English are spoken. In its linguistic, ethnic, religious, racial and cultural diversity, the Portland Public Schools can be considered a kind of microcosm of our great country.

Like our country, our district values our diversity and believes it makes us better and stronger. I am so proud of our students and staff for all they do to embrace the wonderful diversity of our school district and to send the message that bias and harassment will not be tolerated.

For example, Lyseth Elementary School fifth-graders this fall led a successful effort to get not only their school but also the city of Portland to celebrate an anti-bullying Unity Day. Also, a group of Lyman Moore Middle School educators has spearheaded the startup of the school’s first Civil Rights Team in years. And the already strong Civil Rights Team at Riverton Elementary School is focusing this year on using a variety of means – including sports, arts and crafts, a newsletter, a culture club, theater and mentoring – to get the group’s message out.

The Riverton team is planning a Civil Rights Week to be celebrated in February. Also, an arts and crafts project that teams members are working on will be displayed in the hallways of the school to capture the essence of the CRT message: “Celebrate differences! Find things that we all have in common! Make everyone feel welcome and that they matter!”

Another example is at the high school level. Deering High School students recently hosted a student-led dialogue session to share and discuss perspectives on topics related to the world refugee crisis. Deering, a very diverse high school, partners with the Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network, working to develop interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning that emphasize global competence.

The recent dialogue was facilitated by students in Seeds of Peace, a group of high school students from across Maine who participate in a leadership training program that promotes peace. The lead organizer was Salim Salim, Seeds of Peace member and Deering senior class president. His goal was to get a diverse group of people with differing opinions, ages, ethnicities, races and backgrounds in one place to talk about the immigrant crisis in a facilitated discussion.

About 70 students and teachers from Portland and beyond (some came from as far away as Lewiston) participated in the dialogue, according to Deering teacher Sarah Shmitt, who helped facilitate the event. “The discussions were rich and wide-ranging, respectful and stimulating,” she reported.

Let’s not focus on the darkness. Instead, let’s use this season as a time to celebrate our richly diverse Portland community. And let’s continue to work to ensure that our schools remain a haven of harmony, respect and safety for our youngest and most vulnerable community members, who are entrusted to our care.


Becoming a World Language Powerhouse

By Interim Portland Superintendent Jeanne Crocker

November 2015

I was a world language teacher for 21 years – I taught French and Spanish – so helping students learn other languages is near and dear to my heart. I feel very proud that the Portland Public Schools is a leader in world language education in Maine. We offer a growing number of different language learning opportunities to our students each year.

This year, for example, we have expanded our unique Spanish Immersion Program at Lyseth Elementary School, enhanced our Mandarin program at the high school level and added a new class at Portland High School that teaches students about being language interpreters – an increasingly vital career opportunity in the global world in which we live.

But before I tell you more about our programs, just a note on the term “world language.” Many educational institutions across the nation now use that term instead of “foreign language,” and the Portland Public Schools is one of them.

Our district serves approximately 7,000 students and is the largest and most diverse in the state. Currently, 36 percent of our students come from homes where a total of about 60 different languages are spoken. Languages other than English are not “foreign” to us!

Also, the Portland Public Schools’ vision is that all learners will be fully prepared to succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world. The term “world language” underscores that knowledge of other languages and cultures will help our students succeed in the modern world.

What world language opportunities do we offer?

Our Spanish Immersion Program at Lyseth is one. The first full language immersion program at a public school in Maine when it started last year in kindergarten, the program this year added a first-grade class taught by Pedro Zamarro. Susana Balasch also continues in her role as the kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher. In addition, Carlos Domínguez of the Canary Islands started in October as our new Spanish language and culture assistant, assisting with the immersion program at Lyseth, and also serving as a resource to other district schools. Lyseth is one of only about 30 schools in the United States and Canada to be awarded such as an assistant through the Spanish Visiting Teacher Program.

About 90 percent of the immersion program curriculum is taught in Spanish, except for such subjects as art and music.

Lyseth Principal Lenore Williams said world language programs “should begin at the elementary level, since language acquisition is more easily accomplished at a young age. We are very excited to have this program in the Portland Public Schools and look forward to growing the program to grade 5.”

Also, the Portland Public Schools this year has been named a Confucius Classroom in concert with the University of Southern Maine’s Confucius Institute, to help increase the number of students learning Mandarin and also Chinese culture. This enhances our Mandarin program, now in its third year and offered at Deering and Casco Bay high schools. The Portland schools got a new Mandarin teacher this fall, paid for by the Confucius Institute, and will get up to $10,000 for startup equipment and expenses.

Portland High School this year is offering a new class called, “Exploring Interpretation as a Career.” The class provides students with some fluency in another language the opportunity to learn what’s involved in being a professional interpreter, according to teacher and course creator Jen Lunt. Students get real-life practice volunteering as interpreters in places such as our schools and community organizations.

Our other world language offerings include Arabic, now in its third year at Deering High School; elementary, middle and high school Spanish; middle and high school French; Latin at Portland High School; and American Sign Language at Lyman Moore Middle School and Portland High School.

We plan to continue to add more opportunities. For example, the district is working on developing a Native and Heritage Language Program to support, assess and formally recognize the language assets of the district’s very diverse student population, said Lynne Rowe, language acquisition specialist in our Multilingual and Multicultural Center.

The goal, she said, is to have the Portland Public Schools “stand out as a world language powerhouse.”


It’s the Principal of the Thing

By Interim Portland Superintendent Jeanne Crocker

October 2015

Arne Duncan, our nation’s education secretary, is stepping down later this year, but something he said stays with me: “There’s no such thing as a high-performing school without a great principal.”

Duncan said we “simply can’t overstate” the importance of principals in driving student achievement and attracting and retaining good teachers.

He made those comments a few years ago, but his words are particularly apt now because October is National Principals Month. It’s a time we honor principals for the critical role they play in the lives of students, teachers and other staff and parents.

I like to think of a principal as the conductor of an orchestra. A principal has to focus on various members of the orchestra – the freshman class, for example, or parents or teachers – but in the end it’s the principal’s job to bring the different elements of the school all together in a harmonious way.

Here at the Portland Public Schools, we are very fortunate to have outstanding principals. I want to commend them for all they do every day to ensure student success.

I don’t have room to name them all here, so I’ll mention just a few principals to give an idea of the wealth of experience our school leaders have.

One, Suellyn Santiago, is just in her second year as principal of Lincoln Middle School, but can draw on the knowledge she has gained in serving our district for some 16 years, in roles ranging from educational technician to assistant principal.

Another, Dawn Kenniston, formerly known as Dawn Carrigan, was principal of Longfellow Elementary School before spending last year leading a school in Taiwan. She became principal of Hall Elementary School this fall and brings to the job a broader perspective as a global leader equipped with skills to prepare students for global competency.

And Jeanne Malia, in her fifth year as principal of Riverton Elementary School, has had a long career literally spanning the nation. She has worked in Maine, Maryland and California, and was principal of a Los Angeles science magnet school before returning to Maine.

I asked these school leaders what inspired them.

Kenniston said she was inspired to lead by an experience in her first job in education.

“Just after I started my job as an educational technician, our principal called over the intercom to meet with teachers in the library. I eagerly went and sat in the front row,” Kenniston said. But the principal told her, “You are not a teacher.”

Kenniston continued, “I really believed I was a teacher, even though it was not my formal title. After this experience, I was determined to be in a position to ensure that everyone who worked in a school would believe and understand that they are teachers. As teachers we understand that every action that we take, every decision that we make, influences the actions and decisions of children watching us.”

Are principals teachers too?

“Absolutely,” she said. “Principals are teachers in every action and every interaction. I try to model all of the behaviors that I want students to demonstrate.”

Malia said her grandparents, immigrants from Ireland, instilled in her the importance of education and working hard.

“They inspired me to do my best and to never give up,” she said. “I have also been very fortunate to have worked for and with many leaders in Maine, Maryland and California who have modeled the initiative, flexibility, courage and empathy needed to be an effective leader.”

She added, “leadership also means building the capacity of everyone to take on the work of the school.”

Santiago’s parents were Portland Public Schools teachers and her mother also became a principal.

“I was drawn to the field of education and truly believe that I was born to do this work,” Santiago said. “I love kids and am passionate about helping them learn.”

Santiago said she chose to become a building administrator because “I wanted to have a larger impact on more students and help our school continue to grow.”

During this month, I’d like to thank all our great school leaders for the tremendous positive impact you have on our students, staff, parents and community.


Attending School First Step to Success

By Interim Portland Superintendent Jeanne Crocker

September 2015

It’s a new school year and I’d like to welcome students back to school with the same words I used to say to my own kids when they were yoCountMeInunger: Learn everything!

I’ll also add this: Attend school regularly! That will make it possible for you to learn.

September is Attendance Awareness Month, a nationwide recognition of the fact that school attendance impacts academic achievement. It’s a time for schools and communities to promote good attendance and take steps to address the problem of chronic absence – missing 18 or more days during the school year.

Research tells us that missing school negatively impacts students’ learning. Here are some findings:

  • Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the end of third grade.
  • By sixth grade, chronic absence is a proven early warning sign for students at risk for dropping out of school.
  • By ninth grade, good attendance is a predictor of not only graduation rates but also success in college.

An overarching goal of the Portland Public Schools’ Comprehensive Plan is that all our students graduate from high school prepared for college and career, but they can’t do that if they drop out. All too often, the path to dropping out begins in elementary school – and it starts with students not attending school.

Here in Maine, we are fortunate to have Count ME In partnering with school districts such as ours to address school attendance. Count ME In is a partnership of schools, youth, families, and the community, including businesses, state agencies and community organizations, working together to help children to learn and succeed.

Susan Lieberman, director of Count ME In, said, “I can’t emphasize enough that it’s a collective effort on everyone’s part to help kids attend school regularly.”

That’s why Count ME In is inviting everyone – including educators, school officials, policy makers, businesses, families and community members – to its 2015 Fall Summit, which is titled: “Attendance Matters: Connecting for Student Success.” The event will take place on Oct. 29, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Freeport.

Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absenteeism, will be the keynote speaker. Chang, recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change, will talk about how families, communities and educators can support students and address attendance problems. Learn more about the conference at www.countmeinmaine.org.

When we say “chronic absenteeism,” it may sound as if we’re talking about students who miss weeks of school in a row. However, as Lieberman noted, it’s rarely the case that students are absent 18 days or more all at once. More typically, students miss two or three days per month – but that can quickly add up to missing a significant percentage of the school year.

According to Starting Strong, an early-age component of Portland ConnectED, a communitywide partnership of agencies and organizations that are committed to helping Portland youth succeed from cradle to career, research has found that 1 in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students nationwide miss almost a month of school each year. They can’t afford to lose that time, particularly in those early years when students are receiving crucial reading instruction.

Starting Strong’s top priority is to help children reach reading proficiency by the end of third grade and it says regular attendance at school is one of the key ways students can realize that goal.

Of course, some absences can’t be avoided due to health reasons or emergency circumstances. But when students miss too much school, whatever the reason, they can fall behind and get discouraged.

Families can help by conveying to their children that attending school is important. Show them that attendance matters to you.

Helping our students value attendance can not only help them succeed in school but later in life. The habits they learn now as youngsters will carry over to the jobs they get as adults.

This school year, let’s make sure our kids make the most of their opportunity to learn in school – and the first step to that is ensuring they attend school.


Focus on Students Is a Constant at Portland Public Schools

By Interim Portland Superintendent Jeanne Crocker

August 2015

Portland Public Schools staff and students are about to start the 2015-2016 with new district leadership and some exciting new initiatives. But one thing won’t change: the Portland Public Schools’ strong focus on students and fostering their academic success.

JeanneCrocker.ScreenShotI’m one of the new leaders. I became interim superintendent of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district on Aug. 1.

The Portland Board of Public Education appointed me to this one-year post while it searches for a replacement for former Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, who left to lead a larger school district in Kentucky. I welcome this new opportunity to serve our district of approximately 7,000 students over the next year.

I previously was the district’s director of school management and worked side by side with Superintendent Caulk. My goal now is to continue the good work he led in this district, so we don’t skip a beat.

We also recently filled three top administrative posts. Becky Foley, formerly MSAD 52’s assistant superintendent, is our chief academic officer. Kim Brandt, formerly assistant superintendent for RSU 16, now has my former position as director of school management. And Fred Barlow, who most recently directed transportation for two New York school districts, is our new transportation director.

They’re key additions to our Central Office team as we work to maximize the work our school leaders, teachers and staff do to support student achievement in our schools.

We’re also starting the school year with some new initiatives.

The most exciting is 20 more minutes of learning time for students added to each school day this fall. Students’ new 6.5-hour day means they’ll get more than 46 additional instructional hours in school over the course of the year. That’s true even though the school year will be two days less – students will attend school for 178 days this year, compared to the 180 days scheduled for 2014-2015.

To fit in that extra learning time each day, our schools will have new bell schedules as of September. The new schedules, which the school board approved in May after numerous public hearings, are listed on the 2015-2016 district calendar. Go to www.portlandschools.org and click on the “News & Calendars” tab to access the calendar.

Also, as part of the new changes, Portland METRO buses will transport high school students to and from classes and extracurricular activities. (School bus specialized transportation will continue to be provided for high school students who need it.) The METRO plan gives the school district more flexibility when it comes to transportation.

METRO and the district will continue their work with high school students and families, which began in the spring, to ensure the new transportation plan goes smoothly. The efforts have included free METRO summer bus passes for high school students. Many students have used the passes to travel to jobs or to get around this summer, familiarizing themselves with the bus system in the process. And a new bus route designed to makes it easier for students to get to their high schools officially launched Aug. 16.

As August ends, I also want to say a few words about our successful summer programs, in which more than 900 students participated. We continue our focus on students’ academic success during the summers to help students avoid the “summer slide.”

This year, the Portland Summer Success: Feeding Bodies & Minds program, a collaborative project of Portland ConnectED partners, including the Portland Public Schools, provided free lunches to kids and teens at 18 neighborhood sites across the city, along with learning opportunities such as science experiments, reading, games, and crafts. Learning opportunities also were offered in our schools.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing rising ninth-graders in a Summer Research Adventure Camp explain the research projects they chose to investigate, ranging from capitalism to becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

The value of this type of summer learning is enormous. And seeing the students’ excited faces as they explained their projects in August was very rewarding. As the new school year begins, I look forward to seeing all of our students eagerly engaged in learning.


(Below are monthly columns by former Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk)

Portland Schools on a Path of Continued Success

July 2015

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 EmmanuelCaulk.ScreenShot070115miners 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 roadmap 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 inclusivity, 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, that 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.


Shout-out for Portland’s Class of 2015

June 2015

This graduation season, I have addressed a total of 700 graduates from our district’s four high schools – Portland, Deering, Casco Bay and the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS). I also have spoken at the Portland Adult Education ceremony, congratulating the nearly 200 PAE graduates who either attained their high school diplomas or passed a high school equivalency test this year.

The pomp and circumstance at each ceremony was similar, but our outstanding graduates made each event new and different.

Many of our graduates shone academically and have been accepted at a wide variety of colleges and universities. Those include Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Barnard, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania, and elite Maine schools such as Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, as well as the University of Maine system.

Many of our students also overcame significant challenges to complete their high school education. In addition to their academic achievement, they demonstrated remarkable perseverance.

There are many members of the Class of 2015 whose accomplishments stand out, and I wish I could tell you about every one. Since that is not possible, I’ll showcase here one outstanding graduate from each school.

Gabriel Walker, a Portland High School graduate, is one such standout. He won a prestigious 2015 MPA Principal’s Award, which recognizes academic achievement and citizenship. Treasurer of the class of 2015 and also vice president of the Student Council, Gabe maintained an “A” average while taking Honors and Advanced Placement courses.

He also was president of the Shakespeare and drama clubs and of the Gay, Straight and Transgender Alliance (GSTA). In his GSTA role, PHS Principal Deborah Migneault said, Gabe was “a role model for spreading tolerance, understanding, compassion and dignity within our school community.” Gabe will attend Brandeis University this fall.

One Deering High School standout was Allison Nishimwe, who came to Portland from Burundi. She learned English as quickly as she could, and excelled in subjects as diverse as AP calculus, journalism and creative writing. Allison was very involved at Deering in the Natural Helpers peer support program. She plans to attend Wheaton College to study business.

At Casco Bay High School, Liam Fowler graduated with the highest GPA. He took every AP course the school offered and was on the school’s Honor Roll every trimester and earned High Honors every trimester except for one. During his junior year, Liam volunteered with his class to aid in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. He plans to attend Middlebury College.

Noor Ibrahim, a graduate of PATHS and Casco Bay High School, is yet another outstanding student. Noor came to Portland via Philadelphia and Syria and is an aspiring fashion designer. She culminated her senior year by unveiling 20 original outfits at the PATHS fashion show in April. Noor is a member of the National Technical Honor Society and headed to Southern Maine Community College in the fall.

In the Portland Adult Education Class of 2015, Fartun Hirsi was one of the most dedicated students. Fartun, 29, is from Somalia and actually earned her first high school diploma in a refugee camp in Kenya. When she first came to Maine, Fartun worked two jobs to support her young son while waiting for her husband to join her here as a refugee.

When a friend encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse, Fartun also set out to earn a second high school diploma. She rarely missed a day at Portland Adult Education over the past two years. She recently completed her studies – just weeks before the baby she’s expecting arrives at the end of June.

Congratulations to these remarkable students and the entire Class of 2015. I wish them all the best as they pursue college and careers!

And for those of us who believe in lifelong learning, even in the summer, I have two reading suggestions: “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom,” by don Miguel Ruiz ; and “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” by Charles Duhigg.

The first is about recognizing self-limiting beliefs and the second is about why habits exist and how they can be changed. Both provide excellent food for thought.


It’s Always the Right Time to Appreciate Staff

May 2015

We just celebrated Mother’s Day, which became a national holiday 101 years ago. Congress initially wasn’t convinced of the necessity for such an observance, but now we can all appreciate the importance of having a special day on which to honor someone who has made such a difference in our lives.

Similarly, as the leader of the Portland Public Schools, I’m glad there are special days and weeks set aside to recognize members of our staff who make such a difference in the lives of our students.

Just this month, for example, we had Teacher Appreciation Week, which ran May 4-8, and National Nurses Week, May 6-12. In April, we also marked National Assistant Principals Week and also Administrative Professionals Week.

I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the great teachers, nurses, assistant principals and administrative professionals on our staff.

And, even if it’s not their special day or week or month, I’d also like to extend my respect and gratitude to all our other Portland Public Schools’ staff members.

Whatever they do – including transporting students to and from school; teaching them reading, writing, mathematics and so much more; tending to them when they’re hurt or ill; serving them nutritious meals; keeping our schools clean and comfortable; and ensuring that our schools and our district run effectively and efficiently – their role is vital to the success of our district’s students.

Our staff members stand out, as evidenced by the awards and recognitions they receive. To cite just a few:

  • Deering High School Spanish and ELL teacher Anne Dixon in April received the University of Southern Maine’s 2015 Russell Award for excellence in teaching. She was praised for going “above and beyond for the good of DHS and students.”
  • Nancy McAdam, a food service manager for the district’s middle and high schools, recently won the Manager of the Year Award from the Maine School Nutrition Association for her dedication and ingenuity when it comes to the district’s meal program.
  • School nurse Becky Bell was honored by the Portland Board of Public Education for orchestrating Casco Bay High School’s first school wellness fair last fall, which included exhibitors and vendors from around the state. Students and parents actively engaged in the fair and it was so successful that the school plans to repeat it. Bell serves students at CBHS and the Portland Arts and Technology High School and is an active leader in the state association of school nurses.
  • Bruce Lane, a bus driver who serves Reiche Community School, also was honored by the school board this spring for always going “the extra mile – often literally” to help students and families. He has been with the Portland Public Schools for only about a year, but has already made a lasting impression.
  • The school board also recently recognized educational technician Ruth Howe at Deering High School. She has worked in the Functional Life Skills program there for 18 years and has been an exceptional member of the classroom team. She was praised for her positive attitude, willingness to learn and receive training, and her ability to work with every student, regardless of any difficulty that comes along.

This is just a sampling of the talented and dedicated staff that makes a difference in the lives of our approximately 7,000 students every day. Many of our staff members go above and beyond to ensure our students succeed. They give up their evenings and weekends, they’re proactive in applying for grants and securing school resources, and they continue to educate themselves by participating in professional development.

They are contributing to the future of our society by helping to shape the lives of the next generation. The Portland Public Schools is fortunate to have them. Thank you to all our staff!


Response to Trends Today Impacts Tomorrow

April 2015

Maine is experiencing a number of trends. For example, the state’s population is aging and we’re facing environmental challenges as we consider how to best meet Maine’s energy needs. How we respond to trends today will impact our future, so it’s very important that we react thoughtfully.

That is why I’m inviting you to an important community conversation on Monday, May 4, that will focus on such trends and others and their impact on the future of Maine communities and schools. The conversation will be led by Gary Marx, author of “21 Trends for the 21st Century: Out of the Trenches and Into the Future.”

At this event, Marx, an internationally known author, speaker and workshop leader, will help us explore today’s massive trends such as rapidly changing demographics, constantly emerging technologies and environmental challenges and the ways they impac21trends349x528t how we learn and how we lead. As part of the event, Marx will then ask us, as participants, to consider the implications of those trends for Maine. How will they impact the education of our children and the quality of life in this great state?

The trends we’ll be talking about affect everyone, so school and business leaders and other community members from not just Portland but other cities and towns are invited to join in this important conversation. It will take place from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium.

The event is titled “Focusing on the Future: ‘21 Trends for the 21st Century,’ a Community Conversation.” It’s sponsored by the Portland Public Schools and NESDEC (New England School Development Council).

I initially chose Marx’s book for the winter meeting of my Superintendent’s Book Club. A snowstorm caused the cancellation of that meeting, but I found the book so compelling that I invited the author to Maine to discuss it with us when we rescheduled to May 4.

This community conversation is one of the ways that the Portland Public Schools is leading the state in continuing to explore new ways to invest in our future – and that future is our children.

This book is very important because it shows how education has an impact on everything that happens in the world and that everything that happens in the world impacts education. And if we’re going to have a future as bright as our past, it’s going to depend in large part on how we respond to trends developing now.

Expect Marx to talk about a wide variety of trends. Aging will be among them, but he’ll also discuss the flow of generations and diversity. Do those trends sound familiar? They are all ones that impact Maine.

Marx also will talk about technology, privacy, jobs and careers. Other topics will include energy, the environment, sustainability, the international/global sphere, polarization, ethics, poverty, and work-life balance.

When it comes to education, Marx will talk about connection, focusing on personalization, the need to release ingenuity and creativity and the importance of depth, breadth, and purpose of education.

May 4 also marks the start of the Portland Public Schools’ third annual Principal for a Day program, run in partnership with the Portland Regional Chamber. During that weeklong program, leaders of local businesses, colleges and nonprofits will spend a day as guest principals at Portland’s public schools. The CEOs get to see a school in action and share their management insights.

Expect to see many of those CEOs join this community conversation and share their expertise.

Besides being an author, Marx is president and founder of the Center for Public Outreach, which counsels internationally on future-oriented leadership, communication, education, community and democracy.

Copies of “21 Trends” will be at Longfellow Books in Portland for a 20 percent discount when mentioning the Superintendent’s Book Club. The book also will be on sale at the event, with Marx available for a book signing. The Portland Public Library also has put the book on order.

The event is free of charge but pre-registration is urged because space is limited. To register, go to:


Alternatively, you can go to the calendar on our website, www.portlandschools.org, and click on May 4 and the event, and then click on the registration link.

Please join us in this conversation to help shape Maine’s future.


It Takes a State to Support Education

March 2015

One of my core values is that it takes an entire community to ensure the success of our public schools. That doesn’t mean just our local community. As our legislators work in Augusta to decide how much to allocate in state funding to local school districts, I’d like to point out that we are all part of one community: the state of Maine.

Education plays a vital role in that state community. Maine’s schools and businesses are closely linked. Our schools educate the workforce of tomorrow, ensuring today’s students have the knowledge and skills to prepare them for 21st century careers. But if Maine schools don’t get the funding they need to do that, the skills gap will widen. Without an educated workforce, we won’t be able to attract businesses to our state and our economy won’t be able to grow and prosper.

Our state Legislature is in the midst of making decisions about General Purpose Aid to local school districts. Back in 2005, Maine voters said the state should pick up 55 percent of the cost of education. However, the education budget that Gov. LePage has proposed calls for funding only about 46 percent.

If passed, that budget would do a disservice to students, parents and local property taxpayers by failing to adequately fund the true cost of education in Maine.

The cost of education in the budget proposal has increased by $68 million, but state aid to local districts is only going up $20 million, according to the Maine School Management Association.

At the local level, that means an unreasonable and unsustainable cost shift to property taxpayers to cover the cost of educating our state’s young people.

Here in Portland over the last few years, we have implemented a disciplined, even austere, approach to budgeting in the face of a challenging economy and declining state support. We make every dollar count and we’re showing our community a positive return on its investment – our students are demonstrating growth. My proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 simply maintains current resources and staffing while investing in our employees.

Yet under the governor’s budget proposal, Portland stands to lose more than $900,000 in GPA in the new fiscal year, according to the latest state numbers. Without that hole, the 2.3 percent tax hike that my proposed budget entails would drop to just 1.1 percent.

We’re not the only school district facing a bleak budget outlook. Just based on inflation, costs are increasing statewide for special education and general operations. In addition, the governor and Legislature have imposed numerous mandates on public schools over the past four years.

Those include changing diploma standards, developing and implementing expensive new teacher evaluation systems, moving to a Common Core system and implementing new standardized tests. Such requirements add costs, yet the state hasn’t provided new funding to match those costs.

Furthermore, the state has shifted teacher retirement costs onto local districts. Historically, the state had paid the full employer share of teacher retirement costs. State government has ways to raise revenues and spread out tax responsibilities in an equitable fashion.

Local communities lack those options. At the Portland Public Schools, for example, the cost of teacher retirement creates a $1.3 million to $1.5 million hole in our budget. If the state restores full state responsibility for funding teacher retirement costs, and Portland didn’t have a decrease in GPA, my budget proposal would require a zero tax rate increase or even lower.

Another one of my core values is: Students come first. It’s time for our state to prioritize our children and provide the funding our schools need to successfully prepare them for college and career.

That is why I have asked state legislators – the leaders of our state community – to help Maine schools succeed by increasing state aid to education, making up the difference in the governor’s budget proposal and keeping the mill rate for local property taxpayers flat.

I urge you to also ask your elected representatives to fully fund Maine’s educational needs and not shift that burden onto local taxpayers. Meeting the full educational needs of Maine students is the fair, equitable – and community-minded – thing to do.


Black History Is an Ongoing Legacy

Feburary 2015

February is Black History Month, a time when we reflect on and celebrate how the contributions of African Americans have helped make our country great.

Most people are familiar with leaders like Frederick Douglass, the renowned African-American anti-slavery writer and orator, and the great Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I’d also like to recognize contributions to black history made here in Maine.

First, a little background about Black History Month: It was first celebrated nearly 40 years ago, but the NAACP says its origins reach back to an NAACP leader, historian and educator, Carter Woodson, who founded “Negro History Week” in 1926. At that time, most history books ignored the central role African Americans played in shaping America into the country it is today. In 1976, Negro History Week expanded into Black History Month, according to the NAACP.

How do Maine and Portland fit in?

Well, to cite just one example, Portland was one of the first cities in the country to spend public money educating African Americans. A few African-American children attended classes with whites at North School in the early 1800s. As the population grew, a separate “colored” school was created in a room at the rear of the building. Later, the “colored” school moved to the Abyssinian Church, the city’s only African-American church. The minister, Rev. Amos Freeman, was both teacher and principal. Today, of course, Portland’s schools are fully integrated.

Abyssinian Church

Abyssinian Church that housed Portland’s “colored school.”

In a more modern example, Gerald Talbot in 1972 became the first African-American member of the Maine House of Representatives, representing part of Portland. Talbot also helped reorganize the NAACP in Maine, an organization today led by his daughter, Rachel Talbot Ross.

Gerald Talbot is the co-author of an anthology called “Maine’s Visible Black History,” which shows how African-American men and women have shaped Maine culture and society since Colonial times. The anthology covers everything from slavery in Maine (which lasted until 1783) to the role Mainers played in the modern Civil Rights movement.

Today, a half a century later, King Middle Schools students are studying about those Mainers. In a learning expedition called “Small Acts of Courage,” the students are learning about the Civil Rights movement through the stories of Portland residents who fought for racial equality in the 1960s.

And Casco Bay High School student Kim Henry, responding to the current national debate on race and the stereotypical way African Americans often are portrayed in the media, held a “Black Stories Matter Cafe Night” on Feb. 12 to enable black students to tell their stories.

Those are just two examples of a wide variety of efforts at the Portland Public Schools – Maine’s largest and most diverse school district – to promote tolerance, fight against discrimination and ensure that ALL our students graduate prepared for college and career.

We have a number of school-based groups that work to address issues of bias and reduce barriers in our community and schools. These groups include the King Fellows, Seeds of Peace, Voices for Student Centered Learning and school Civil Rights Teams.

Also, the Portland Public Schools, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and the NAACP are partners in My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative of President Obama and the White House that is tackling the challenges faced by boys and young men of color. We held a Local Action Summit in January and hope to roll out an action plan this spring.

Parents are involved too, through Portland Empowered, a parents’ group working to get traditionally disenfranchised populations of parents engaged with the school system to foster student success. They have support from the Muskie School and the Nellie Mae Pathways to Success project.

At the staff level, we also are working to enhance professional development to include cultural competency and an understanding of diversity and inclusion. Our goal is to be a leader on issues of race and equity.

And during the FY 2016 school budget process, we’ll be looking at ways to close the achievement gap we see in some grades between groups such as African-American and economically disadvantaged students and their other classmates.

Closing both the achievement and opportunity gap for our students is a moral imperative and moral challenge facing our community.


Showing the Community Its ROI on Student Achievement

January 2015

This is the time of year when Maine school districts begin the school budget process, asking our communities to show their support for public education by investing in it. But when community members back our public schools, how do they know what ROI – return on investment – they’re getting?

The Portland Public Schools is a trailblazer in the state in providing an answer to that question for members of our community. We’re using two important new metrics to show how we’re utilizing their investment: the District Scorecard and a survey of parents’ and high school students’ perspectives on our schools.

As we deliver on our pledge of having all students graduate from high school prepared for college and career, the scorecard and survey give parents and other community members a robust picture of student achievement and school climate.

The District Scorecard gives data on student performance on state assessments in reading, writing, math and science and for English language learners’ performance on the ACCESS test. It also sets performance targets and includes data about student attendance, high school graduation rates, enrollment in AP classes, PSAT and SAT scores and other indicators of college readiness.

And the results are not just reported for the district as a whole but also for subgroups: White; Asian; Black/African-American; Hispanic/Latino; economically disadvantaged; students with identified disabilities; and students with limited English proficiency.

If that sounds like a lot of data, it is. Our District Scorecard isn’t just based on one point in time or a single assessment but instead looks at where students are growing and other indicators of student success. The Portland Public Schools is a leader in the state in using multiple measures to look at our data.

Tracking all this data allows us to be transparent about the return on the investment to community members who support our schools.

The scorecard data shows areas where we’re making gains and moving in the right direction. For example, there was positive growth in SAT scores, with an increase districtwide in the percentage of students who scored 1550 and above. The percentage of Advanced Placement exams taken that resulted in a score of 3 or higher also increased, from 60 percent to 64 percent. And Black/African American and economically disadvantaged students in grade 5 made solid gains in reading and writing and also boosted their performance in math.

But the scorecard also indicates areas where we’re not growing as much as we’d like. For example, the scorecard showed that scores for third graders in the Black/African American and economically disadvantaged groups trailed well behind total scores for district third graders in reading and math.

Third grade reading ability is considered a key indicator of future academic success, so that data shows us we must do more and invest more to ensure our students’ demography does not determine their destiny.

The results of our survey were very positive. For instance, when parents were asked to agree or disagree with a statement saying they felt welcomed and respected at school, 95 percent of those who expressed an opinion on that statement agreed with it.

Also, when our high school students were asked to agree or disagree with a statement saying that they expected to graduate, 95 percent of those who expressed an opinion on that statement agreed with it.

We’ll be conducting additional surveys but are already using the information from this one to inform decision-making and improve our schools.

The Portland Public Schools is blazing a trail when it comes to showing the community its ROI in our schools. But really, you don’t need a business term to describe what we’re doing. We’re simply putting students and families first – and this is what that looks like.

As we move into the FY 2016 school budget process, the scorecard will help us identify key areas where we’ll be investing in strategies for improvement. And we invite community members to give us input on the budget at a Town Hall meeting on Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6:30 p.m. at Lyman Moore Middle School.

We’ve also created an online Neighbor-to-Neighbor Budget Toolkit to encourage public participation in the budget. The toolkit is at www. portlandschools.org.

Community Service Makes a Great Holiday Gift

December 2014

Holiday season advertisements focus on all the stuff we can give or receive as gifts. However, you won’t see mention of service to others.

Yet community service is a very valuable gift and it’s one that many local businesses, organizations and individuals bestow on the Portland Public Schools each year. They contribute generously to aid our students in furthering their learning opportunities. So, at this time of year, I’d like to recognize all those community partners with special thanks.

As I have stated before, The Portland Public Schools has set a goal of becoming the best small urban school district in the country by 2017.

But we can’t do that alone. It takes an entire community to ensure the success of our public schools.

There are many examples of how businesses, organizations and other community members have joined us in working towards our goal. To give you an idea of the scope of such giving, I’ll mention just a few.

One important way that local businesses give is through job shadowing and internships. Our students benefit greatly from this type of Expanded Learning Opportunities, or ELOs.

Maine Medical Center, Unum and the Portland Fire Department are just three of our partners who have provided students with “real-world learning experiences” through such ELOs.

I recently interviewed two of our high school students – Mohamed Nur and Moses Small – about how job shadowing and internships helped them. I talked to these impressive young men as part of my “Let’s Talk Portland” video series, in which I interview guests about a wide variety of school initiatives. “Let’s Talk Portland” is on our website, www.portlandschools.org. Caulk_JobShadow_112114

Mohamed, a senior at Deering High School, may go into politics. He recently completed an internship with Maine Sen. Angus King’s field office in Scarborough. He also had a job shadow at Maine Medical Center, following a doctor for a day.

“A job shadow or internship really complements what you’re learning in the classroom,” Mohamed told me.

Moses, a junior at Portland High School, wants to be a broadcast journalist. He did a job shadow at WCSH TV, Channel 6 and has an internship at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN). He said his experiences taught him about the skills he’ll need to reach his career goal.

To help coordinate job shadowing and internship opportunities are Jobs for Maine’s Graduates Pathways Coordinators at our high schools. Their work is funded by a three-year $5 million Nellie Mae Education Foundation grant the Portland Public Schools, Jobs for Maine’s Graduates and LearningWorks received in 2012. Thanks to all those organizations for partnering with us in providing ELOs to students.

In another kind of ELO, the Bernstein Shur law firm for three years has given generously of its time and expertise to help a diverse group of Casco Bay High School students learn about legal career opportunities through the national NALP/Street Law Legal Diversity Pipeline Program. That program partners law firms with diverse groups of students to teach them about the law and legal careers.

Through the program, Bernstein Shur lawyers and students from the University of Maine School of Law have helped CBHS students learn about the law and realize they too can become lawyers. DiversityPipelinephoto

Speaking as someone who has a law degree, I believe the study of the law is a foundation for any discipline. Thanks to these organizations for helping Portland Public Schools’ students prepare for future careers.

Also, thank you to all the individual volunteers in our schools, whose activities range from being foster grandparents to leading students in our Walking School Bus program.

And we welcome help from any other individuals, businesses and organizations that want to ensure the success of our schools. Remember, this community effort can’t succeed without you, our community members! Please contact Chanda Turner, Coordinator of Family & Community Engagement, at turnec@portlandschools.org for more information.

Also, just a reminder to please join me at the Superintendent’s Book Club on Wednesday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books in Monument Square in Portland. I’ll lead the discussion of “21 Trends for the 21st Century: Out of the Trenches and Into the Future” by Gary Marx.

Parents as Partners

November 2014

Families are our partners. They are their children’s first and most influential educators. At the Portland Public Schools, we believe that by working together with families, we ensure success for all students.

This fall, we have launched several new initiatives to make it easier for our essential family partners in education to engage with us.

The initiatives include new Learning Guides for Families, the first districtwide parent-teacher meeting and a new community e-Newsletter.

They’re all part of our Community Engagement Plan for the 2014-2015 school year, which takes our involvement with families and the broader community to the next level.

The Learning Guides for Families are a good example of that. The guides are free and they’re designed for families with children in kindergarten through grade 5. They detail for parents what students should know and be able to do in English language arts and math by the end of each grade. They also give families tips on how they can increase student learning at home.

The guides can help parents combat this familiar scenario: A parent asks a child, “What did you do in school today?” and gets “Nothing” for an answer. The guides suggest parents instead ask more specific questions such as, “What’s one thing you learned today?”

The guides let families know the specific learning goals children are expected to master by the end of each grade and suggest ways they can help children achieve those goals. In just one example, parents can help their children learn fractions by having them measure out ingredients when cooking or baking and then having them figure out how those numbers would change if the recipe were doubled or halved.

As you know, the Portland Public Schools is Maine’s most diverse school district. So to help parents whose native language is not English become more involved in their children’s education, we’ve made these helpful guides available in seven other languages besides English: Acholi, Arabic, French, Khmer, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Research shows that the more families get engaged with their children’s learning, the better those students do in school. We believe these simple but effective guides will help parents do that.

You can access the electronic versions of our guides on our website, www.portlandschools.org.

We’re also engaging families in districtwide parent-teacher meetings. The first one was held this fall and the next one will be in January, with a third meeting in May. These meetings enable us to have direct communication with parents at the district level.

We’re also holding Parent University 2.0, an ongoing engagement opportunity in which we meet with family groups within the community, through such organizations as neighborhood associations, social services agencies or faith-based groups. One recent meeting was with Portland’s Somali community and it focused on how parents in that community can become more involved in the schools.

And our first ever community e-Newsletter has just launched.

The e-Newsletter will come out twice a year, in the fall and the spring. It will communicate successes and ongoing work at the district level and in our schools to families and other community members.

We hope that this newsletter will help all those stakeholders become empowered to participate in improving our schools so that we can be the best small urban school district in the country by 2017.

Please sign up for the e-Newsletter and encourage your friends, family and neighbors to subscribe by sending an email to superintendent@portlandschools.org with “Subscribe to e-Newsletter” in the message or subject.

Also, another way for the families and the community to engage is the Superintendent’s Book Club, where we discuss the latest in educational ideas and practices. Please join me for the Book Club’s winter meeting. The free event will be held Wednesday, Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books in Monument Square in Portland.

I will lead the discussion of 21 Trends for the 21st Century: Out of the Trenches and Into the Future” by Gary Marx. The book focuses on the most important trends impacting education and the whole of society today and how tomorrow’s leaders can prepare for them. For more information, visit our website, www.portlandschools.org.

I look forward to seeing you there!

For great schools, you need great leaders

October 2014

Each year, Congress passes a resolution declaring October as National Principals Month. It’s appropriate our nation sets aside time to recognize those educators because they have some of the greatest impact on student achievement.

In order to have great schools, you must have great leaders. In fact, research shows that leadership is second only to instruction in its effect on student learning.

Of course, all staff members play key roles in making a school great. However, it’s difficult to have a great school without a great principal.

Teachers obviously are responsible for a vital role: the leadership of the classroom.

But if the principal doesn’t lead the work at the school level, involving the entire staff in determining what steps the entire school needs to take to be in a mode of constant improvement, that likely isn’t going to happen.

Also, principals are the primary conduit between the school and parents. Great principals cultivate parents as partners and work together with them in the best interest of the students.

In Portland, we’re very proud of all our staff. But during National Principals Month, I want to especially honor our top school leaders.

I myself was a principal at every level – elementary, middle school and high school – so I know firsthand the challenges and rewards of the job they do.

All principals throughout Maine and around the country deserve recognition. But some of the best principals are right here in Portland, working every day to increase student learning, engage parents and get community members, such as businesses, involved in supporting public education.

There are many instances in the Portland Public Schools of how great leadership in our schools has led to great things. I’ll highlight just a few by way of example.

Under Principal Jeanne Malia’s watch at Riverton Elementary School, that school each year presents the Riverton Parent Academy. That series of workshops helps parents learn about the curriculum and how they can help their kids at home. Riverton’s first Parent Academy this year is slated to start at the end of this month.

And at Lyman Moore Middle School, Principal Stephen Rogers has been spearheading a school partnership with IDEXX Laboratories, through which IDEXX has outfitted two science classrooms with new equipment and technology, giving students enhanced learning opportunities.

Also, East End Community School has instituted a Rise and Shine extended learning program under Principal Marcia Gendron’s leadership. The program takes place before school and includes fun exercise activities, extra math and reading, arts projects and community service. It has helped lower student absences and tardiness.

We also have some new principal talent in the Portland Public Schools this school year: Lincoln Middle School Principal Suellyn Santiago and Longfellow Elementary School Principal Terrence Young.

We also welcome some assistant principals: Bethany Connolly at Lincoln Middle School; John Dickerson at Hall Elementary School; Patricia Crowley Rockwell at King Middle School; and Holly Johnson at Longfellow Elementary School.

I’ll end by recognizing another exemplary Portland Public Schools’ leader: Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce.

On Sept. 30, Pierce won the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s Larry O’Toole Award, earning a $100,000 grant to further student learning at his school. This is the third time the New England school leadership award has been given out, but the first time a Maine principal has won.

Come meet Pierce at the fall meeting of the Superintendent’s Book Club. The free event will be held Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books in Monument Square in Portland.

Pierce and I will lead the discussion of “Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century,” by Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath.  Casco Bay High School and King Middle School in Portland are two of eight schools the book profiles.

I hope to see you there.

And in the meantime, I encourage that anytime you see a principal at a community event or even in the grocery store, tell that person what a wonderful job he or she is doing serving our children and families.

District Offers Spanish Immersion, Virtual Learning & Career Pathways

September 2014

As the new school year begins, the staff of the Portland Public Schools is focusing on how we can best meet our students’ needs.  We are launching many exciting initiatives this year that will serve that purpose:

  • Lyseth Elementary School will begin Maine’s first full immersion Spanish program in a public school.  The program will provide instruction in Spanish almost the entire day.  It will begin in one kindergarten class and expand to include more students and more grades. Those who master a world language have a huge advantage when they enter the workforce.  Experts say immersion is the best way to learn and that early elementary school is the ideal time to begin.
  • Students at all grade levels will have more opportunities to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities.  Those in grades seven through 12 will be able to create, explore and make STEM projects in class and after school through the Portland Makers program.  The district’s STEM activities will be showcased at a symposium in November.
  • The Portland Public Schools will launch a virtual instruction program in September.  We expect the program to attract primarily homeschooled students.  They will have access to courses offered by Pearson’s Connections Learning, the same company that provides courses for Maine’s virtual charter school.  By offering this program within the Portland school district, we hope to keep local tax dollars in the city.
  • Portland High School ninth graders will participate in a Freshman Success Academy to help them make a successful transition from middle school to high school.  Portland High upperclassmen will choose from career-themed pathways in the arts, health and natural sciences, law and public service and engineering, architecture and trades.  Each pathway will cover core academic subjects while giving students the opportunity to explore careers that interest them.
  • Deering High School students will spend the entire year learning about poverty and hunger and how they can make a difference addressing those issues.  That topic, selected with student input, will be woven throughout the curriculum.  Deering has adopted a global focus and it is the first school in New England to join the International Studies Schools Network.
  • Casco Bay High School (CBHS) is expanding this fall to about 370 students as it takes over space previously used by Central Office.  The school’s Expeditionary Learning model will involve students in interdisciplinary projects that address timely social justice issues from climate change to conflicts in the Middle East.
  • Reiche Community School’s kindergarten classes will continue to partner with the Portland Symphony Orchestra on programs that help students develop social and academic skills as they learn about music.

You can find out more about all of these initiatives on our district’s website.

This month, many of our 2014 graduates head to college.  They will attend nearly 100 colleges and universities nationwide.  See a complete list.

Our website also features profiles of two graduates who followed their own pathways to success by pursuing strong interests.

Kimara Nzamubona, a Congolese immigrant, enrolled in Portland High in the fall of his junior year speaking almost no English.  Six years later, he has a chemistry degree from Colby College and he is pursuing a career in environmental engineering.

Julie Anderson heard the viola for the first time as a student at Longfellow Elementary School, and she fell in love with the instrument.  The district’s music teachers guided and encouraged her.  A Deering graduate, Anderson now works as a musician and music teacher, appearing with groups ranging from the Bangor Symphony Orchestra to Ray LaMontagne.

Keep Learning All Summer Long

Summer is a time to relax, spend time with family and friends and enjoy Maine’s beauty.  It’s also a time to learn.  That’s particularly important for students who are working toward proficiency.

Too many children in Portland and elsewhere in the U.S. fall victim to so-called summer slide.  They lose ground academically over the summer.  Many also miss meals and lose healthy exercise habits.

For the second year in a row, the Portland Public Schools is working with the John T. Gorman Foundation, Portland ConnectED, the Portland Public Library and other community partners to reduce summer slide.

We have created many learning opportunities for students, including some programs housed in our schools and other programs and events tied to the district’s summer meals program.  Children and their families get healthy lunches as they enjoy story time, visits with Slugger and other activities at 16 locations throughout the city.

On June 20, I joined Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Karen MacDonald of King Middle School, Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, to celebrate National Summer Learning Day with students at East End Community School.  Coincidentally, the day also was the beginning of summer vacation for students in our district.

We encouraged children and families to take the Portland Pledge for Summer Success  The pledge calls on children to make the most of summer by eating healthy foods, staying active and seizing every available learning opportunity to get ready for success in September.

All children who take the pledge and sign up online will be entered into a drawing.  Seven winners selected just before the start of the new school year will join Mayor Brennan, a surprise guest and I for a book-browsing excursion.

We are able to offer extended learning programs at several elementary schools this summer, thanks to funding from the John T. Gorman Foundation and a 21st century grant awarded by the state of Maine.  Last year’s program for students in kindergarten through grade two proved effective in preventing summer slide; 90 percent of participants either maintained or improved their reading levels over the summer.

With funds from the John T. Gorman Foundation and Portland taxpayers, we also are providing bridge programs for students who will transition from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school in the fall.

More than 750 students will participate in some type of learning program in our schools this summer.  That is the largest number ever!

The district’s 2014 graduates who are headed to Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) have an opportunity to participate in the brand new MySuccess program.

They will be invited to an intensive, two-week program to prepare them for college.  They also will receive a $200 summer stipend and a $500 scholarship toward their first semester, as well as a dedicated coach who will work with them  year-round to ensure their success at SMCC.  The MySuccess program is a partnership between the John T. Gorman Foundation, SMCC, Portland Public Schools and Portland ConnectED.

The Portland Public Schools’ Food Program is working with still more partners to provide meals in association with learning activities.  See a list of the food sites and events

You can learn more about summer learning on my new web show, “Let’s Talk Portland!”  The summer edition features my interviews with Ron Adams, director of the district’s Food Service, Carter Friend of the John T. Gorman Foundation and Kevin Brewster, teacher-leader at Reiche Community School.  After watching the video, join the discussion.

Celebrating Our Graduates

Graduation season is one of the high points in my year.  During the past month, I congratulated each of the nearly 1,000 students who graduated from our district’s high schools – Casco Bay, Deering, Portland High, Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS) – and Portland Adult Education.

Many students overcame challenges on their path to graduation.  Along with their academic achievement, they’ve learned important lesGrad Pic 1 PHSsons about perseverance.

I wish I could tell you all of their stories.  Since I cannot, I will use this space to highlight one graduate from each of the schools.

Adrianna Dibiase was an honors student at both Casco Bay High School and PATHS, where she participated in the Culinary Concepts program.  A leader in the kitchen, she served as PATHS captain in the Pro Start Hot Food Competition for the past two years, and led her team to a third-place finish this year.

Adrianna is a member of the National Technical Honor Society and she works part-time in the kitchen at Park Danforth.  She plans to continue her culinary education in college next fall.

Zachary Duperry is Deering’s valedictorian. He is a National Merit finalist and was selected as a U.S. Senate Youth Program delegate.

Zachary serveDHS grads & superd as the Senior Senate class president, the Key Club president, the Outdoors Club co-president, a member of the varsity soccer team and as an algebra tutor.  He will attend Bowdoin College.

Liban Hassan started Portland High in English Language Learner 1 classes.  He advanced to college English, graduating in just three years.

This year, Liban helped English beginners as a teacher’s aide.  Described by the Portland High staff as “incredibly bright and morally strong,” he is living by himself, seeking asylum and wants to bring his younger siblings here once he gets citizenship.  He is the James Angelo Scholarship recipient, which gives him free tuition to Southern Maine Community College.

Ava Koenigsberg was one of Casco Bay’s two, top-ranking seniors and a National Merit finalist.  She excelled in the school’s most demanding courses while working 15 to 25 hours a week at a local grocer.

Ava served as captain of the tennis team, tutored other students, played on the soccer, swim and ultimate frisbee teams and interned with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.  She will attend the University of Virginia.

Kamal Karimi, 38, earned his first diploma in Iran.  After confronting imprisonment and torture for his beliefs, he became a refugee and arrived in the United States in 2010.

Kamal began earning his second high school diploma at Portland Adult Education in 2011.  He made rapid progress in school.  He recently began working at Jill McGowan, Inc., where he utilizes his skills as a tailor.

Congratulations to all of the members of the class of 2014!  We are proud of you and we wish you well as you pursue college and careers.

Deeper Learning coverAs summer vacations approach, I want to pass along a book suggestion: “Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century,” by Monica R. Martinez and Dennis McGrath.  Hot off the press, this book features two Portland public schools – Casco Bay and King Middle School – as national models.

We will discuss “Deeper Learning” at the next meeting of the Superintendent’s Book Club in the early fall.  We will announce the date and time on the district’s website: www.portlandschools.org.

Great Teachers Change Lives

Wow!  That’s what I thought when I looked at the White House website on May 2 and saw President Barack Obama hugging Karen MacDonald, a teacher from King Middle School, at the ceremony honoring state Teachers of the Year.

Karen MacDonald at WHKaren MacDonald, Maine’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, deserves every accolade given to her during her time in the spotlight.  But she would be the first to acknowledge that she is one of many great teachers in the Portland Public Schools.

Great teachers play transformative roles in children’s lives.  Nearly every successful adult can cite a teacher who made a crucial difference along the way.

It could be the early childhood teacher who instilled a love of reading, or the elementary school teacher who helped a child become facile and confident with numbers.  It might be the middle school teacher who spent time after school coaching a sport.  Perhaps it was a high school teacher who helped the student recognize and pursue his or her special talents.

Growing up in a public housing project, I had few positive role models.  Mr. Glines, my sixth grade teacher, was one.  Firm but fair, he showed that he cared by staying late to watch our basketball games and calling our parents at night to report on our progress.

Mr. Glines took me aside and asked what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I said I wanted to become a teacher and a lawyer.  He assured me that I could fulfill that dream.  He even helped me get started by giving me opportunities to lead the class and to try to persuade the principal to change school policies.  Spurred on by his encouragement, I applied myself to schoolwork like never before.

What are the traits that make a great teacher?

One is the desire to continually improve one’s craft.  That means learning from peers and pursuing professional development opportunities.

Our district recently honored 10 teachers who have earned National Board certification, the highest credential for K-12 educators.  Only about 3 percent of U.S. teachers have National Board Certification.  To earn it, they must analyze their teaching context and students’ needs, submit videos of their teaching and provide student work samples that demonstrate growth and achievement.

Karen MacDonald is one of those teachers.  She also has earned an endorsement in teaching English as a Second Language.   Those experiences helped her grow in her teaching practice, as she explains in the May edition of my new web interview show, “Let’s Talk Portland!” 

Great teachers go the extra mile for their students – sometimes literally.  Several teachers in our district visit the homes of every student in their class at the beginning of the year to get to know their families.

Great teachers are continuously on the lookout for resources to bring back to the classroom.  They apply for grants from foundations and nonprofits such as the crowd-sourcing website, DonorsChoose.org.  They spend time on nights and weekends recruiting local experts to speak to their classes.

Great teachers give of themselves personally.  They get to know students as individuals and show that they care about them.  That support and encouragement can have profound effects that reverberate for decades.

On May 6, our district celebrated Teacher Appreciation Day.  But teachers deserve our thanks all year long.

If you haven’t thanked the teachers who made a difference in your life, why don’t you do so?  I guarantee you will make their day.

Local CEOs Spend a Day as Portland Principals

Christopher Claudio will take off time from his job as CEO of Winxnet, a Portland-based IT outsourcing and consulting firm, to spend a day as the “principal” of King Middle School.

Claudio is one of 17 leaders of local businesses and nonprofit groups who are participating in the Portland Public Schools’ second annual Principal for a Day program during the week of April 28.

 The CEOs will experience first-hand what happens during a typical school day.  They will share with principals their insights about managing change in a complex institution, motivating employees to achieve their best and setting benchmarks to measure a company’s success.

“The appeal for me is to find areas where I as a local business executive with a rapidly growing company can provide tools and resources to help my community,” said Claudio.  “I look forward to the opportunity to be a part of the solution in making our schools great.”

The district partnered with the Portland Regional Chamber to launch the Principal for a Day program last year.  It proved more successful than we ever could have imagined.

Business leaders joined our principals on daily activities that ranged from helping students with writing to setting goals with staff members, screening English language learners and giving a motivational talk to high school juniors about doing their best on the SATs.

Both the CEOs and the principals gave the program rave reviews.

“Many of the issues that schools face are the same ones we face in business,” said Vicki Gordon, Unum vice president, after her day at Casco Bay High School.   “…There is a tremendous opportunity to leverage the business community in terms of filling some of the gaps in the school’s ability to move its programs forward.”

Lyseth Elementary School Principal Lenore Williams said that the executives who visited her school from Apothecary by Design Pharmacy and the John T. Gorman Foundation “were very interested in hearing about our successes and challenges and seemed genuinely concerned about how we are working to improve student achievement while our resources continue to dwindle.”

Today’s students will be tomorrow’s workers, job creators and civic leaders.  Chip Kelley manages Longfellow officeBusiness executives recognize the importance of preparing Portland students for college, careers and citizenship – and they understand that it takes the entire community to make that happen.

Last year’s Principal for a Day program helped forge ongoing relationships between local businesses and several of our schools.   That has resulted in companies sending volunteers to work with students, providing internships and supporting the district in other ways.

This year’s participants come from a wide array of businesses, colleges and nonprofits: Bernstein Shur, Cianbro, cPort Credit Union, EnviroLogix, Key Private Bank, L.L. Bean, Maine Red Claws, Maine Credit Union League, MEMIC, Portland Downtown District, Portland Press Herald, Southern Maine Community College, Springborn Staffing, Winxnet, United Way of Greater Portland and the University of Southern Maine.

You can learn more about the Principal for a Day program by watching my interview with Chris Hall, the Chamber’s CEO, on my new web show, “Let’s Talk Portland!.”  Then, join the discussion about connections between the Portland Public Schools and local businesses.

I also want to encourage you to attend the second annual Portland Public Schools Student Showcase at Portland’s First Friday Art Walk on May 2.  Students will present art, music, dance, exhibits and interactive displays at several downtown locations.   See the schedule.

Portland Public Schools Strives for Equity

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 sixties will outnumber those in their twenties to mid-thirties.

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.

Community Partnerships Enrich Students’ Education

Students attending the Portland Public Schools benefit from drawing on the resources of Maine’s largest city.  Local businesses, nonprofits and other groups give generously of their time and money to provide learning opportunities for our students.

The district partners with more than 200 organizations, including law firms, airlines, service clubs, colleges, banks, restaurants, construction companies, media outlets, hotels, theaters, professional sports teams and grocery stores.

Some groups send speakers to talk to classes about their work.  Others provide in-kind donations or funding.  Still others share their expertise.  For example:

  • The Portland Fire Department is helping to teach a new firefighting class for students at Deering and Portland High School.
  • The Cumberland County Federal Credit Union operates a branch inside Lyseth Elementary School open one day a week for students and staff.
  • The Maine Landscapers and Nursery Association donated $20,000 in trees, shrubs, other materials and labor to create an outdoor learning space and other improvements at Presumpscot Elementary School last fall.

While I wish I had room to tell you about all of the district’s community partners, I will focus on a few that are having a big impact on our schools.

EnviroLogix, a Portland company that produces diagnostic tests, is helping the district expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in order to better prepare students for the workplace of the future.

EnviroLogix’s parent company gave $10,000 this year to support activities such as an annual exposition where Portland students showcase their STEM learning projects, a high school seminar for advanced math and science students and grants for teachers to pursue innovative math and science projects.

The company is arranging for some of its scientists to speak in Portland’s elementary schools.  EnviroLogix also is providing opportunities for high school students to job-shadow or intern at the company.

Ferry Beach Ecology School (FBES) in Saco is continuing its collaboration with Lincoln Middle School to teach students about environmental issues and sustainability.

FBES naturalists join Lincoln students to explore the ecology of Portland’s Baxter Woods.  Lincoln seventh graders will spend three days at the Saco school.  There, they will compare the ecosystems of marshes, dunes, beaches, tide pools and forests, learn about the constellations and participate in other science activities.

The Ferry Beach Ecology School programs involving Lincoln students cost more than $40,000.  FBES staff raised more than $32,000 of that amount.

Lisa Bailey is one of 30 Unum employees who visit Presumpscot Elementary School every month to read children’s books aloud, discuss them with students and participate in related activities as part of the Scholastic R.E.A.L. program.

The program aims to get students excited about reading and to build their literacy skills.  Lexmark and Unum have contributed $10,000 to cover the cost of materials, including seven new books for each student to take home.

“I enjoy reading to the kids because it opens up a whole different world to them,” said Bailey. “Books have the ability to transport you, and these kids are so eager to participate and offer so much in the way of interacting and asking questions that I think I’m benefiting more than they are.”

We are very grateful to all of the businesses and organizations that partner with the Portland Public Schools.  It takes an entire community to ensure the success of our public schools.

If you would like to find out more about partnerships with the Portland Public Schools, please contact Chanda Turner, the district’s family and community engagement coordinator.

China Transforms Schools to Prepare Students to Compete Globally

I recently spent eight days in China as part of the College Board’s Chinese Bridge Delegation.  I returned home deeply impressed by China’s efforts to transform its educational system.  Once known for rote instruction, China now is preparing students for the global marketplace by encouraging creativity, teamwork and innovation.

Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk and Sarah Thompson, chair of the Portland Board of Public Education, on the Great Wall of China.The seven-member delegation from Maine included Sarah Thompson, chair of the Portland Board of Public Education.  Other educators and school officials came from throughout the United States.  The trip was sponsored by the College Board, the Confucius Institute and Hanban, the Chinese national office for teaching Chinese as a foreign language.  College Board covered part of the cost; Chair Thompson and I paid the rest on our own.

We visited two junior high schools and a K-12 international school in Beijing and Wuxi.  As Thompson noted, “The students were so happy to see us and showed us their schools with great pride.”

While Chinese students listen to Lady Gaga and play basketball just like their Portland peers, their academic life is far different.  They attend classes from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  That provides ample time for core academic subjects (language arts, math, science and social studies), the arts, sports and other co-curricular activities.  Calligraphy, kung fu, traditional Chinese music and dance all are part of the curriculum.

Since 2008, China has worked to transform its educational system from one that rewarded memorization and paperwork to one that develops students’ higher-order thinking skills.  We saw students working in teams and engaged in research projects.

The schools that we visited are educating students to become leaders in a global society.  All students learn English.  Many take Advanced Placement courses and the International Baccalaureate exam.  They are preparing for top universities in Australia, Great Britain and the United States as well as China.

The teaching profession is highly respected in China.  Teachers go through rigorous training, and they are mentored by retired educators.  In recent years, China has hired many American-born teachers.  They have helped China develop a more student-centered approach to education.

The Chinese set high educational aspirations – and their children are meeting that bar.

The recently released results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that Chinese 15-year-olds scored better than students from any other country in reading, math and science.  U.S. students, by comparison, placed 24th in reading, 28th in science and 36th in math.

But test scores only tell part of the story.

I asked a seventh grade Chinese student why he was in school.  I was really impressed by his response: that he wanted to become “a useful citizen.”

The Chinese educational system faces plenty of challenges.  Most classes have 40 to 50 students.  Education is free only through ninSuperintendent Emmanuel Caulk and Portland Board of Public Education Chair Sarah Thompson at Wuxi Tianyi Experimental School.th grade, and students in rural areas have less access to school than those in cities.  Just as in the U.S., China struggles to fund education, and to turn around low-performing schools.

Still, there is much that we can learn from the Chinese educational system as we work to prepare our students to become global citizens.

The next meeting of the Superintendent’s Book Club will focus on how we can glean ideas from successful educational systems around the world.  We will discuss “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley.

The author compared education systems to find out why some countries produce students who are achieving at high levels on international tests such as the PISA while other countries’ student achievement has remained flat or declined in recent years.  She followed three U.S. students as they spent a year as foreign exchange students in countries with some of the highest test scores – South Korea, Finland and Poland.

The book club will meet on January 15 at 7 p.m. at Longfellow Books in downtown Portland.  I hope you will join us.

Portland Needs to Invest in School Buildings

If you own a home, you probably take stock of it periodically to identify what repairs or renovations are needed.  Problems ignored too long almost always cost more to fix.

The city of Portland goes through a similar process.  Every year, the Portland Public Schools and other city departments identify the most urgent public improvement projects.  The Portland City Council decides which projects will be funded through the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan.

This year, the Portland Public Schools has an extraordinary opportunity to solve several facility issues at once by purchasing a Cumberland Avenue building owned by Goodwill Industries of Northern New England.  The building has enough room to house Central Office, the Multilingual and Multicultural Center and the West Program, which serves students with a variety of special education needs.

Currently located in rented space in Falmouth, the West Program will need a new home next June.  West students will be able to take advantage of resources in downtown Portland such as the Portland Public Library.

Moving Central Office out of the building that it now shares with two high schools will allow one of those schools, Casco Bay, to accept more students.  The nationally recognized school has had a waiting list for several years.

Purchasing the Goodwill Industries buildings will have other benefits:

  • Portland Adult Education (PAE) will be able to remain in its new location at the former Cathedral School on Locust Street for at least three years.  The school’s spacious, downtown location has worked well for PAE’s staff and students.
  • Central Office and Multilingual staff will work near their colleagues at Portland City Hall and they will be close to service agencies that partner with the district.

During the past six months, our staff looked at more than a dozen buildings available for lease or purchase.  The Goodwill Industries building is by far the best fit for our needs, and it also is much less expensive than most of the alternatives.

The Portland Board of Public Education voted unanimously in support of the building purchase.  The City Council’s Finance Committee recommended that the full council appropriate funds and authorize a bond to acquire the property.  A final decision is expected in December.

We want the Portland Public Schools to be parents’ first choice of where they send their children.  That requires us to provide excellent facilities as well as a great staff and learning environment.

Once we’ve resolved the location of West, PAE, the Multilingual Center and Central Office, we need to turn our attention to the five mainland elementary schools that require major repairs or replacement.

Hall, Reiche, Lyseth, Longfellow and Presumpscot fall short of what we expect for safe learning environments that support academic excellence.  Some of those schools use modular classrooms and even closets to house students and staff.  Several buildings fall short of Americans with Disabilities Act standards and some lack safety features such as sprinkler systems.  They also lack adequate space for a full range of educational activities, including art, music, physical education, hands-on learning and pre-kindergarten.

Last June, the Portland Board of Public Education approved a plan to seek voter approval for improvements at the five schools.  The board proposed holding a referendum on three of the schools this month, but the City Council’s Finance Committee decided to wait until June of 2014.   By then, the district hopes to know whether the state will help fund the projects at Hall and Longfellow.

Our district is paying the price for years of deferred maintenance and basic upgrades.  Let’s give our children the great schools that they deserve.

Elementary School Teachers Make Learning Come Alive

Teachers in Portland’s public elementary schools have found many creative ways to tap into children’s natural curiosity about how the world works.  Learning comes alive as students tend a vegetable garden or study the changes on a city street over several decades.  They may not even realize that they are learning about math, science, social studies and literacy in the process.

On a recent, crisp and sunny morning, first graders at Reiche Community School gathered in a learning space near their school’s garden.  They then embarked on a scavenger hunt to find corn, tomatoes, herbs, worms and other living creatures in the school’s many raised beds.

Later in the year, they’ll learn about harvesting, saving seeds, the history of foods grown in Maine, how to cook healthy foods from scratch and how to plan and lay out a garden.  Reiche and Riverton elementary schools both have year-long garden classes taught through partnerships with Cultivating Community.  Several other Portland elementary schools also have integrated school gardens into their curricula.

Peaks Island Elementary School is teaching students about stewardship and their role in preserving their unique island home.  This fall, they began working with the Island Institute on a study of weather and climate.

Peaks student works on weather project.Peaks students are using a weather station on the school roof and other instruments to track temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation and cloud type and cover.  All data is entered into an online database (www.weatherblur.com).  The students will compare their results to data from other schools on Maine islands and in Alaska.  Scientists will review the data and share their conclusions.

Twice a Checking creatures in lobster trapsweek, Peaks students check two lobster traps stationed at nearby docks and record what species are inside.  They are looking for any signs that climate change is affecting ocean fauna.

The school also is continuing a project about invasive plant species.

Last year, students learned how invasive plants are damaging the island.  They worked with experts to identify the six most prominent invasives in their schoolyard and they helped eradicate them.  Those efforts will continue this year.  In addition, the school hopes to involve students in eradicating invasive plants from land owned by the Peaks Island Land Preserve.

Ocean Avenue Elementary School is the first elementary school in Maine to join International Baccalaureate (IB), a nonprofit that helps students acquire international perspectives as they develop their intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills.

Students work on units that encompass several subject areas at once.  Each unit begins with students’ questions, and that leads to exploration.

Ocean Avenue kindergarteners learn about their senses and how they use them to gather information about the world.  First graders study how our society deals with waste and how that impacts the environment.

Fourth graders investigate biomes – plant and animal communities that exist because of soil and climate conditions.  Fifth graders learn about concepts such as civics and economics as they study colonization.

Ocean Avenue has started teaching Spanish in second grade rather than third grade, a change made to fit IB’s protocol of beginning second language instruction by age 7.  The school will deepen its involvement in the IB program over the next few years as it pursues certification.

I love my job as Portland’s superintendent.  But when I hear about students planting school gardens, learning to speak Spanish or identifying creatures inside lobster traps, I wish I were in elementary school again.  Don’t you?