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State of the Schools 2023

Sarah Lentz, Chair of the Portland Board of Public Education
December 18, 2023


Good evening, Mayor Dion, City Councilors, and fellow Board members and Portlanders. My name is Sarah Lentz, and I am the Chair of the Portland Board of Public Education. I would like to acknowledge my fellow Board members attending tonight (please stand), including Board Vice Chair Micky Bondo. I'll also recognize our Superintendent, staff, union leadership, and other dedicated members of the Portland Public Schools team.

I invite you all to take a moment to ground here together. Take a deep breath. Take a breath to become fully present. Take a breath to feel your body and push your feet into the floor, into the land that our city and schools are built upon, unceded land of the Wabanaki, the people of dawn.

This is the same land that schools were built on before Maine had even pursued statehood. In the 1700s, we saw our first staffed school house in Portland.[1] In 1821, Portland High School was founded, and it is now the second-oldest continuously operating public high school in the U.S. Over the last several hundred years, the district has grown and evolved in various ways and based on numerous social and political issues. Our district has navigated racial and gender segregation, tensions between state and local control, inadequate funding, and many other challenges.[2]

Today, the Portland Public Schools is Maine's largest school district, with 10 elementary schools — two of which are on islands — three middle schools, and four high schools, plus Maine’s largest adult education program, Portland Adult Education. All of the buildings that hold our schools are essential in creating structure and providing safe places to learn, but it is the people in these buildings who are the true core of our district. It is the people who move us through our challenges, who celebrate our successes, and who really represent the state of our schools. These people — over 6600 students, 2000 adult learners, more than 1500 staff, and countless family and community members — is where the State of our Schools lies. Tonight, I am choosing to share stories about people from our district. People whose stories personify both our strengths and our challenges.

To start, our students.

Our students embody remarkable diversity. In the whitest state in the country, our student body speaks over 50 languages, with thirty percent of them actively learning English. Fifty-two percent of our students are students of color. Eighteen percent are supported by special education services, and 7% are experiencing homelessness. All of these layers of diversity create a unique and rich environment for our students to learn in.

Several weeks ago, we welcomed six new student representatives to the Board of Education — one from each of our high schools. They showed up to their first meeting prepared to participate. They asked questions about the racial and power dynamics within the schools, used nuance to understand organizational structure within the district, and demonstrated their passion for issues. I was very impressed, as I know many adults who would not have been able to engage in these same ways. But these students are not an anomaly — our district is filled with this kind of brilliance everywhere you look.

For instance, Marwa Aslami, a standout 2023 graduate of Casco Bay High School, is now attending the University of Southern Maine, and in September was named the recipient of the Mainely Character Scholarship sponsored by Northern Light Health. She was recognized for her determination, as well as her many accomplishments. At the age of 16, Marwa spent a year working to get her younger cousin Fawad out of Afghanistan after he was seriously injured by a gunshot wound to the face. She did this while still acclimating to Maine as an immigrant, excelling in her high school classes, acting as the main interpreter for her family, guiding her brothers through school as well, and earning a Seal of Biliteracy for her proficiency in six languages.

Three Portland Public Schools students are Semifinalists in the 2024 National Merit Scholarship Program: Adrian Darlington, Caden Hemond, and Matan Schoenfeld, all seniors at Portland High School. The National Merit Scholarship Program honors individual students who show exceptional academic ability and potential for success in rigorous college studies. These students now join other talented high school seniors nationwide who have an opportunity to compete for more than 7,000 National Merit Scholarships, worth nearly $28 million, that will be offered next spring.

At the 2023 Maine Literary Awards on May 18, Deering High School senior Mayinga Mukinayi won the Youth Nonfiction Award for her piece "No Water, No Food: Thirteen Days in the Jungle." Her story was published in the Telling Room chapbook, "Between My Ribs." Another Deering senior, Nazik Adam, was a finalist. Mayinga credits her teacher Molly Callaghan for connecting her with the Telling Room and appreciates the integration of writing and art in a Deering art class. The Telling Room is a Portland-based literary arts education organization dedicated to empowering youth through writing and sharing their voices with the world.

Portland High School student Baleria Yugu in May became the 2023 recipient of the Portland High School Step Up Award. The Step Up Award at Portland High provides funding for students in the Make It Happen! program who would otherwise have to forego school-year extracurricular opportunities in order to work after school and/or on weekends. Baleria, a junior, will receive $1,250 per semester until graduation for her last two years of high school. The Step Up Award was created by Ann and Bill Weber, parents of two Portland High School graduates.

In March, Portland High School senior Jaime Beya-Mbiyavanga won the Runner-Up Award at the Poetry Out Loud State Competition. The Maine State Final event required 10 student winners from across the state to recite three poems throughout the evening. Jaime (JAY-ME) enthralled the judges and the audience with his recitation of “Fable for Blackboard” by George Starbucks, “April Midnight” by Arthur Symons, and “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. To prepare, Jaime spent hours rehearsing his three poems with his English teacher, Ann Hall.

For #LoveTeaching appreciation week last February, Maine students were invited to participate in a writing contest to talk about teachers who have made a difference in their lives. Casco Bay sophomore Jo Ellis, who represented her school on the Board of Public Education this past school year, won the statewide essay competition writing about a teacher who made a difference: Casco Bay humanities/social studies teacher Matt Bernstein, the 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year. I’ve been in his classroom many times, and totally understand Jo’s reasoning! Also, Casco Bay junior Everett Dietlin earned an Honorable Mention for his tribute to fifth-grade teacher Cathy Gurney at Ocean Avenue Elementary School.

The Deering Debate Team won numerous awards at the Maine State Speech and Debate Championships at Bangor High School this past January. The team also won the 2023 MPA Sportsmanship Award at the event. The wins at the state championship were especially significant because only the ninth- and 10th-grade members of the team competed. The older, more experienced team members were not available or opted out of the contest, but the younger students held their own.

This past November Portland Public Schools student athletes were on fire! The Portland High boys’ cross country team won the state title for the first time in 45 years, holding off Scarborough for the Class A state championship. Also, Portland High’s Samantha Moore was the Class A Cross Country State Champion. The Deering High boys’ soccer team won the Class A South boys' soccer championship game. It was the first time the Rams played in a regional final match since 1999. Also, the Portland High football team won the Class A North football championship and went on to face Thornton Academy in the state championship in November.

In May, Lyman Moore Middle School students hosted a middle school Model United Nations conference, organized in cooperation with the Model UN Club at Bates College. Approximately 50 student “delegates” from four Maine schools participated and worked to pass resolutions on such topics as whether the United Nations should impose a global ban on single-use plastics and whether governments should prioritize conservation efforts for charismatic species over less well-known species. The event was a huge success, with Lyman Moore students winning several awards. Awardees included Jane Pinyard, who was recognized for Parliamentary Protocol; Finn Hutchins and Noa Sabau Molina, who were recognized as Team Players; and Tucker Wood, who won for Verbal Accommodation.

This past school year, for the first time, Odyssey of the Mind was offered at Rowe Elementary School. For those who don’t know, Odyssey of the Mind is an international creativity competition that helps students of all ages develop science, technology, Engineering, arts, and math skills through problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and performing art. Fast forward to the Nor’Easter Tournament on March 25, when two (of three) teams from Rowe School placed first and second in their problems and were invited to compete at the World Finals in Michigan. There was laughter, cheering, and tears of happiness as this group of fourth and fifth graders congratulated each other on their outstanding achievements.

A winter concert at Deering High School December 14 included performances from the PPS High School Orchestra, led by music director Julianne Eberl, that ranged from “Reggae Jingle Bells” to Beethoven's “Allegretto from Symphony No. 7.” The Deering Handbell Ensemble delighted the audience with such classics as Beethoven's “Ode to Joy,” and under the direction of Abby Hutchins, the Deering High Chorus offered a multicultural selection of songs, including traditional Congolese, Nigerian, and Spanish carols.

The district has begun hosting student art shows at our Central Office. The first show opened December 1 with the First Friday Art Walk, featuring the amazing artwork of talented elementary, middle, and high school students — a reflection of the important instruction of our great art teachers. Moving forward, we plan to regularly rotate the student art shows every few months to coincide with upcoming art walks. Andi Weissman Summers, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools recently helped launch a specific fund to help make sure that music and arts in the district continue to be supported.

The Black Students Unions at Deering High School and Lyman Moore have been combining forces to build a bigger community of students who have spaces to thrive, express themselves, and learn important history. DHS BSU presidents Khalid and Estrela, along with their cabinet members, have been doing a phenomenal job leading events like Real Black Talk, which features local Black leaders, and Foodsgiving!

I know many of you also have or know young people in our district and could add to this list easily. I hope you share these stories and the ones from your own children broadly within our community.

And now on to our wonderful staff.

First, Dr. Ryan Scallon became the new superintendent of the Portland Public Schools this summer following a unanimous Board vote on June 6. Dr. Scallon, most recently an assistant superintendent in the School District of Philadelphia, holds a doctorate in education. He emerged as our top choice from an initial nationwide pool of 47 applicants.

The Board believed and now sees that Ryan embodies the skills needed to move our district forward. Over the course of the interview process, the Board and Search Committee spent hours with Ryan understanding his commitment to equity, his demonstrated success in building sustainable systems and operations, and his deep and sustained investment in the staff and educators around him. Ryan is an active and engaged listener, collaborative in nature, and humble, and the bulk of his career has been in schools where the majority of students have been historically excluded. In addition to having experience as a teacher, principal, and administrator, Ryan is also a parent with children in our schools. He brings all these important perspectives to the superintendent role. For those who have already had the chance to meet with Ryan, it might seem as if he’s been with us for years, because he already knows so much about the district. This familiarity comes in part because during the first months he was here, he embedded himself in the community, listening to anyone who would talk to him. These listening sessions, on top of several community surveys, have given us thousands of data points about what is working and what needs improvement within the district. Ryan has been using this information to help us focus our work on specific areas I’ll discuss later.

Joshua Chard, a second- and third-grade looping teacher at East End Community School, rose from being named 2023 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year in May to being selected as the 2024 Maine Teacher of the Year in October. In announcing Joshua’s selection for the honor, Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin praised Joshua’s passion for teaching, his love for his students and public education, and his ability to make each and every person feel welcome and like they belong.

This is the third time in the past four years that a Portland Public Schools teacher has achieved this honor. Matt Bernstein, a humanities teacher at Casco Bay High School, is the 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year, and Cindy Soule, the district’s literacy coordinator, was the 2021 Maine Teacher of the Year.

The honor accorded to all these teachers is continued evidence of the high caliber of the educators we are fortunate to have at the Portland Public Schools.

In August, Julia Hazel, the Portland Public Schools director of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) career pathways and leadership development, won a 2023 Maine Black Excellence Award, presented by The Third Place. Julia received the Compass Career Award, which recognizes an individual who has accomplished a standout achievement in their workplace or sector. Julia was recognized for her PPS work and her efforts to organize BIPOC educators around the state, improving the quality of life for Black Mainers. At the Portland Public Schools, Julia serves as a resource and support to current BIPOC educators, creates career advancement pathways and leadership opportunities for educational technicians and teachers, amplifies BIPOC excellence and expertise, and fosters relationship building and mutual support within the BIPOC community. In part because of Julia and other staff like Barrett Wilkinson, the number of Black, Indigenous and staff of color across the district continues to increase. While we know there is more work to be done in this area, we are proud to say that we are at 16% across the district, which is up from 7% in 2016. We know having a staff that represents our student demographics in every area is crucial to the academic and social success of all of our students.

Shoshana Hoose, a dedicated ESOL teacher at Portland Adult Education, in June received the Maine Adult Education Association’s Outstanding Teacher Award. Shoshana is an expert at designing creative curricula to serve our adult learners, who have a diverse and unique set of strengths and needs. Shoshana exemplifies the Portland Adult Education commitment to empower students to achieve their educational, professional, and personal goals. Many of these adult students have children in our schools, so the success of PAE students helps entire families realize their full potential as members of the community.

Cyle Davenport, a Deering High School science teacher, was one of 10 educators this past May to win an inaugural Air and Space Forces’ Sentry Educator Award, instituted by the 319th Recruiting Squadron at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. The new award recognizes the top 10 educators throughout New England who demonstrate support of Air Force Core Values of integrity, service, and excellence.

Cyle was recognized as an exemplary instructor who has helped reverse a long enrollment decline in chemistry and physics courses at Deering. In addition to nurturing young people's love of science, Cyle also mentors less experienced teachers.

Emily Serway, a Deering High School art teacher, was the winner of the Russell Award for the 2022-2023 school year. The Russell Award is an honor bestowed upon one Deering teacher each year who exemplifies a firm commitment to the teaching profession, shares a love for learning with their students, demonstrates intimate involvement in the ongoing life and activities of the high school, and displays creative self-renewal in their teaching practices. Emily’s classroom is known as a haven for students and even staff. A student recently coined the motto "Serway for sanity!" because of the calming mental health effects her classroom has on him and his classmates.

Deering High School’s Greg Tosi in April was among eight athletic trainers across Maine named as “legends in the field” by the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. Greg was praised as an outstanding athletic trainer who has served the Deering and PPS communities for more than two decades and is always there caring for and supporting our Deering student-athletes, coaches, and staff, on and off the fields of play.

Pamela Otunnu, Director of Secondary Academic Access and Outcomes, led amazing work this past year around creating “A Portrait of a Graduate.”  A Portrait of a Graduate is a shared vision of the knowledge, skills, and character traits that our students should possess upon graduation. It states what students should be able to do and what qualities they should have in order to succeed in college, career, and life. It guides curriculum and instruction, assessments, professional development for educators, and decision-making processes in the district to ensure that all students are prepared for the challenges and opportunities that await them after high school.

Rebecca Turkewitz, a 10th-grade English teacher at Casco Bay High School, is also a published author. This fall, she was featured in Maine Educator magazine for inspiring her students to think outside their school walls and investigate a world only they can create through writing. Rebecca not only incorporates her expertise as a writer into her role as an educator but also shares her ideas on how all educators can support their students in the classroom.

Portland High School Principal Sheila Jepson in March was named the 2023 Maine Association of School Libraries (MASL) School Administrator of the Year. The award honors administrators who, through individual leadership and sustained effort, have made worthy contributions to the operations of effective school library media services within the educational program. Sheila was praised for her supportive nature and willingness to listen to new ideas. She was recognized as a special principal who has always focused on our students' growth potential, not their perceived deficits.

Annemarie Orth, a Spanish teacher at Casco Bay High School and a world language specialist for the Portland Public Schools, in March won the Educators for a Multilingual Maine’s 2023 Teacher of the Year award. The award honors a teacher who has achieved outstanding results in teaching modern or classical languages. Annemarie was recognized for her excellent teaching and her belief that learning a new language gives students another lens to experience the world.

Libby Catania, a special education teacher and case manager at East End Community School and a nonprofit founder, was selected as a 2023 Outstanding Woman by Maine’s Coast 93.1, in conjunction with Hannaford Supermarkets. Libby established Our Place, an organization that offers free summer camps, after-school mentorship groups, and family advocacy services to families living in the Kennedy Park / East Bayside area and provides meals to kids. As Our Place's executive director, Libby focuses on empowerment, creating safe spaces for youth within their communities, and fulfilling basic needs.

Dr. Grace Valenzuela and her team helped us welcome almost 1000 immigrants, refugees, and multilingual students to our district in the last year – this number is almost double last year and the most we’ve ever welcomed since we started tracking in 1996. Not only does our multilingual center help students and families orient to our district, they also offer support like access to winter coats, culturally relevant food, and direct connections to other needed services. Grace and her team also ensured that we qualified for additional funding through the state’s ELL hardship program.

A September article in the Portland Press Herald acknowledged that the Portland Public Schools was one of the few Maine districts starting the school year fully staffed with bus drivers. The piece featured dedicated veteran PPS bus driver Lisa Martel, who loves her job and the students she serves. The article served to highlight how our bus drivers do their job with heart and — like so many of our vital support staff — are key to a positive school experience for our students. As one second-grader put it: "Ms. Lisa is kind and makes me feel safe."

This spring renovations will be completed on all four aging elementary schools for which city voters in 2017 approved a $64 million Buildings for Our Future bond. Renovations to Lyseth Elementary School were completed in 2021; work at Presumpscot Elementary School finished this past summer; renovations to Longfellow Elementary School were completed this fall with only small items remaining, and Reiche Elementary School's remodel will be finished this spring. These improvements represent a major step toward providing 21st century learning environments for all our students. As Presumpscot Principal Angela Taylor puts it, her school has now been transformed into a space "created with children in mind." Many thanks to Tammara Sweeney, our Director of Facilities and her entire team for getting these projects to completion.

The immense strengths of our students and staff have kept us moving forward even during the hardest periods of this past year. As you’ll remember, during last year's state of the schools, the district was experiencing major turmoil as our payroll and surrounding systems were failing and our superintendent had resigned. We were lucky to have Aaron Townsend and Malea Nali lead the district until Dr. Scallon came onboard. Under their combined leadership, we have made significant progress on our operations and systems.

We hired a new Executive Director of Budget and Finance, Helene DiBartolomeo, who has been working tirelessly to help move us from one payroll system to another. We are on track to have our first payroll run in January through the new payroll system, ADP. This has not been an easy process at all. If you remember, part of the reason payroll failed was that the system had not been set up properly from the start. In migrating to ADP, we’ve been cleaning data and codifying systems across the district to make sure the data going into ADP is accurate now and set up to be accurate in the future. If you’ve ever been part of the process of changing payroll systems, you know it is grueling, and there are many opportunities for errors. We know our first payroll on the new system won’t be entirely correct, but we are doing everything in our power to get it as close to right as we can. During this process, we’ve also been proactively communicating with all staff about what to expect and what to do if there are any errors. On the back end, we’ve created a tight system to receive staff outreach and ensure issues are resolved quickly.

In addition to migrating to this new system, we’ve continued to work with BerryDunn to make sure all remaining issues from last year have been rectified. Again, because there were issues with our data systems and processes in all these areas, the solutions have been nuanced and are taking much longer than any of us expected. As we move into the new payroll system, our sick and vacation day accruals have been updated. BerryDunn is working closely with PPS and MainePERS, and we anticipate MainePERS accounts will be fully rectified in late winter. Similarly, BerryDunn is currently auditing our voluntary retirements and will be completed on the same timeline.

I know we have a long way to go to rebuild trust in our finance and operational systems within our staff and community. But as I told a constituent at a recent district meeting, “One of Dr. Scallon’s strengths is that he is getting to the bottom of the issues in our district and is not stopping until we are down to the studs. Looking under every rock, in every cranny, fully understanding where systems are not working or inefficient, and he is building them back in sustainable, dependable, and documented ways.” Experiencing the results of these new systems is what will build trust, and that will take time, but we are 100% committed to building that trust.

In addition to all of the work around systems and operations, we also embarked on a strategic planning process to set our course for the next five years. Many of you might know that the vision outlined in the Portland Promise was ready for a refresh, and we’ve been working this fall on a plan that will address a number of areas within the district. It will be grounded in the Listen and Learn and survey data, and the development process is being guided by the Strategic Plan Steering Committee — a diverse, city-wide group of stakeholders that includes Vice Chair Bondo and me. We met to identify five-year goals and the priorities and initiatives that the district will deliver on to achieve the goals. At the end of the strategic planning process, we will have outcome-oriented goals for the next five years and a limited number of high-impact strategies to achieve those goals. There will be additional opportunity for community input on the strategic plan from focus groups in January and February 2024, as well as through a community survey. The outcome of this work will also be used in our budget process to guide our spending.

But we aren’t waiting until the completion of the strategic plan to move important work forward. The Board and district leadership collaborated this summer and fall to create four objectives for this year. These objectives encompass the most important work of the district right now and provide a lens through which we make decisions. They are helping us decide what doesn’t get our attention and what does. These objectives are:

  1. We are one team with common goals, mission, and values. This objective has us focused on making sure our people have what they need through recruitment, onboarding, training, and great communication.
    1. We have strong leadership development that builds knowledge and skills in leaders.
    2. We orient new board members through effective training and support.
    3. We ensure the retention and recruitment of people who work for PPS is representative of our community, and that we meet our staffing needs for students identified for Special Education Services.
    4. We have a strong communications system that keeps the community informed, improves operational effectiveness, saves leaders/teachers time, and celebrates the District.
  2. We are growing our capacity to ensure the achievement of all students, starting with our historically marginalized students.This means building data systems that disaggregate by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other factors so we can build appropriate solutions for the problems we seek to solve. This objective also means continuing to invest in strategies like ESOL credentials for staff and doubling down on equity education for anyone who works in the district.
    1. We are building data systems and routines for our mission measures and key results that allow us to identify and intervene at the student, sub-group, class, school, and District level.
    2. We are strengthening our specialized programs to improve student outcomes and reduce staff turnover.
    3. We are establishing a plan to grow the number of staff who have some kind of ESOL credential.
    4. We advance equity literacy for leaders and educators.
    5. We are developing a proposal for an integrated, consolidated high school.
  3. We provide students with a challenging, relevant, and joyful education that prepares and empowers our students to pursue their dreams. The two tenets of this objective are fully implementing our literacy curriculum across the district and making sure every school is successfully using PBIS (or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) as well as restorative practices and alternatives to suspension.
    1. We are strengthening core instruction in literacy through the implementation of CKLA and EL ELA curriculum in grades K-8.
    2. We are cultivating safe and equitable schools by implementing PBIS action plans to develop systems and structures for school culture that utilize restorative practices and alternatives to suspension to respond to unexpected behaviors.
  4. Organizational coherence: Our systems work, save time, and allow us to focus on outcomes for students. This last objective has us investing in standard operating procedures, our safety and emergency management processes, and delivering and passing a budget.
    1. We have standard operating procedures that are documents, staff are provided training on and we implement fidelity so that
    2. We have a strategic plan which leverages partners and will drive our work for the next five years to achieve the north star established in the Portland Promise
    3. We have a transparently created and voter approved budgets (1- and 5-yr) that is aligned to and supports our strategic plan for the next five years (community engagement)
    4. Safety and Emergency management

And speaking of budgets, like the City’s budget, this year’s is looking grim. Early estimates have us looking straight at a deficit of at least $10 million. This deficit arises from three different causes:

  1. Increased costs to existing, mandatory expenses like special education costs, increased salaries and benefits, and debt service.
  2. Elimination of federal funding tied to COVID-19 ESSER funding. All of these funds must be spent by September of 2024.
  3. Decreased state funding. One of the biggest factors that determines state funding to schools is local property value. With our property values going up, the state assumes more can be funded on a local level. Without changes to that formula, we see this as a trend that will continue beyond this year.

Like last year, we are already working with the City to align our processes and strategy for building this next year’s budget. The good news is that we have healthy fund reserves that can be used to offset some of this deficit, but they cannot cover all of it. About 80% of our budget is directly connected to people costs — salaries and benefits. To balance our budget this coming year, there will be cuts to programming and to staff. As I spent the first half of this speech highlighting, our district is our people, and it’s going to take all of us to get through this. But I know we can.

Humor me if you will for a moment.

Please stand if you are or ever were a Portland Public Schools student.

Please stand if you worked for the Portland Public Schools in the past.

Please stand if you work for the Portland Public Schools now.

Please stand if you are or ever have been a Portland Public Schools Board member.

Please stand if you are a parent or caregiver of a Portland Public Schools student.

Now look around. If you aren’t standing, I invite you to now, and I invite you into this wonderful community. We are the Portland Public Schools, and we are what move us through the hard times and the good. I am asking you all to continue to show up for our schools, to believe deeply in their potential, and to hold us to that with grace and curiosity.  I look forward to working with every single one of you.

Thank you, and now I’m happy to answer any questions.

[1] “Our History.” Portland Public Schools, Accessed 18 Dec. 2023.

[2] “Part I - Education in Maine Prior to 1900.” Part I - Education in Maine Prior to 1900 | Department of Education, Accessed 18 Dec. 2023.