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Letter from Interim Co-Superintendents – May 26, 2023

May 26, 2023

Dear Portland Public Schools families, staff and community members,

At our annual Seal of Biliteracy Ceremony this month, the Portland Public Schools had 66 Seal recipients this year – 40 percent more than last year and the most since we instituted this award in 2017. The Seal of Biliteracy goes to graduating seniors who achieve proficiency in one or more languages in addition to English. It’s great that the number of Seal recipients is growing because increasing the percentage of our students who graduate as multilingual is an important part of our district’s World Language Vision.

A committee of educators, students, community members and parents held a series of meetings last school year and this past fall to develop the vision. It was fine-tuned with support from the Academic Team and then presented at a community forum this past December to get feedback from families about their hopes and goals for the ongoing evolution of our world language programming across the district. The conversations were facilitated in a variety of language groups so as to include our multilingual families.

Then, in January,  we made a public presentation at a Portland Board of Public Education meeting to bring  everyone up to speed on our current world language offerings and share our World Language Vision. The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, where more than 50 languages are spoken by our students and families. Our district’s vision contains the following core beliefs about why  language learning is so important for our students::

●      Learning multiple languages and how they function is an accelerator of equity, allowing for cross-cultural understanding and rigorous academic achievement.

●      Building on the assets of our students’ heritage languages and cultures strengthens the individual and our community.

●      Students will learn about the world, make interdisciplinary connections and enhance their communication skills in the language they are studying and in their home language.

●      New languages are best acquired in a continuum of immersive and extended learning experiences starting early and through young adulthood.

Our current World Language offerings were outlined at the Jan. 17 presentation to the Board. Two of our elementary schools offer World Language – Ocean Avenue Elementary School, where all students in grades 2-5 take Spanish as part of that school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program; and Lyseth Elementary School, where approximately one quarter of students are enrolled in the Spanish Immersion Program. At our middle schools, 66 percent of students take either Spanish or French. At our high schools, nearly half of our students are enrolled in the world languages we offer: Spanish, French, Latin, Chinese and Arabic.

We are in the process of evolving our programming to come into greater alignment with our vision, and the presentation gave an overview of next steps. Among them are continuing to collect and analyze our World Language data to see where we can make adjustments to our high school, middle school programs and our immersion and IB offerings at the elementary level programming, as well as the Seal of Biliteracy. We’ll also be looking at feedback from the community forum to explore heritage language opportunities. Recommendations will be shared with the Board and the public next fall and recommendations for any new investments for the 2024-2025 school year will be woven into the budget.

Learn more specifics of the Jan. 17 World Language presentation to the Board by watching on YouTube. (The presentation starts about two hours and seven minutes into the meeting.) You can also view the accompanying slide presentation.

Other impressive developments at this year’s May 15 Seal of Biliteracy ceremony included the fact that eight recipients this year earned the seal for proficiency in more than one other world language in addition to English. Also, one student received the seal for proficiency in a recording-breaking six languages. That’s amazing!

Additionally, three of the recipients this year are staff members. This is the first time the Seal of Biliteracy is being awarded to Portland Public Schools staff in recognition for their language proficiency. Congratulations to these staff members – not only for their own achievements but for being excellent role models for students!

A number of students spoke movingly at the ceremony about the importance of being multilingual in today’s global world. One student, Casco Bay High School senior Venice Melcher, described how she used the French she studied in school to assist some new Mainers from Africa who shop at the thrift store where she worked. They couldn’t speak English but were fluent in French. By speaking French at work, Melcher felt she was able to be a small part of easing their transition to a new country and culture. “French changed my life,” Melcher said. “I have gained confidence and befriended people I would never have met otherwise. My second language has opened an entire new world of powerful connections with others, and I will persist in my language journey, exploring this world along the way.”

Congratulations to all of our Seal of Biliteracy recipients! Being multilingual is an asset that serves students well as they move on to college and career.

We’ll also use this opportunity to remind everyone that we’re at the final stage in the FY24 school  budget process. The City Council unanimously approved our $143.8 million school budget for the 2023-2024 school year on May 15. The budget now goes to city voters for validation on June 13.

This budget is a fair and responsible one at a time of daunting fiscal challenges. It reinvests in core operations such as finance and human resources, while also investing in student-facing staff to support all of our students, including our many newly arrived multi-language learners. Within this budget, we’ve also done our best to anticipate and plan for the FY25 budget, when the district will no longer have access to federal COVID money and will likely face decreased funding from the state level. This budget does all that while simultaneously being mindful of the tax burden on Portland residents in a year when inflation is higher than most can remember. Please don’t forget to vote. Absentee voting has already begun. You’ll find complete voting information on the city’s website.

We’re coming up on the long Memorial Day weekend. Although the holiday has come to mark the unofficial start to summer, it was created to remember members of the military who have died while serving in the United States armed forces. We want to close by expressing our deep gratitude for their ultimate sacrifice.


Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend, Interim Co-Superintendents