Dear Portland Public Schools families, staff and community members,
In our last newsletter, we took the opportunity to highlight examples of meaningful STEM teaching and learning taking place in our schools. In this letter, we’d like to turn the spotlight on the innovative humanities and English language arts teaching and learning in PPS schools going on at every grade level. Here are a few examples.
We’re very proud that one of our humanities/social studies teachers – Matt Bernstein at Casco Bay High School – is the 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year. Matt loves teaching, as he explains in this Q & A with the Maine Department of Education. And Matt recently taught Casco students what it’s like to be a teacher – through a unique, experiential learning experience designed to encourage students to consider becoming teachers themselves.
Every January and April, Casco pauses classes so students can engage in week-long, elective courses called intensives, in which students can study a topic in depth, all day, for five days. This January, a new intensive called “Casco Teaches” was among those offered. Co-led by Matt and Casco Principal Derek Pierce, the course introduced students to the teaching profession.
Matt said students began by reflecting on inspirational educators that had taught them and memorable lessons they’d experienced. They then explored two guiding questions: What makes a great educator? And, what makes a great lesson? They researched core practices that support high quality teaching and learning and did field observations in district classrooms. They then developed a lesson plan and taught the lesson to their peers. At the end of the week, many of the students reported they’re considering teaching as a career, Matt said. Read more about Casco Teaches in an article Matt wrote for the Maine Department of Education website.
At Lyman Moore Middle School, seventh-grade social studies teachers David Hilton and Jon Roderick are each teaching a Wabanaki Studies mini-unit this year on residential schools, a network of boarding schools created to isolate Indigenous children from their own culture and religion in order to assimilate them into the dominant culture. David said students are learning about colonization, language loss, cultural genocide, the role of religion, and the parallel histories of the residential school systems in Canada and the United States. David noted that, in addition to social studies learning, this unit is rich in nonfiction reading and writing. As part of the unit, seventh-grader Selma Ahmed reflected on language loss and forced assimilation in a poem she wrote that begins: “If I lost my language/I'd lose myself.”
At Gerald E. Talbot Community School, students in teacher Paige Fors’ fourth-grade classroom are learning what inspires people to write. Students are building close reading skills by reading "Love That Dog," a novel in verse by Sharon Creech, and several poems: “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams; "The Tiger" by William Blake; and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. Together they analyzed the poems to determine a theme and to identify characteristics of poetry in order to effectively summarize the poems. Next, students will plan and write an informative paragraph about what inspires Jack, the character in “Love That Dog,” to write poetry. Students will join expert groups, study a poet of their choice and write an essay about what inspired their poet to write poetry. Finally, students will write their own original poems, focusing on word and phrase choice and adding punctuation for effect. Students also will practice reading new poems aloud for fluency. At the end of the unit students will participate in a poetry presentation in which they read aloud an original poem and then explain why they were inspired to write their original poem.
Learn more about these and other inspiring examples of humanities and ELA teaching and learning on our website HERE.
In other news about our district, this is budget season, and we’re in the process of developing our budget for the 2023-2024 school year. This will be a challenging budget year.
Our rollover budget – maintaining our current level of programs and services – combined with a loss in $2.4 million in state education funding for FY24, could result in a 9.3 percent tax increase without any new additions to the budget. Also, we are experiencing a number of budget pressures that entail additional expenses, including the need to shore up our operational systems, including finance and human resources; a significant increase in the cost for special education out-of-district placements; a large increase in the number of newly arriving multilingual students who require English language services and other unique supports; and the loss of grant funds that are supporting core programming. We are exploring how to manage this difficult budget context and move our school system forward in ways that support our students and educators while being cognizant of the impact on Portland taxpayers.
You can learn more from the preliminary budget presentation at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Portland Board of Public Education’s Finance Committee. Watch on YouTube HERE and view the slide deck. Also, please plan on attending our public budget forum on Monday, March 6, from 6 to 7 p.m. to learn more and provide your feedback as we prepare to present our superintendents’ budget proposal to the Board on March 14. Read on in this newsletter for joining information on the forum.
Also at the Finance Committee meeting earlier this week, we provided context for the more than $1 million in IRS penalties against the district over the past few years, as you may have seen in news reports. Limited staff and resources, technological challenges, staff turnover, and complex filing requirements led to tax filing violation fines around three separate issues that occurred a few years ago. We have resolved two of the issues and those penalties have been canceled. One issue remains, involving a fine of approximately $1 million that was assessed for missing the reporting deadline for 1095 Affordable Care Act reporting in 2018. This happened at the time we were transitioning to MUNIS, and there were software issues that prevented the timeliness of the reporting. These errors were corrected shortly after the deadline. We are awaiting a final IRS ruling on our appeal of this fine, but we have received an indication from the IRS that this penalty also will be vacated. We’ll update everyone as we know more.
Next week is February break. We hope everyone is able to use this time restoratively and return reinvigorated for more inspiring teaching and learning throughout the rest of the school year.
Melea Nalli and Aaron Townsend, Interim Co-Superintendents