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Superintendent Letter - September 30, 2022

Sept. 30, 2022

Dear Portland Public Schools families, staff and community members,

Happy fall! It’s now officially autumn on the calendar, and exciting teaching and learning is fully underway at the Portland Public Schools.

As just one example, we inaugurated our new PPS Mobile Makerspace in a Sept. 14 ceremony at Rowe Elementary School, where the makerspace will be housed. This mobile STEM lab will travel around to our elementary schools for two-week visits so that  all students will have the opportunity to explore STEM learning using this amazing resource. I am grateful to our many funders who have helped to make this opportunity possible. Thank you to Assistant Superintendent Melea Nalli, Foundation for Portland Public Schools Executive Director Andi Weisman Summers and, especially our STEM Coordinator Brooke Teller for their vision, passion and drive in making this project become a reality. I am also thrilled that Karen Shibles, a seasoned and exceptional science educator,  has volunteered to lead our makerspace learning.

In another development this month, the Portland Board of Public Eduction on Sept. 20 approved changing the district’s high school preference process. The change will begin with this year’s eighth-graders, the Class of 2027.

As you know, Portland students traditionally have been able to choose whether they want to attend Portland or Deering high schools. Casco Bay High School, which is smaller and enrolls only 100 students per grade, uses a lottery system if it has more than 95 applicants for its freshman class. Because Deering and Portland have no cap on the number of students admitted, this has led to fluctuations at those schools over time. Sometimes the fluctuations are very high, which has led to an unequal distribution of resources (such as staff and course offerings) between PHS and DHS and significant variance in the student composition, with PHS being less diverse than the district.

I expect that with the new high school preference plan most students will continue to get their preferred  school, but some will not because the plan is to limit the difference in enrollment between Deering and Portland to about 30 students and reduce demographic disparity between the schools.

It is important to note that we realize that this new plan addresses a symptom and not the underlying issues of why students choose the high schools that they do. That is why, at the same meeting at which the Board approved the preference plan, it also held a first reading on a resolution committing PPS to take a closer look at those underlying issues with the goal of ensuring consistent programming and opportunities for students across all three high schools and alignment around different elements such as schedules, transitions for ninth-graders and services for students who are English language learners, among others.

The Board will hold a vote on the resolution at its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 6 p.m. at Casco Bay High School. Passage of the resolution would charge the Board’s Policy and Curriculum Committee with monitoring the work being done to better align our high schools. That committee would be charged with delivering a report to the Board by the end of this academic year with elements and timelines for this alignment work. That will bring visibility, accountability and enduring importance to this work.

Tomorrow is the first of October, which marks the beginning of National Principals Month. Through these incredibly challenging COVID years, these school leaders have served as steadfast beacons for our schools. Let’s take the opportunity this month to celebrate and honor our amazing principals for their strong leadership and their dedication to student success.

I also want to give a huge shout out to our custodians and maintenance staff as we approach National Custodian Appreciation Day on Oct. 2. Their herculean efforts during the course of the pandemic were essential to keeping our students and staff safe. No matter the challenge, they continue to do the critical work of keeping our buildings clean, well maintained and functioning. Thank you to these staff members for all that you do!

Additionally, in advance of School Bus Transportation Employee Appreciation Day on Oct. 20, I also want to recognize our bus drivers and bus assistants. They play a vital role in making sure our students are able get safely to and from school and they typically form special bonds with the students they welcome on their buses each day. We are very grateful to our bus drivers and other transportation staff for always being there for our students and families!

Additionally, with National School Lunch Week coming up in October, I want to remind families to fill out your family’s federal school-meal application. Thanks to a new Maine law,  school meals now are free for all Maine students, but completing that application still is critically important. It provides the Portland Public Schools with family income data that helps us receive the federal and state funding we need, not just for meals but also for learning. Also, eligible students can receive extra money for groceries through Pandemic EBT. (Learn more about P-EBT in this newsletter.) Click HERE to find the correct federal meals application for your family to fill out, depending on your child’s school. Please complete your application right away!

Finally, as Election Day approaches on Nov. 8, I’ll remind everyone to vote. Three Board of Public Education seats are up for election and one of the City Charter changes recommended by the Charter Commission is very important for the Portland Public Schools.

Question 5 concerns school budget governance. It would enable the Board to prepare the school budget and then send it directly to Portland  voters to decide whether to approve it.

Currently, the Council determines the bottom line of the school budget before sending it to voters. The Council could still play an advisory role under this new provision, but the Charter Commission, the Board and I believe that the elected Board of Public Education is best positioned to both understand the needs of students and schools and weigh the tax implications of the school budget, since they are the ones elected by voters to make  public education decisions. I hope Portland voters will agree in November. Learn more about the election on the City Clerk's website.

Yom Kippur begins the evening of Oct. 4. Yom tov to all our Jewish staff, students and community members.

I hope everyone has a good long weekend next week, when we celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Monday, Oct. 10.


Xavier Botana, Superintendent