The Portland Phoenix

Portland schools to review guidelines for ‘controversial, sensitive issues’

In light of the growing national conversation about what should or shouldn’t be discussed in classrooms, Portland Public Schools teachers are seeking clarification about their ability to teach controversial or sensitive topics.

As a result, the School Department is planning to reexamine its policy.

The subject was raised at the April 26 meeting of the School Board’s Policy and Curriculum Committee, after parents reportedly approached teachers, principals, or administrators with concerns about material being covered in classes.

Xavier Botana
Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana: “This isn’t happening in a vacuum. This is happening in a time that across the country teachers are being told you can’t talk about these things.”

The national debate exploded when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation in March that many call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It prohibits public school teachers from including gender and sexual orientation in their instruction.

Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said in the policy meeting that it’s important for PPS to be reviewing and renewing these policies now in light of the current climate.

“This isn’t happening in a vacuum,” Botana said. “This is happening in a time that across the country teachers are being told you can’t talk about these things.”

He said concerns were brought up by teachers “who are worried” about what they can and can’t teach. Botana said it’s important to take these policy steps and assert that Portland teachers can address “controversial or sensitive issues,” as the 2007 policy calls them.

Melea Nalli, PPS assistant superintendent and chief academic officer, reintroduced the policy to gauge whether it should be reviewed, and after a robust first discussion, said it was clear that rewording the policy is worth the time and conversation it will require.

In an interview later, Nalli said the work will reassure teachers about including sensitive issues in the curriculum and classroom discussion. She also said there hasn’t been an influx of parent complaints.

During the April 26 meeting, policy committee members discussed some topics that may fall under the “controversial or sensitive” umbrella, including gender and sexual orientation, but also social studies topics like racism and genocide.

Melea Nalli, Portland’s assistant superintendent
for teaching and learning, said there has not been an increase in complaints from parents about curriculum.

Part of the update, Nalli explained during the discussion, will likely include a clear statement that what the policy labels as “controversial or sensitive” may not be thought of as such universally.

She said the policy specifies study of these topics in the high schools – making it inconsistent with current PPS curriculum because some of these topics are also present in elementary and middle school lessons. The department’s goal is to make students aware of issues in a way that is “developmentally appropriate,” Nalli said.

For example, she said, a new Wabanaki Studies unit being taught to third-grade students next school year includes lessons that inform students about “cultural genocide,” but in a way that is appropriate for the younger students to understand.

The unit will emphasize the Wabanaki’s historical dependence on the Penobscot River and how pollution resulted in the decline of fish and negatively impacted the livelihood of those who depended on it – a different approach to how genocide would be taught in high school.

The other policy under review, called “Accommodations in Sincere Beliefs from Required Instruction,” refers to parents’ ability to exclude their children from teachings they believe are disagreeable. This policy is considered more straightforward and changes would consist of language updates to ensure the process is clear for parents.

Board member Micky Bondo said it’s important to be conscious of all students and have a balanced conversation when it comes to these issues and teaching about race and marginalization in the classroom, especially when talking about young students.

“We don’t just serve one target of students, even though this community is marginalized,” she said.

Board member and Deering High School graduate Nyalat Biliew said she sees that viewpoint as problematic.

“We can’t just say ‘we can’t teach white kids about racism because they’re going to be mad, or too young,” Biliew said. “It’s how do we appropriately ensure that they can digest that information so that they do get that education?”

Policy committee members suggested the School Department include selected parent and student groups, in addition to organizations such as Portland Empowered, to help with future conversations about the policies.

Nalli said she would describe the effort as “proactive, being cognizant of the national dialogue but even more so just trying to make sure that as we strengthen our curriculum, any of our policies are in sync with what we’re doing.”

The committee plans to compare the policy’s old language to a new draft on May 24.

School Board tackles budget reductions, construction complications

The Portland School Board approved approximately $1.2 million in additional construction funds for the renovation of Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools as it considers reducing its proposed school budget.

The renovation of some of the city’s oldest public school buildings started with a $64 million bond in 2017. Renovation of Lyseth Elementary School was completed last year, but delays in building permits mean work is continuing – and growing more expensive – for the Longfellow, Presumpscot, and Reiche schools.

The board unanimously approved the District Advisory Building Committee’s recommendation to take leftover funds from the Lyseth portion of the project and the furniture, fixtures, and equipment budget to cover the new costs. 

Superintendent Xavier Botana said the complications and repurposing of funds have been frustrating.

“We are absolutely reflecting on some of the things that we could’ve done differently and at the same time know that it doesn’t mark the way that we’ve done these projects,” Botana said.

Board Chair Emily Figdor noted the success of the Lyseth project, completed on time and under budget, which she said has “absolutely transformed” the school.

The fiscal Year 2023 budget conversations also returned to the board after the City Council Finance Committee voted to reduce the board’s proposed budget by $1 million. 

Botana said the board could replace the $1 million that would be raised through taxes with federal funding now earmarked for “High School Equity Enhancement” – funds to provide additional staffing in support of English language learning and special education.

The full City Council still has to endorse the Finance Committee’s recommendation on May 16. As a result, the School Board decided to table the discussion until its May 17 meeting.

— Evan Edmonds

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