With much to do and little time remaining, still forward-looking Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana last week outlined the work that remains in his final year on the job and the hurdles Portland Public Schools may face after he’s gone.
A challenging two pandemic years led to Botana’s decision to depart at the end of this school year – one year earlier than he originally planned.
“As I talk to my wife and my son, this seems to be the right move and the right time,” he said, sitting at a table in his Cumberland Avenue office. On a particularly muggy and gray Friday afternoon, the office was comfortable and cool, although the humidity wasn’t a bother to Botana; it was nothing compared to what it was like during his time in the Midwest.
Botana, who turns 60 in September, was an associate superintendent in the Michigan City area of Indiana for six years and a teacher and administrator in the Chicago area before being hired by Portland in 2016.
“People, rightly, have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of clarity and change in directions,” Botana said, “so as the person who has to ultimately make the decision and operationalize it, it’s been really challenging.”
On top of that uncertainty, several issues surfaced in the past year that have to be addressed as school approaches on Sept. 6, including disciplinary data and deteriorating high schools.
Now, add to that replacement of the School Department’s top official.
A plan to find Botana’s successor was on the agenda for the Aug. 16 School Board meeting, with hopes to finalize the new selection by May 14. Botana said it would include a search committee with community involvement and the hiring of a search firm to identify a pool of candidates.
Botana also shared some insight about preparing the city’s high schools for the future, and how he hopes to lay the groundwork for some big changes before the end of the school year.
High schools’ future
He has already proposed a variation to the high school enrollment procedure, but suggested that a more wholesale change – the potent consolidation of Portland and Deering high schools – is a step to consider.
“That is something the community needs down the road,” Botana said. “The facilities we have
aren’t facilities we can continue to assume (are) viable.”
Portland and Deering are each well over 100 years old, and the School Department has estimated that each one will need approximately $40 million in repairs over the next 15 years – money Botana said the department doesn’t have.
If nothing changes, he said, both schools will continue to decline and deteriorate. He sought help from the state by applying for inclusion this year on the Integrated and Consolidated school list, which would help fund a new building to replace both high schools and Portland Adult Education. The application was denied, although the Maine Department of Education said it may consider another avenue for Maine schools to apply for this kind of funding.
Botana said he wants to keep pressing the state to make it happen.
“We need to think about the next iteration of this and the state has the means to do that,” he said. “… I want to do everything in my time here to get us to the doorstep of that finished product.”
As for work to do immediately, Botana said addressing the aftermath of middle school protests that took place in May remains a priority after the eighth graders at Lyman Moore and Lincoln middle schools called out administrators and some peers about alleged discrimination and unfair treatment that occurred during the past school year.
Their claims were backed up by district data the school board reviewed Aug. 2. It revealed Black students, who make up 30 percent of the student population, were suspended more than other students, and that the number of English language learners who were suspended has also increased.
Botana suggested that as the school demographics have grown more diverse, cultural differences between staff and students could have contributed to conflicts becoming more frequent. In June, the district reviewed comments from students that accused staff of racial profiling and siding with white students more frequently than Black students.
What still remains unclear, the superintendent said, is how much of an effect the pandemic has had on the behavior of students and staff, especially with the impact on mental health.
“That’s the part that feels hard for me to understand,” he said. “(Last year) was a hybrid year, there was no conflict, no discipline, and now we’re slightly higher than we were in 2019 after seeing a trend that was going in the right direction in 2020. I don’t know if this is just back to where we were, or if the changes that we started seeing were just negated by all the changes as a result of the pandemic.”
Another takeaway from the data was an apparent disconnect between school practices and district policies. Suspension policies were reworked as recently as the 2020-2021 school year, but the number of suspensions for Black and white students from last year was higher than it’s been in the past five years.
At the Aug. 2 meeting, School Board Chair Emily Figdor called most suspensions last year “completely inappropriate,” citing the policy itself, which specifically states that out-of-school suspensions should only be used when unavoidable as a safety measure.
In-school suspensions are seen as a better alternative, because students are able to remain in school and continue their studies while isolated from their peers.
But the data revealed that more students were suspended out of school than in school – and those categorized as “violence without physical injury,” “other,” and “insubordination” make up as much as 70 percent of the suspensions.
“I see that as a power struggle with staff,” Figdor said, “and I see it completely inappropriate to suspend a student when there’s some kind of power struggle. That’s not how we’re going to educate our students.”
In a subsequent interview, Figdor said school staff haven’t been given the skills to properly de-escalate conflicts, so suspension has been used to resolve them – contrary to what department policy dictates.
She said she wants to move forward with a board resolution to rapidly address the suspension issue, with specific timelines and accountability. Figdor said she also hopes the board’s policy committee, meeting next on Aug. 23, takes another look at the policy.
Failure to follow the district’s discipline policies could have been a contributor to students’ complaints at the end of the past school year, she said.
“(It) is a significant component in kids being disillusioned or being targeted at school,” Figdor said. “We’re keeping kids out of the classroom, we’re making a negative association with school and with specific staff.”
Better equipping staff to handle these conflicts and restoring the relationships between staff and students is part of what the schools have to work on, Botana said. The School Board allocated $13,000 in June to provide additional social and emotional support to students.
“I’m hopeful that those are the right things to be able to move forward and we’ll revert back to seeing improvements,” he said.
An ambitious final year
The decision to suspend a student, in or out of school ultimately is made by school administration – a principal and vice principal.
Although there’s been significant administrative turnover this summer at PPS, including at each middle school, Botana said he believes this year’s administration is the strongest staff he’s ever worked with in his career. It makes him confident about taking the right steps forward and building consistency in restorative practices.
Terrence Young, who was principal at Longfellow Elementary School for eight years, is now director of district operations, a move intended to bolster PPS organizational positions and oversee how the district meets students’ needs.
Changes also include the departure of Robyn Bailey, who was acting principal at Lincoln Middle School for the past school year and during the protests in May. Bailey was expected to resume her former position as Lincoln’s assistant principal when the new principal, Marisa Ayala, started in June, but she took a leave of absence after the protests and resigned at the end of the school year.
Lincoln has a new assistant principal, Blake Kastle, formerly the assistant principal of BREATHE, the district’s specialized education program serving students with behavioral and emotional needs.
Jason Bradeen, formerly a school counselor at Saco Middle School and a charter school in Boston, is assistant principal at King Middle School, after the departure of Craig Hanson. Bradeen’s partner, Nicole Bradeen, an educator with more than 20 years of experience, is principal of Longfellow Elementary School.
And Sarah Gips Goodall, married to PPS Chief Information Officer Gavin Goodall, is the new principal of Lyseth Elementary School. Gips Goodall helped provide administrative support to PPS at the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
One thing Botana declined to do in the half-hour interview was critique his tenure in Portland, reluctant to take what he called a “backwards look at a work in progress.”
“We have really ambitious goals for this year,” he said, “which are in essence, the same goals we had last year that were just hard to advance given what COVID threw our way.”
Portland Public Schools may change high school enrollment process
A possible high school enrollment lottery means some students may not get into their first-choice high school.
The proposed change is intended to reduce the disparity between the city’s two largest high schools by creating more diverse student populations.
The new plan would be implemented for the class of 2027 – this year’s rising eighth graders. It would be similar to the current selection process for Casco Bay High School, which takes students’ academic and economic backgrounds into consideration to achieve greater diversity.
The Board of Education discussed the potential change for the first time in its Aug. 2 meeting, where several members also suggested exploring alternatives.
This would be the first change in the high school enrollment process in more than 40 years, leading District 4 board member Aura Russell-Bedder to suggest the community’s reaction to such a cultural shift may be chilly.
“This may be the best decision to make,” Russell-Bedder said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be received well.”
Under the proposed process, students would still rank their choices, and Casco Bay High School will still use its diversity-based selection process, which caps the incoming freshman class at around 100 students.
Students without any “diversity factors” who apply to CBHS, and those who choose the school with higher enrollment (currently Portland High School), would be placed in a lottery and randomly distributed to smaller, more diverse Deering High School.
Diversity factors include students with specific learning plans; English language learners; those experiencing homelessness, or receiving free and reduced-cost lunch.
At the Aug. 2 meeting, Superintendent Xavier Botana explained that PPS is using these factors because they’re more indicative of diversity than racial data alone.
More than half of this year’s incoming ninth graders at Deering High School have one or more diversity factors, according to the School Department, meaning the enrollment adjustment would send more students without economic or learning disadvantages to Deering to reduce that disparity.
Students with one or more diversity factors would be left alone, allowing them to attend their choice of Portland or Deering, or possibly getting into CBHS. Two-thirds of last year’s freshman class at Deering had at least one diversity factor, while PHS has the city’s lowest percentage of students with diversity factors and the highest percentage of white students.
Enrollment in Portland’s schools has been declining since 2010. Since 2020, more students have been choosing PHS over Deering, with the gap reaching its largest point this year when more than 900 students enrolled at Portland High School, with about 700 at Deering.
More students have also been choosing PHS as their second choice if they don’t get into CBHS, resulting in an unequal distribution of resources between Portland and Deering.
Because of the disparity in the number of students, Deering has lost 20 percent of its staff since 2020, and Deering counselors’ caseloads are 30 percent smaller than those at PHS, Botana said. He said that reducing the enrollment gap between the schools would help reduce the strain on resources and ensure that both schools receive more equal shares of resources.
The overarching goal is to limit the difference in enrollment to about 30 students while creating more equally diverse schools. The School Department also hopes to reduce the number of students who don’t get their first choice.
The district modeled what the change would have looked like for the previous three freshman classes, and the largest number of displaced students was 40, or 10 percent, in the 2019-2020 school year.
Chair Emily Figdor said she was surprised at the small number of students the proposal may impact, and suggested it’s a route that needs to be taken to resolve two problems: being almost unable to fully support both Portland and Deering high schools, and those schools becoming segregated.
Still, some School Board members aren’t sold on the proposal and suggested it would be appropriate to discuss alternatives.
District 5 representative Sarah Brydon expressed concern that even though it’s a small number of students who won’t get their first choice, the process will still take away those students’ ability to choose.
Nyalat Biliew, from District 2, asked if there could be more discussion about the potential options. “We might be rushing something that we’re not all fully sure how it’s going to turn out,” she said.
The board decided to discuss other options in an Aug. 16 workshop. A first reading and public hearing on the new proposal are scheduled for Sept. 6.
— Evan Edmonds
Botana confirms hiring outside consultant to assist job candidate
Portland Public Schools paid at least $1,250 last year for a consultant to assist the application of the newly hired assistant principal at Lyman Moore Middle School.
Superintendent Xavier Botana confirmed Farausi Cherry received assistance with his resume and cover letter. Botana said it’s an example of PPS doing “what we said we would do” to help employees of color present themselves in the best possible light and to increase administrative diversity.
“We have a commitment as a district to help diversify our workforce,” Botana said. “That’s a core aspect of the work we’re trying to do.”
Cherry was a counselor at Deering High School prior to becoming an assistant principal. He was also the Black Student Union adviser at Deering, and worked as a counselor at Lewiston and Windham high schools.
In response to a reporter’s inquiry he wrote in an email that he wanted to move into an administrative role a few years ago after working on his leadership skills within PPS. “Many places wanted administrators and I needed to determine how to demonstrate my abilities so I would be considered as a candidate for an administrator position,” Cherry said.
He then asked PPS for help drawing out those leadership skills as part of his professional development.
PPS hired Gaby Grekin, a consultant who has previously helped coach other internal candidates. Botana said Cherry unsuccessfully applied for administrative positions in the past, and received feedback to emphasize the leadership work he has done in a more compelling way on his resume.
“In the context of that, one of the supports that we provided for him was to have (Grekin) assist him with telling his story in a way that would represent him more effectively,” Botana said.
He said it’s an example of how PPS provides staff with support they need to move to different positions, whether it’s paying for them to take courses or providing mentoring and guidance.
While it’s not the only time money has been used to assist staff, Botana said it’s the first time that he has permitted it in this way. There is $27,000 in the school budget dedicated to Diversity Hiring and Support, which includes the funding to cover this type of contract work.
“We do that for all of our staff,” the school chief said, “but particularly for our staff of color.”
In an October 2021 email exchange between PPS Human Resources Director Barbara Stoddard and Grekin that was obtained by the Phoenix, the consultant said she was working with Cherry on his resume and cover letter to “better feature his accomplishments and achievements.”
Grekin wrote that PPS would be charged $250 an hour for five prior hours of work, and was checking to see if any additional time necessary would be sanctioned.
When timing permits, the PPS hiring process also includes a group of community members and staff members to review resumes and make recommendations.
Copies of the emails also circulated in the school community. People expressed concerns about the use of a consultant in this manner because committee members are unaware that a resume has been polished and because it defeats the mission of the committee if the School Department is assisting a specific candidate.
Botana said the committee process is supposed to be blind, and emphasized that the committee’s role is only to provide a recommendation; the superintendent has the final say on candidates sent to the School Board.
“We are working as hard as we can to ensure that we have the most talented and diverse group of people working for the Portland Public Schools,” Botana said. “The fact that we’re investing in trying to develop the capacity of our leaders of color is something I’m incredibly proud of.”
— Evan Edmonds