After only a few weeks in town, the name of the game for Ryan Scallon, the Portland school district’s new superintendent, is what he calls a “listen and learn” phase.
His first impression? Positive. At the district’s central office on Cumberland Avenue in early July, Scallon said it seemed like Portland folks feel very good about what their schools have to offer. That feeling has translated into optimism for himself as he uses the few months to wade into the job.
“I’ve met a lot of people who feel really positive about school and what they’re experiencing,” Scallon said. “Not to a level where we don’t have things to work on, but there’s real positivity in the first two weeks I’ve been here.”
Scallon was hired in June after a lengthy process undertaken by the city to hire a successor to outgoing superintendent Xavier Botana, who served as the head of the school district since 2016. Botana resigned in December, and the school board appointed two interim co-superintendents in January.
Scallon’s official start date in Portland was July 1. He will earn an annual salary of $200,000, making him Maine’s highest paid superintendent.
He got his start teaching middle and high school math, earning his teaching credentials at night, and later received a master’s degree in Education in School Administration from the University of Pennsylvania, and then a doctorate in Education from Temple University in 2020. Before coming to Portland, Scallon had stints at schools and central offices in Boston and New York, where he worked as a deputy chief of new schools and a chief academic officer. Most recently, he was the acting assistant superintendent for innovation and opportunity in the Philadelphia school district.
Portland is a considerably smaller district than those in Scallon’s past. In Philadelphia, he oversaw as many as 40 different schools and programs ranging between 8,500 to 9,500 students.
But in a listening and learning phase, he’s excited about the size of his new school district.
“That’s one of the pieces that was particularly attractive [to me],” Scallon said. “Being large enough that you have scale, but being small enough that you can really engage the community and families.”
The district has held a number of community meet-and-greets for Scallon to hear community input. An additional event is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 3 at King Middle School. When all are concluded, the feedback will be compiled and shared with the school board and general public in October.
It has been a tumultuous year for Portland’s school system following Botana’s resignation in December. Botana laid the groundwork for the Portland Promise, an equity-focused comprehensive plan for the district, during his seven years in the position. Botana was beloved by many educators in the district, who spoke highly about him at a school board meeting following his resignation.
But his tenure was also marked by a payroll crisis stemming from lack of staffing, which ran through Fall 2022 and early winter of this year. That has led to larger-scale operational changes at PPS, including a decision to completely outsource the payroll process, expected to be fully complete in the early portion of the coming school year.
Meanwhile, a larger change — the consolidation and possible revamping of Portland’s high school model — has loomed in the background since Botana first floated the idea in early 2022. Officials issued an update in June about the district’s pre-alignment work, adding that an opportunity could open up in 2024 to secure state funding toward a brand new high school building.
Though he’s new to consolidation discussions, Scallon saw it as an issue of “what opportunities would be open to students,” he said.
He has similar experiences to draw from. In Boston, Scallon worked on a high school redesign, implementing “inspiring” ideas from the community that he said the central office couldn’t have come up with alone. He also witnessed two very different schools merging at a co-location while working at the Philadelphia school district.
“Trying to have two schools co-located in the same building [won’t] have the synergy and the positive impact unless you’re really intentional about how these schools share ideas, share programming and make each other better,” he said.
For now, he’s focused on engagement and listening. That philosophy will prove to be Scallon’s approach to the next few months as he prepares to lead the public school district.
“I do really want to take the time to understand the Portland context before we roll out any new initiatives or work,” he said. “My hope is truly to get folks to engage in conversation so that we can share themes and trends that are representative of our whole community, and use that to ground the work we do going forward,” Scallon said.