Her daughter, who started kindergarten last week at Portland’s Longfellow Elementary School, is still six years away from middle school.

So why was Anna Collins standing up there before the Portland school board late Tuesday evening, raising eyebrows with her questions about the city’s brand-new middle school math curriculum?

“My kid is just starting this process. If I don’t do something now, this is done — and I will be on the hook,” Collins said in an interview Wednesday. “I will be one of those parents who never participated. I will be one of those parents who didn’t show up.”

Instead, less than a week after she logged onto her computer and headed for Portland Public Schools’ website, Collins has school administrators and board members alike squirming in their seats and wondering exactly who’s in charge when it comes to what’s going on in Portland’s classrooms these days.

“We’re very impressed with the quality of the work that she put into her dialogue with us,” noted Superintendent Jim Morse. “It’s certainly unique in my two years (in Portland) — I’ve not seen anyone come forward on a curriculum issue in all the time I’ve been superintendent.”

It all started on Sept. 8, when Collins dropped off her daughter for the first day of school and, that evening, stopped by for a meeting of the Longfellow Parent Teacher Organization.

She had what turned out to be an unusual request: Could someone provide her with a copy of the kindergarten curriculum so she’d know what her little girl was doing each day?

She might as well have been speaking Greek. Curriculum? Hmmm … what curriculum?

“So I started educating myself,” Collins said.

Collins, it should be noted, is a lawyer — and an intelligent one at that.

A product of the public school system in Russia, where she was raised, she’s long had a particular interest in what was referred to a decade ago as the “math wars” — a philosophical battle between those who favored “traditional,” memorization-based math instruction and those who preferred newer, “constructivist” strategies that focus more on real-life problem solving.

Collins, for the record, prefers a blending of the two, with early emphasis on the fundamentals. But back to her research.

“So I go online and start looking at every school in Portland to try and figure out what the math curriculum is,” she recalled. “And I can’t easily figure it out — it’s not readily available information.” Eventually, she came across a letter to parents on the King Middle School website announcing that, as of this fall, Portland’s three middle schools have adopted the so-called University of Chicago School Math Project curriculum.

“That was news to me — on day three of my research,” said Collins, who’s not a big fan of that program because (unlike Superintendent Morse) she doesn’t think it focuses enough on the basics.

Next, Collins went to the laws and policies governing how the school board does business. That’s where she found this policy under “curriculum adoption”:

“No course of study shall be eliminated or new courses added without an in-depth study and subsequent approval by the School Committee, nor shall any basic alteration or reduction of a course of study be made without such approval.”

On Collins went to old school board minutes, where she found neither a vote by the board on the new math curriculum nor any indication that the public ever weighed in on it.

“This cannot happen in a vacuum,” Collins said. “If it happens in a vacuum, parents have even less impetus to care.”

Tuesday evening, at the end of a long agenda, the board finally reached its last item of business: “Board Focus on Educational Issues — Middle School Math Curriculum.”

There at the podium, all by herself, stood Collins.

She came prepared: Before the meeting, each board member got her bound, eight-page memo (with another 38 pages of attachments) in which Collins analyzed not just how the new curriculum came into being, but how in her view the board’s own policies and procedures were either sidestepped or ignored along the way.

“There has been no vote to approve the Chicago math curriculum across the district for all middle schools,” she wrote. “Instead, the school board has allowed the superintendent to choose the curriculum by purchasing and implementing a curriculum in the form of textbooks.”

What’s more, she later noted, “it appears that parents were not involved in the implementation process.”

Morse, in an interview Wednesday, said the school board did in fact approve the Chicago math textbooks and other instructional materials in June, after an exhaustive in-house study by administrators and teachers.

The middle school math overhaul, he added, stemmed from his determination to adopt common curricula throughout the city’s school system — and get away from the “disjointed” teaching strategies that for years have differed from school to school (and, in some schools, from classroom to classroom). But what about the lack of a school board vote on the curriculum change itself, as required in the board’s own policy?

“We do not believe the curriculum has changed. We believe that the program/textbook materials have changed,” Morse replied.

Might others believe differently?

“That’s what’s going to be teased out at the school board level — how we understand that together,” he said.

That can’t happen soon enough for several school board members who were contacted Thursday.

“I think we need a better public process to get at these decisions,” said board member Jaimey Caron. “Having a process, regardless of who makes the final decision, I think helps with communication, it helps get information out that is critical to parents.”

Kate Snyder, the board’s chair, said a workshop was already scheduled for Tuesday, before Collins’ arrival, to discuss the board’s role in future curricular decisions.

And while she doesn’t agree with all the conclusions in Collins’ memo, Snyder said, “The timing is kind of perfect. . . . She made me think about some of the planning I’m doing as chair of the board in a way that will definitely improve the workshop on Tuesday — it will help us find some of the clarity we need.”

Board member Marnie Morrione, who wasn’t even fully aware that “Chicago Math” is already up and running, said Collins’ efforts already have had a “huge” impact on the board and the administration.

“It would be wonderful to have more citizens like her,” said Morrione.

Which brings us back to Collins: Having clearly done her homework with the school board, might the mother of a kindergartner have a message for fellow parents?


“Wake up,” Collins said. “Make a commitment to go to at least one school committee meeting each year. Just do it. It’s not that hard. This is your child’s education we’re talking about.”

Class dismissed.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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