Portland Public Schools staff and students are about to start the 2015-2016 year with new district leadership and some exciting new initiatives.

But one thing won’t change: the strong focus on students and fostering their academic success.

I’m one of the new leaders. I became interim superintendent of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district on Aug. 1.

The Portland Board of Public Education appointed me to this one-year post while it searches for a replacement for former Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, who left to lead a larger school district in Kentucky. I welcome this new opportunity to serve our district of approximately 7,000 students over the next year.

I previously was the district’s director of school management and worked side by side with Superintendent Caulk. My goal now is to continue the good work he led in this district, so we don’t skip a beat.

We also recently filled three top administrative posts. Becky Foley, formerly MSAD 52’s assistant superintendent, is our chief academic officer. Kim Brandt, formerly assistant superintendent for RSU 16, now has my former position as director of school management. And Fred Barlow, who most recently directed transportation for two New York school districts, is our new transportation director.

They’re key additions to our Central Office team as we work to maximize the work our school leaders, teachers and staff do to support student achievement in our schools.

We’re also starting the school year with some new initiatives.

The most exciting is 20 more minutes of learning time for students added to each school day this fall. Students’ new 6.5-hour day means they’ll get more than 46 additional instructional hours in school over the course of the year. That’s true even though the school year will be two days less – students will attend school for 178 days this year, compared to the 180 days scheduled for 2014-2015.

To fit in that extra learning time each day, our schools will have new bell schedules as of September. The new schedules, which the school board approved in May after numerous public hearings, are listed on the 2015-2016 district calendar. Go to portlandschools.org and click on the “News & Calendars” tab to access the calendar.

Also, as part of the new changes, Portland METRO buses will transport high school students to and from classes and extracurricular activities. (School bus specialized transportation will continue to be provided for high school students who need it.) The METRO plan gives the school district more flexibility when it comes to transportation.

METRO and the district will continue their work with high school students and families, which began in the spring, to ensure the new transportation plan goes smoothly. The efforts have included free METRO summer bus passes for high school students. Many students have used the passes to travel to jobs or to get around this summer, familiarizing themselves with the bus system in the process. And a new bus route designed to makes it easier for students to get to their high schools officially launched Aug. 16.

As August ends, I also want to say a few words about our successful summer programs, in which more than 900 students participated. We continue our focus on students’ academic success during the summers to help students avoid the “summer slide.”

This year, Portland Summer Success: Feeding Bodies & Minds, a collaborative project of Portland ConnectED partners, including the Portland Public Schools, provided free lunches to kids and teens at 18 neighborhood sites across the city, along with learning opportunities such as science experiments, reading, games, and crafts. Learning opportunities also were offered in our schools.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing rising ninth-graders in a Summer Research Adventure Camp explain the research projects they chose to investigate, ranging from capitalism to becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

The value of this type of summer learning is enormous. And seeing the students’ excited faces as they explained their projects in August was very rewarding. As the new school year begins, I look forward to seeing all of our students eagerly engaged in learning.

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Jeanne Crocker is interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools.

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