This is the final column in the series I’ve been writing with Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, about the Portland Public Schools’ seven Core Beliefs about Learning.

To recap, our first six Learning Beliefs are:

• All learners can rise to high expectations.

• Learners have different strengths, needs and starting points, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced. They learn in different ways and time frames.

• Academics, work habits, and social-emotional skills are equally important in school and in life.

• Students can learn better when they are empowered and feel capable.

• Learning in diverse groups prepares students to thrive in an increasingly diverse, complex, and connected world.

• Practicing and learning from mistakes are natural and necessary parts of the learning process.

We now turn our focus to our seventh belief, that belonging, engagement, and joy help a learner achieve.

This belief underpins the other six. In order for students to succeed, they need learning environments in which they feel they belong and can experience ownership in their learning.

We have developed Core Teaching Practices that correspond to each Learning Belief. In this case, to help students experience belonging and engagement, we strive in our teaching to ensure each student has a meaningful relationship with an adult at school and to create learning experiences in which students solve relevant and real-world problems together.

Students form meaningful relationships with not just teachers, but other adults in our schools. For example, Truc Huynh, a 2001 Portland High School graduate who today is a senior account executive at Unum and a restaurant owner, attributes much of his success to the relationships he developed at Portland’s public schools.

Truc called his “unsung heroes” the volunteer mentors who helped him learn English and also American customs when he was a little boy from Vietnam new to Reiche Community School. And to this day, Truc recalls the words of a high school coach who taught him to commit 100 percent whenever he tackles a challenge.

“I give a lot of credit to the teachers and the mentors and the coaches,” he said. (Read Truc Huynh’s story on our Portland Promise website.)

Another example is Mulki Hagi, a 2018 Deering High School graduate. Her connection with Danielle Wong, her mentor in the Make It Happen! program, a college readiness program for our multilingual students, led to Mulki and Danielle in 2017 becoming a student-teacher pair in the Bezos Scholars Program. They participated in a yearlong leadership development program, including attending the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

Mulki then used a $1,000 Bezos Scholar seed grant to design and lead a Multicultural Youth Summit in April 2018 for Deering students and faculty. At the summit, students led TED-style talks about real-world issues of systemic racism, LGBT rights, mental health, and immigration and also facilitated small group dialogues.

Another great example of students actively engaged in learning and working to solve real-world problems together is the recent public policy roundtable discussion event that Lyman Moore Middle School seventh-graders held with state and local leaders. After weeks of research, the students presented their proposed solutions to challenges such as opioid addiction, homelessness, and air pollution to 30 leaders who attended the forum, including the state’s DEP commissioner and Portland’s mayor, city manager, police chief and me. We came away impressed.

These are the types of learning experiences we strive to provide for our students at the Portland Public Schools, guided by our Learning Beliefs.

Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected].