Portland Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez delivers the State of the Schools address Nov. 18 as Superintendent Xavier Botana, left, and Mayor Ethan Strimling look on. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND —  Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said Portland schools need the community’s help to close the achievement gap between minority and economically disadvantaged students and the rest of the student body.

While the schools have much to be proud of – student and staff accolades, rising graduation rates and rave reviews of new vegan menu items in the cafeteria – the district faces many challenges and bridging the achievement gap is one of its biggest, Rodriguez said Nov. 18 in his annual State of the Schools address.

“Many of the students who aren’t achieving lack the same opportunities as other students. We, at Portland Public Schools, are doing our part, but we can’t resolve opportunity gaps alone,” Rodriguez told the City Council. “As a community, every time we praise the achievement of our students we should ask ourselves if the right support structures were in place, who else might be able to achieve such successes.”

A study for the school department released in September showed, for example, that 61% of economically disadvantaged students in Portland High School’s class of 2016 pursued post-secondary education and less than half of those returned for a second year, compared to 69% and 53%, respectively, of the student body overall.

A lack of transportation, suitable housing and health and educational opportunities exacerbates the achievement gap, or what Rodriguez called the opportunity gap.

The school system has put several initiatives in place over the last year, including expanding the pre-kindergarten program, increasing gifted and talented and advanced course offerings, and creating, with the help of the Foundation for Portland Public Schools, the Portland Public Schools Food Fund to help fight food insecurity among students. The school system also has increased support for students with behavioral issues by adding more social workers and behavioral health professionals to the schools.

But more needs to be done to help students achieve to the best of their abilities, he said, and that requires involvement from the entire community.

“I am asking everyone to broaden the conversation to fill the opportunity gap,” he said.

A good example of the community rallying to support a population in need was seen this past summer when the city, school department, community organizations and resident volunteers operated an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo for the influx of asylum seekers that came to Portland, he said.

The district has begun budget work for the 2020-2021 school year and again faces tough decisions, he said, noting that state aid to Portland is expected to go down and taxpayers will be asked to foot more of the school bill.

“We must figure out how to not only fund our current level of education, but improve it so we can meet our Portland Promise goals and at the same time be cognizant to Portland taxpayers,” he said.

The goal is to start the discussions early and involve councilors, school board members, members of the community and state officials.

“It will take the entire community to find creative and lasting solutions to ensure Portland continues to be able to offer all of our students the quality education they need and deserve,” he said.

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