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

We’re working to realize the Achievement goal in our Portland Promise by strengthening core instruction through a quality curriculum, strong teacher leadership and sustained professional learning. One way we’re doing that is by going “vertical” when it comes to our curriculum.

This is the third of four monthly columns I’m dedicating to discussing four new initiatives in the Portland Public Schools’ 2019-2020 budget. The initiatives embody the goals in our Portland Promise, our district’s strategic plan: Equity, Whole Student, Achievement and People. I’ve previously discussed our pre-kindergarten expansion initiative and our behavioral health continuum initiative.

This month, my focus is on how we’re working to strengthen core instruction. Research shows effective supports, quality curriculum, and collective teacher efficacy improve student achievement. This work is connected to not only our Achievement goal, but also our Equity goal.

Under the leadership of Melea Nalli, our assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, we have created Core Content Vertical Teams to enhance curriculum development. We began these teams last year in math, and we’re adding English language arts, social studies, science and health vertical teams this year. By “vertical,” we mean that what students learn at one level – whether it’s at the elementary, middle or high school level – will prepare them for moving on to the next level.

This is a change because, in the past, we haven’t focused on curriculum development from a districtwide perspective. These vertical teams will now give us a bird’s eye view of our curriculum across all levels. That will allow us to develop a shared and coherent vision for instruction at all levels, based on current research and evidence-based practices, and mesh our districtwide content vision with school instructional visions.

It also will help bring a lens of Equity and high expectations for all students to our current practices, and ensure we’re evolving to meet the needs of all our students in core content areas. Additionally, we’ll be better able to share best practices, analyze curriculum and data, and look at instruction to inform decision making around curriculum, structures, professional development and policy.

In short, the vertical teams will help everyone at the elementary, middle and high school levels to know what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching it and what our instruction is telling us.

Another way we’re working to strengthen our core curriculum is by taking a critical eye toward content and perspective. We are taking such steps as diversifying materials and content, allowing students to demonstrate mastery in diverse ways, and ensuring what is being taught is relevant and engaging to all students. Research shows that this is a core strategy to improve outcomes for all our students and help realize our Equity goal.

One example of this is the Wabanaki Studies curriculum we’re developing. The Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes are known collectively as the Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland.” Some of our students are Wabanaki, but we consider teaching about Maine’s Indigenous peoples necessary to give all our students a comprehensive understanding of the history of our state and our nation.

To ensure we’re creating an accurate, culturally responsive, Equity driven curriculum, we are partnering with the Abbe Museum and tribal leaders from across Maine. We are also using a decolonizing framework to help ask tough questions about what we teach, why we teach it, and whose perspective we’re uplifting.

We’re also working to develop a social studies curriculum around holidays that focuses on more culturally appropriate ways of celebrating holidays in the diverse and inclusive setting of Portland’s public schools.


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