Linda Stimpson, an ELL teacher at Lyseth Elementary School, works with three second graders in a makeshift classroom in May 2019. The Foundation for Portland Public Schools is trying to raise $100,000 to increase ELL services and to fund other unmet equity initiatives. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — A fundraising campaign hopes to raise at least $100,000 to help Portland Schools close some of the equity gaps among students, particularly students of color.

The Foundation for Portland Schools’ “Addressing the Opportunity Gap” campaign comes on the heels of voters’ approval last week of the district’s $119.9 million budget for the upcoming school year.  The approved budget did not include $1 million in equity investments that had initially been in the budget but was removed after a plan to restructure the elementary schools, which would have saved money, was scrapped due to a shift in focus to the coronavirus.

“Portland voters are generous supporters of our schools. But we still have many unmet needs,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said in announcing the fundraising effort the day after the budget validation vote. “In this particular moment in our city, state and country, it is clear that we must do more than what we’re doing to close the opportunity gaps and I am hopeful that Portlanders will rally to this campaign.”

Portland’s Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana hopes a new initiative from the Foundation for Portland Public Schools will help the school district with its equity work. File photo

As of Monday afternoon, $40,000 has been raised, including a $25,000 donation from the John T. Gorman Foundation, said Andi Summers, the school foundation’s executive director.

“This work has been going on for years through the Portland Promise, but the Black Lives Matter movement really focused the public’s attention on this issue,” Summers said  “People are really wanting to support this work toward system change, not Band-Aid approaches.”

Money from the campaign would fund additional supports for English language learners; develop Wabanaki and Africana studies curriculum at Casco Bay, Deering and Portland high schools; purchase books and resources written by Black, Indigenous and people of color; provide professional development for pre-kindergarten teachers to learn how to teach an anti-racist curriculum; and pilot a program to mentor a small group of multilingual social workers to better represent the racial and language diversity in Portland.

“A lot of data suggests students do better in achievement when the curriculum is culturally relevant and they have teachers like them in the classroom,” Summers said.

Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan launched in 2017, aims to eliminate the achievement and opportunity gaps in city schools, but the recent pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have magnified inequities that still exist, particularly for students of color, who make up 47% of the student body.

According to data from the district, the gaps are particularly profound at Portland High School, Casco Bay High School, King Middle School and Reiche and Ocean Avenue elementary schools. At Portland High School, for example, 80% of economically advantaged students are proficient in English language arts and 59% are proficient in math, versus just 22% and 9%, relatively, of economically disadvantaged students. There are racial disparities as well. At Reiche, white students are more proficient in English language arts, 74%, and math, 37%, than students of color, who have 56% and 14% proficiency ratings.

Closing the gaps at these schools and others was the focus of the 2019 State of the Schools address given by Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez.

Portland Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez delivers the 2019 State of the Schools address that focused on closing the opportunity gaps between students. File photo

“One inequity that the district can’t root out all by itself is the persistent achievement gap between our economically advantaged students and economically  disadvantaged students. Economically advantaged students do great. Our data shows them performing on  par with students in surrounding school districts. However, that same data shows  big gaps in proficiency for our economically disadvantaged students, as well as our  students of color and English language learner students,” he said in the address.

He said, instead of seeing them as achievement gaps, he sees it as opportunity gaps because  “many of these students who are not achieving simply lack the same opportunities as other students.”

Such was the case when schools shut down in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus and Rodriguez said many students, particularly those who come from low income families, lacked the technology needed to conduct school work from home.

Raising the $100,000 is a first step. Botana said overall it would cost around $4 million to fund all the equity work needed in Portland schools.

“The goal is to start a conversation. In the past we have not necessarily seen philanthropy address racial disparities, opportunity gaps and the things we are trying to advance in terms of our anti-racism work,” he said. “I hope this philanthropy can have a positive affect in addressing this work.”

While the school budget passed by voters funds a planned expansion for public pre-kindergarten, an illustrative math and phonics curriculum, and increased services for students with autism, among other items, Botana said $1 million in other equity investments were deferred to the fiscal 2022 budget.

“The goal of this fundraising drive is not to replace public investment in education,” he said. “This is to jump start some of our (equity) work and shore up some of the places we are lacking.”

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