School this fall has not been the “return to normal” we all envisioned last June. We continue to battle this pandemic and are currently focused on fine-tuning our health and safety protocols to protect our students and staff. At the same time, we are committed to realizing our goal of continuously working to improve the quality of education that Portland Public Schools offers students.

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

That is why we have developed clear teaching and learning priorities for the 2021-2022 school year. Those priorities are aligned with the goals of the Portland Promise, our strategic plan: achievement, whole student, people and equity.

Our four priorities this year are key to our students’ success. They are: strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning, creating safe and equitable school environments where students feel a sense of belonging and connection, fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families, and enabling effective school operations.

I’m writing a series of columns exploring each priority. This month, I’m focusing on strengthening core instruction, which aligns with our achievement and equity goals.

Looking at our achievement data across the district, we consistently see that we do an excellent job with some of our students – but not all of them. Yet we know that all our students have the potential to achieve at high levels and become fully prepared and empowered to pursue whatever their life goals might be.

We understand that we have work to do to change our systems, structures and practices in order to unleash all our students’ full potential. Our equity goal commits us to addressing achievement and opportunity gaps for our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students, as well as those who are English language learners (ELL), have disabilities and are economically disadvantaged.

Strengthening core instruction is an important way to do that. We believe that exposing students to grade-level learning with appropriate support is key if we want all our students to learn at high levels.

Our strategies for strengthening core instruction include continuing our math and phonics curriculum work and launching new science and social studies units. For example, we’re implementing a new science unit about the Presumpscot River, including raising and releasing salmon. We’ll also hold professional development sessions for teachers on Wabanaki Studies throughout the year.

To help ensure instruction is equitable, we’ll ensure access to grade-level instruction and rigor for all students, taking such steps as reducing remedial pullouts and tracking. One focus will be supporting our ELL teachers, special educators and classroom teachers as they collaborate to best meet students’ learning needs.

We’ll also promote inclusive practices and work to include the voices of traditionally underrepresented students and parents to ensure their needs and views are accounted for in our work.

Also, we want to ensure that all our educators experience a clear connection between our equity work and our instructional work. Everything we’re doing around developing curriculum materials – providing opportunities for professional learning and reimagining structures – is rooted in our commitment to build a more equitable system where all students are held to high expectations and are supported to reach them.

Of course, everyone’s health and safety are our first responsibility, so we will adjust the cadence of our teaching and learning priorities as needed. Our goal is to balance reacting to the moment and following the steady course of continuous improvement to our teaching and learning that we have set for ourselves and that our community deserves.

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