A city councilor’s statements that Portland schools are failing to address inequities facing students of color and from low-income families drew strong pushback from school leaders and a nonprofit on Friday.

Councilor Tae Chong wrote in a guest column in the Press Herald on Friday that the city’s schools are “broken for students in poverty and for Black and brown students.” He cited test scores and other data showing the disparities and he blamed school leaders.

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong, at his home on Friday, said, “I see a lot of rhetoric and that’s why I felt like I had to do something.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Superintendent Xavier Botana and school board members reacted to the opinion piece by saying they agree more work needs to be done, but that the district has made progress by passing an equity-focused school budget and other policies.

“The district and school board absolutely share the councilor’s concern,” school board Chair Emily Figdor said. “Our top focus is addressing the inequities in our district. We’ve been getting a ton done. I should say the schools can’t do it alone. We’ve been passing policy after policy and changing practices. Culture change takes time.”

Chong said he felt he had to write the piece after growing frustrated with what he described as a lack of progress in addressing gaps in academic performance between white students and students of color and from low-income families.

“I would bluntly offer that ‘progressive’ school leaders over the last five years have exacerbated this problem, creating the worst, most expensive academic gap for Black students and students in poverty in Maine,” he wrote in the column.

He said those feelings arose during the school budget process this spring, when Botana presented data on academic performance and school spending to the council, and again when Chong saw a questionnaire the nonprofit group Equity in Portland Schools recently released asking candidates for school board and City Council about their priorities.

Chong said he was disappointed to not see questions about disparities in academic performance or chronic absenteeism on the questionnaire. “I just don’t see much change,” he said. “I see a lot of rhetoric and that’s why I felt like I had to do something. I’m really concerned about the quality of people who are being elected and who are going to do the same things over and over again.”

In his piece, Chong said students of color in Portland tend to score lower on standardized tests than their peers in other districts, while white students in Portland tend to score better than the state average. He also said the school board has focused on the wrong things, such as whether to award hazard pay to employees during the coronavirus pandemic, rather than addressing more pressing problems such as the number of students who weren’t coming to school at that time.

In a statement Friday, Botana acknowledged there are disparities in the district and said his focus has been on eliminating gaps between economically disadvantaged students, who tend to be students of color, English-language learners and students with disabilities, and higher-achieving students, who tend to be white.

SUPERINTENDENT’S REBUTTAL

“Our work has included getting historic equity budgets overwhelmingly approved by Portland voters and creating cutting-edge policies to root out racism from our schools and push toward equity,” Botana said. “Addressing systemic inequities does not happen overnight and we have been transparent that there is much more work to do – and that we’re committed to doing it.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana disputed Tae Chong’s opinion article, saying it contained inaccuracies and mischaracterizations about the district’s work. File photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He said Chong’s piece contains inaccuracies and mischaracterizations about the district’s work, including a claim the district has spent “nothing” on bilingual social workers and outreach workers to address the problem of students not coming to school during the pandemic.

In fact, Botana said the district has recently hired three bilingual social workers and increased pay and professionalized the work of multilingual family outreach specialists.

“It appears that Councilor Chong believes that hazard pay for front-line workers, raising taxes to support our students, and the decision, strongly supported by Portland voters in 2017, to renovate our elementary schools to bring them up to 21st century learning standards are the wrong things to do,” Botana said. “Beyond that, he does not offer anything specific for what he believes we should do. We invite him to work collaboratively with us to share his ideas on how best to achieve the goal we all have in common: achieving equity for all students at the Portland Public Schools.”

Chong said he believes the district needs to hire more bilingual outreach workers to respond to the needs of its high multilingual and English-language learner population and there needs to be more focus on student mental health. He said he has been working with a group from United Way of Southern Maine with the aim of increasing bilingual outreach workers and getting them trained, developing after-school programs to address self-care and mental health with low-income and students of color, and trying to launch a city-wide mental health campaign aimed at those students.

“The people most affected by COVID were Black and brown people and that means their kids were affected,” Chong said. “A lot of those kids were in poverty and a lot of those kids were behind academically. During COVID, everyone fell behind even more. When kids in poverty who are behind academically are now completely alone and isolated, that’s a recipe for disaster.”

School board members posted rebuttals on social media, pointing to decisions they say are aimed at ending the inequities Chong cited.

The school board’s $125.2 million budget included investments to support English-language learners, expand pre-K and expand the hiring of and support for a diverse staff. Figdor also posted on Facebook a list of things the board has done recently that she said have helped promote equity, including eliminating school resource officers, passing new policies on harassment and discrimination, and on equity, and adjusting school start times for middle and high school students.

CALLS TO WORK TOGETHER

School board member Roberto Rodriguez, who is running for an at-large seat on the council, said he was disappointed to see Chong’s opinion piece.

“This is wasted time and a wasteful use of his platform,” Rodriguez said. “These issues in our schools are due to large societal problems. They cannot point a finger at the school department and say that because of decisions made the last few years there are these gaps in our schools. These are problems that are represented throughout our country in all public school systems.”

School board member Adam Burk also posted a response on Facebook. “As leaders we can make noise and try to pull others down or we can get to work together,” he wrote.

Burk pointed to a proposal from the superintendent last year that the district use federal COVID relief money to make direct payments to families in need, but that was ultimately not approved by the state, as another example of how the district is trying to address inequities. “We need partners in residents, city hall, state and federal government to change this.”

In a statement Friday, Equity in Portland Schools said the group, which is focused on addressing race and class inequity in city schools, appreciates Chong’s piece highlighting the issue of inequities but that they also saw it as an unproductive attack.

“Since our inception in 2019 as an all-volunteer organization, closing the opportunity gap has been a critical priority for EPS, along with increasing the number of Black and Brown teachers and staff, and electing Black and Brown leaders dedicated to anti-racism and equity work to our school board, City Council and Charter Commission,” the statement said. “Day in day out that has been our top priority and will continue to be.” 


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