Eighteen months of remote and hybrid learning due to the pandemic has disconnected many of our students from school, their teachers and each other. That is why reconnecting our students is a key focus at the Portland Public Schools now that we have returned to full-time, in-person learning.

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

We’ve made creating safe and equitable school environments, where students feel a sense of belonging and connection, one of our district’s four teaching and learning priorities this year.

The other three priorities are strengthening core instruction to ensure students master grade-level learning, fostering a district-wide culture where staff feel supported to grow professionally to best serve students and families, and enabling effective school operations. All four teaching and learning priorities are aligned to our Portland Promise goals of achievement, whole student, people and equity.

I’m writing a series of columns about these priorities. Last month, I wrote about strengthening core instruction. This month, my focus is on safe and equitable schools where students feel connected and engaged.

This priority is responsive to the needs of our students at the current moment. But we are also deepening work that has been underway for the past few years.

Having safe and equitable schools will help us realize our whole student and equity goals. We know that if we prioritize authentic individual relationships with each student, clear and equitable expectations in our schools, and meaningful support structures district-wide, along with deep listening to what our students and families tell us they experience and need, we will create an environment where students feel valued and thrive.

However, just as achievement and opportunity gaps exist between student groups, not all students experience our schools in this way today. Too often, the ones who end up feeling less valued and disconnected from school are our most marginalized students – students who are Black, Indigenous or people of color; are English language learners; have disabilities; or are LGBTQ.

Strategies to address this include strengthening the implementation of having a “Portland Promise Point Person” for every student across all grades and working with our staff to develop the skills and mindsets to use restorative practices and de-escalation to influence student behavior.

We’ll also be working to develop structures in our system that support the development of meaningful connections for students through our ongoing PBIS work – PBIS stands for “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports” and its focus is prevention, not punishment. We’re also implementing our newly revised anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy and focusing on critical times of transition in our system, especially from eighth to ninth grade.

Some of this work is already underway. Recently, Deering High School senior Balqies Mohamed shared with Portland Public Schools staff how meeting with teacher advisors helped her during the past school year.

“At Deering High School, advisory was not only a place for students to receive support, but also for student-teacher collaboration,” Balqies said. She said she and other students worked with two faculty members to co-design lessons centered on equity and anti-racism, using dialogue and interactive activities. The result of the lessons, Balqies said, “was an increase in student engagement as well as, as a school, we took the first step to create an anti-racist and tolerant school culture.”

She added, “Undoubtedly, students do look for an adult they can lean on for support, and advisory is a great way to foster those authentic student and teacher bonds.”

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