As superintendent of the Portland Public Schools, I’d like to commend the Portland Press Herald for its courageous editorial concerning U.S. News & World Report’s annual national Best High Schools list. The May 10 editorial notes that school districts with the most kids from well-to-do families and the fewest kids from poor ones consistently rank highest in the listing. In short, the editorial says that these rankings tell us as much about community income as they do about education.

I congratulate our neighboring school districts – Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth – for their high level of performance. Those districts’ high schools ranked as the top three in Maine, respectively.

Like the students at those schools, Portland’s middle-class students also perform at a high level. If we look at their performance on multiple educational assessments, our middle-class students perform on par with students in those neighboring communities.

Just this month, two Portland Public Schools students distinguished themselves in national competitions. Deering High School senior Lucy Tumavicus is among a group of elite students nationwide to win a National Merit Scholarship, and Portland High School sophomore Will Gordon is the Maine winner, grades 10-12, of the Doodle 4 Google competition. (Please vote for his doodle to go to the national finals at https://doodles.google.com/d4g/vote.html.)

It’s disheartening to see that the U.S. News & World Report rankings continue to miss the value of attending a diverse school. Research shows that students benefit greatly from attending school with students whose backgrounds are different from theirs. Exposure to those with different experiences and worldviews helps prepare our students for success in society.

Many of Portland’s graduating seniors this year have been admitted to elite colleges, including Bowdoin, Brandeis, Cornell, Fordham, McGill, Northeastern, Pratt Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, Smith and Vassar. Perhaps it’s lost on U.S. News & World Report that these colleges strive to look more like our diverse Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools (Casco Bay is ranked 15th best in Maine) than the schools atop their Best High Schools list.

As the Press Herald editorial points out, it’s important for all of us to recognize that the performance of middle-class students is not the whole story. Schools with a higher percentage of low-income students – such as those in Portland – typically don’t place as high in these annual rankings. We need to focus on why those students aren’t performing as well as their middle-class peers and how we can help them improve.

Portland Public Schools is Maine’s most diverse school district. More than half our students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. One-third of our students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – a total of 61 languages districtwide. Nearly 44 percent of our students are people of color.

Our data show that, unlike our middle-class students, our students from poverty, our English language learners and our students of color experience achievement and opportunity gaps. We are working to reduce those gaps.

Last year, the Portland Board of Public Education adopted ambitious goals as part of our Portland Promise, including an equity goal – and achievement, whole student and people goals. We have set strategies and five-year targets to measure our progress.

Achieving equity is also why I have advocated during the fiscal year 2019 school budget process for investments in our high-potential English language learners and immigrant students through our Make It Happen! program, a college-readiness and academic success program for students in grades 9-12. Achieving equity also is why we are investing in social emotional learning and additional academic, administrative and therapeutic supports for high poverty schools.

However, making these investments, sustaining quality programs and achieving equity require ongoing commitment from the Portland community.

We take pride in being an inclusive and welcoming city. If we want to continue to be that, we can’t be OK with perpetuating a storyline where some students succeed and others fail because of lack of resources. I am always grateful for Portland’s commitment to the promise of diversity, inclusion and equity – and its recognition that fulfilling this promise requires an ongoing investment in our schools.

I applaud the Press Herald for highlighting this important issue and urging us all – educators, elected officials and magazine publishers – to do a better job by acknowledging and addressing the educational disparities that many students face.

 

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