Portland councilor and principals clash over race and income inequalities in city schools

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Statements by a city councilor on Friday that Portland’s schools are failing to address inequalities faced by students of color and from low-income families sparked strong reluctance from school leaders and of a non-profit organization.

City Councilor Tae Chong wrote in a Press Herald column on Friday that the city’s schools are “broken for poor students and for black and brown students.” He cited test results and other data showing the disparities and 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 I had to do something.” Brianna Soukup / Staff Photographer

Superintendent Xavier Botana and school board members reacted to the opinion piece saying they agree more work needs to be done, but the district has made progress in moving to a school budget focused on equity and other policies.

“The district and the school board absolutely share the councilor’s concern,” said school board chairwoman Emily Figdor. “Our main goal is to address inequalities in our district. We made a ton of it. I must say that schools cannot do it alone. We have adopted policy after policy and changed practices. Culture change takes time.

Chong said he felt he needed to write the article after being frustrated by what he described as a lack of progress in resolving the academic performance gap between white students and students of color and from low-income families.

“I would say bluntly that ‘progressive’ principals over the past five years have exacerbated this problem, creating the worst and most costly school gap for black students and poor Maine students,” he said. written in the chronicle.

He said those sentiments surfaced during the school’s budget process this spring, when Botana presented data on school performance and spending to the board, and again when Chong saw a questionnaire the nonprofit Equity in Portland Schools recently published a request for priority for school board and city council applicants.

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

In his article, Chong said that students of color in Portland tend to score worse on standardized tests than their peers in other districts, while white students in Portland tend to score better than the average. the state. He also said the school board had focused on the bad things, like giving employees a risk premium during the coronavirus pandemic, rather than tackling more pressing issues such as the number students who were not attending school at the time.

In a statement released on Friday, Botana acknowledged that there were disparities in the district and said he was focusing on closing the gaps between economically disadvantaged students, who tend to be students of color, learners English and disabled students, and better performing students, who tend to be white.

SUPERINTENDENT’S REFUTATION

“Our job has been to get historic equity budgets overwhelmingly approved by Portland voters and to create cutting-edge policies to eradicate racism from our schools and promote fairness,” Botana said. “Solving systemic inequalities does not happen overnight and we have been transparent that there is still a lot of work to be done – and that we are committed to doing it. “

Superintendent Xavier Botana disputed Tae Chong’s opinion piece, saying it contained inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the district’s work. File photo by Ben McCanna / staff photographer

He said Chong’s article contained inaccuracies and misinterpretations about the district’s work, including a claim that the district spent nothing on bilingual social workers and outreach workers to solve the student problem. not coming to school during the pandemic.

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

“It appears Councilor Chong thinks the risk premium for frontline workers, the tax increase to support our students, and the decision, strongly supported by Portland voters in 2017, to renovate our elementary schools for children. bringing up to 21st century learning standards are the wrong things to do, ”Botana said. “Beyond that, he doesn’t offer anything specific for what he thinks we should be doing. 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 in Portland public schools.

Chong said he believes the district needs to hire more bilingual outreach workers to meet the needs of its multilingual and English-speaking learner population and needs to focus more on student mental health. He said he was working with a United Way of Southern Maine group to increase and train bilingual outreach workers, developing after-school programs to address personal care and mental health with students at low income and of color, and trying to launch a citywide mental health campaign targeting these students.

“The people most affected by COVID were blacks and browns, which means their children were affected,” Chong said. “A lot of these kids were in poverty and a lot of these kids were behind school. During COVID, everyone fell even further behind. When poor and academically behind children are now completely alone and isolated, it is a recipe for disaster.

School board members posted rebuttals on social media, highlighting decisions they say aim to end the inequalities cited by Chong.

The school board’s $ 125.2 million budget included investments to support English language learners, expand preschool, and increase the hiring and support of a diverse workforce. Figdor also posted on Facebook a list of things the board has done recently that she says have helped promote fairness, including eliminating school resource officers, enacting new harassment policies and discrimination, and on equity, and the adjustment of re-entry times for middle and high schools. students.

CALLS TO WORK TOGETHER

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

“It’s wasted time and unnecessary use of his platform,” Rodriguez said. “These problems in our schools are due to major social problems. They cannot point the finger at the school department and say that because of the decisions made in recent years, there are gaps in our schools. These are issues that are represented across 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 bring down others or we can 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 this ultimately was not approved by the state, as a another example of how the district is trying to address inequalities. “We need partners within residents, city hall, states and the federal government to change this. “

In a statement released Friday, Equity in Portland Schools said the group, which focuses on addressing racial and class inequalities in the city’s schools, appreciates Chong’s article highlighting the issue of inequality, but that he also regards it as an unproductive attack.

“Since our inception in 2019 as a fully volunteer organization, bridging the opportunity gap has been a key priority for PSE, while increasing the number of black and brown teachers and staff, and electing black and brown leaders. dedicated to the fight against racism and the fight against racism. fairness work at our school board, municipal council and the Charter Commission, ”the press release said. “Day in and day out, this has been and will continue to be our top priority. ”


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