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Amid Demographic Shift, Portland School System Hosts Classes on Race for Teachers

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Reiche Elementary School teacher Julia Hazel leads a class on race, bias and equity for a cohort of her colleagues at Portland Public School.

Over the past 15 years, Portland Public Schools have undergone a major transformation. While enrollment has fallen, the percentage of black and African youth has increased by more than 150 percent, due to an influx of refugees and immigrants.

That presents new challenges for educators, but the district has adopted a new approach to help make schools more welcoming to students of color.

Late on a Thursday night, after classes across the district have wrapped up, about 30 Portland Public School teachers gather in the art room of the Reiche Community School. Surrounded by paintings and marionettes, Portland teachers Fiona Hopper and Julia Hazel lead a class about race, bias and equity.

Here, Hazel tells her colleagues that in this changing school district, educators need to start thinking outside themselves.

“If you Google search an image of a teacher, it’s one person standing with people sitting, looking at them,” she says. “But it becomes natural to make this shift when you have been looking through other people’s lenses and recognizing there are a host of perspectives that we don’t hold.”

Educators say this is a particularly important discussion in Portland. Over the past few decades, the makeup of the district has transformed drastically.

Now, students speak over 60 native languages, and nearly half are nonwhite. At the same time, only 3 percent of educators are people of color.

A 2013 report from the Hudson Foundation highlights those problems and their implications. The report shows that students of color in Portland routinely feel marginalized, both by other students and teachers. And many parents say they still don’t feel connected with their kids’ schools.

This class was designed, Hopper says, to help educators identify those challenges and work to fix them.

“And ultimately that’s the goal of the course,” she says. “To have time as educators to lift our own knowledge of race and have more thoughtful, respectful conversations with our students and share how it impacts their lives and experiences.”

This class is only the second one dealing with race in the district. But it’s part of a new kind of training that Portland now offers its staff members. Teachers teach each other about issues such as poverty, special education and technology — all part of a new model of professional development that Portland Public Schools recently embraced.

“When you go to teaching colleges, I don’t know that you really get professional learning during your teacher training that addresses some of these really systemic, communitywide issues,” says Sue Olafsen, the president of the Portland Education Association, the district’s teachers union.

Olafsen says traditionally, teachers get paid more by receiving a masters’ degree. But she says about a decade ago, the district realized that a masters’ degree was limited, focused on a particular kind of skill, such as how to teach math or how to be a principal.

She says the district wanted teachers to expand their learning beyond that — to explore issues like race and poverty.

“I think these are just issues teachers saw that kept our students from really learning and achieving as much as they possibly could,” Olafsen says. “Issues of poverty, race, bias, equity. Those are really, to learn about all students.”

Now, the system is based around choice. To move up a “salary lane,” teachers don’t need a masters. Instead, they take a range of courses, some taught at a college, but many taught here, by teachers.

Portland High School teacher Beth Arsenault, who also teaches a course on poverty, says this is leading to real change in the classroom. As an example, educators point to two teachers from Lincoln Middle School who used these classes as a springboard to create a new unit for their history students specifically about race.

“They don’t take these classes just to advance,” she says. “They’re taking these classes to become the best educators they can.”

These same conversations about teaching have even spread to the University of Southern Maine. The school has operated its Extended Teacher Education Program since 1989, but professor Flynn Ross says she’s changed much of the curriculum over the past few years to focus on race and equity.

Ross says the philosophy of teaching used to be to treat every child the same, but that’s not so easy now.

“Well, our children are not the same,” she says. “Our world is not colorblind. So developing our understanding of the broader society and the way that impacts our children. So we can better respond to their needs.”

But Ross and others believe that more can be done in response to the changing needs of the district, including the addition of more teachers of color. Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana says he wants to expand staff trainings beyond just a few classrooms so that students systemwide will feel more comfortable with their teachers.