Sarah Thompson’s Questionnaire
Your Name: Sarah Jordan Thompson
1. In a few sentences, summarize your vision for Portland schools.
A financially stable school district that provides a relevant, rigorous global education for the success of ALL students and one that fosters a collaborative culture with its teachers, administrators, parents/guardians and community. A safe, welcoming and inviting school environment that has high expectations of students and staff alike. A district that provides support for its teachers, staff and administrators to provide quality education through continuous professional development opportunities.
2. How have you been involved with Portland’s public schools in the past? What is your educational background? Do you now have or in the past had children enrolled in Portland Public Schools?
I was educated in the Portland Public Schools (K-12) graduating from Portland High School. I am a business administration graduate from the University of Southern Maine. I have two children, one that graduated this past year from Portland High School and another currently in middle school. I have previously been a PTO Secretary, Vice-President and President as well as an involved parent throughout my children’s education and continue to be. I have been an At Large Member of the Portland School Board for the past 6 years and have enjoyed my time immensely! There is so much more to do and that’s why I am running again.
3. What policies can our city adopt to better serve at-risk youth
I am not sure that policies are what is needed to better serve our at risk youth in Portland. I believe that the Portland schools and the community need to continue to work together to ensure that each of our youth has a caring adult in their lives. Whether it is through expanding mentoring programs, or continued partnerships with non-profits, we need to provide guidance and support to help youth have a greater connection to our schools. The Portland School Board could possibly explore the adoption of policies that would further strengthen the involvement of parents; families, community and local businesses in the Portland Schools to collectively provide expanded, meaningful and consistent mentoring opportunities.
4. How would you improve graduation rates and college readiness?
How to improve graduation rates across the country and here in Maine is an ongoing discussion and one that does not have any one solution. But…with that said there are early supports that we need to have and continue to grow in Portland such as Pre K programming to set students up to succeed from a young age. The earlier our youth and families are connected to the schools the greater the possibility we have of retaining the students. Student attendance, behavior and academic performance play a large role in whether students stay in school or not. This is also where a caring adult comes in to support students. Additionally, we need to treat each student as an individual holding them to high standards while providing them access and options to multiple pathways for success. We need to provide them with the supports and interventions they may need to keep them on track and in school, setting them up for success. For students to be ready for a variety of postsecondary experiences, which includes technical and career school ‘s; along with the traditional two and four year colleges; our schools can do many things starting with greater academic rigor and higher expectations. We need to also teach our students certain academic skills like good study habits and time management to be college ready. All of these go hand and hand with helping students to be ready for the next steps that await them after high school completion. I believe with staff providing greater assistance and recommendations to our students in middle and high school as to what courses they should be taking in high school they will be more successful being ready for college. The end result would be the students having a solid academic foundation that prepares them to enter into college without the need to enroll in remedial classes. The help though cannot end there, as we need to continue supporting our students with the college application process and how they may obtain financial aid to attend the schools they may apply to or helping them to be career ready should college not be their chosen path. Having just been through the college application and financial aid process; I have to say it is not for the faint of heart. In the Portland area we are lucky to have many Universities and Community Colleges that are eager to work with our local high schools. With our high schools partnering with our local colleges more closely it will help us to ensure we are challenging the students with high school courses that are aligned with the schools expectations which in turn allows students to have a smooth entry into college.
5. Given that Portland’s first charter school will open soon, what changes to the public school system do you foresee? Do you view this as a positive or a negative development?
While we have not initiated changes as a result of possible charter school openings, the Portland School district has been working very hard the last couple of years to provide choices of learning for our students. We now have expeditionary learning in Elementary, Middle and High School that provides an opportunity for students to have ownership of their schooling while using the world around them as their classroom. We are the first in the state and maybe even further to have a teacher led school. Reiche Elementary School has now been a teacher led school for just over a year and is having great success. The Portland schools also received a $5 million+ grant this past year from Nellie Mae (a Maine Philanthropy) to work on high school reform resulting in new pathways of learning for our students while collaborating with local partners such as LearningWorks and JMG who both work with at risk youth. These are just a small handful of the great things happening in the Portland Schools and with new leadership coming in August I believe we will see more innovation that will continue to keep students at the center of everything we do. Could we improve in Math, Science, Technology and other areas? Certainly, but we have a great system that only continues to improve addressing the needs of ALL of our students. I have very mixed feelings about Charter schools. While I believe ALL students should have opportunities to reach their best potential I am not sure Charter Schools are the way to go at a cost to the Public School System. There have not been studies that have shown greater results with students at charter schools then the public school system and in the meantime the charter schools are taking away funds from the public school system. Charter schools receive appropriations from the local property taxpayers but the local community has no say in how the schools are run. It was not the intention of charter schools when they were founded to be at the detriment of public schools. The schools were founded to provide teachers with more freedom to explore new ways of teaching, be self-governing and operate with full autonomy over curriculum and instruction. This is not happening as non-profit corporations typically manage the schools with private board of directors or for profit corporations; which results in no community input and no transparency or accountability to the community for their tax dollars that are going to the charter schools. Public school systems are about educating ALL students and not limiting what students are educated. Charter schools typically can limit their total enrollment, be selective on who they take into the school which results in a picking and choosing model that they feel may enable them to be the most competitive while excluding students that are harder to educate. It is concerning that we would create schools free from regulation and have them compete against public schools that are subject to tighter regulation. Isn’t this undermining the public education system? Charters will accept being funded by public money but there is nothing public about them in the sense of the word.
6. Where will you prioritize arts and athletics? What are your ideas for preserving extra-curricular programming under tight budgets?
I prioritize the arts, extra curricular clubs/activities, intramurals and athletics very high, as I believe they make for a well-rounded educational experience for our students. Not to mention that all have been shown to reduce absenteeism, reduce drop out rates, help students feel more connected to their schools, increase their GPA’s and have a greater acceptance rate to colleges. Year after year the Portland board would be asked to cover a reduction in funding or to fund other initiatives by cutting various sports and activities. These requests became very tiresome as we knew we were slowly eroding every year some of the very items that kept our students in school. This needed to stop. Knowing how important these items were to the community, the school district and us, in 2010 myself and another school board colleague researched and wrote a resolution for the boards consideration to have an assessment done of the then extra-curricular activities in the Portland Public Schools. Our intent was and is to create a long term plan to preserve and expand upon the offerings the Portland school district has while trying to find alternative ways to fund these items without being reliant on property taxes so that we would not be subject to further reductions in offerings to save money and not increase taxes. We know that there are many resources in our community that have been tapped over the years in ways that have not best utilized their offers of help and some potential resources that have not even been approached. We feel that we need to partner with the community and it’s resources in a more effective way that benefits both the donator and the district. Portland is very lucky to have The Portland Sea Dogs, The Red Claws and the Portland Pirates; all very generous organizations to the Portland community but… there has not been an organized concerted effort on how to bring these entities together to best utilize their offerings. Instead of having various groups ask for free tickets for school auctions or city events why not collectively as a district/community talk to them about mentoring students whether it be for academics or athletics? The same could be done with the various musical and artistic groups in Portland that we are fortunate to have amongst us. We are a vibrant community with LOTS to offer; we just need to organize and utilize those talents in a more effective manner so that we maximize the potential. In our resolution we have also charged the district leadership to come up with a plan to begin the formation of a 501C3 non profit that could supplement the offerings of the Portland schools (arts, athletics, activities etc..) with the end goal to have the foundation supporting all of these very important endeavors and not reliant upon tax dollars. Outside of funding issues there are also equity of access to all students to participate; obstacles that need to be overcome. Not all students can access our activities due to responsibilities outside of school such as having a job to help support their family or helping their families by taking care of siblings after school. We need to look at doing things differently so all can have the same experience in school should they desire.
7. Do Portland schools in your opinion; provide adequate opportunities for immigrant and refugee students to succeed? What could be improved?
In my opinion, I believe we are very fortunate to have a phenomenal Multi-Cultural Director that is not afraid to tell the board or district leadership what is needed to meet the needs of our immigrant and refugee students. While funding is always an issue, our Director utilizes funds allocated to enhance program quality year after year. Our staff currently provides critical services such as English as a second language classes to our families as well as assistance to ensure positive cultural adjustments for newcomers to the USA or to the re-settlers that have come to join family or friends here in Portland. If more funding were available it would be great to be able to expand our service of language interpretation and with the translations of the various backpack messages that go home with students every day. We currently provide important papers to our families in their native languages but the possibilities could be so much more. Our new Superintendent to be provided the board with an example of what more we could do for our immigrant/refugee families and that is to provide our student handbooks in their native language that would create an additional tool to assist families in their assimilation to the Portland Schools. Additionally, In the near future we need to strategize on how we can provide better support to parents of our students in learning the English language. We currently have a rather large wait list at our Adult Education in courses that could assist parents in furthering their education here in the US. This is a place where we can really make a difference. If we are able to increase the ability of parents to support their children’s learning experiences the more successful their children will be and the stronger the school-parent partnership will be.
8. How are you funding your campaign? Do you think there should be a clean elections system for municipal races?
At this time I anticipate incurring minimal expenses to fund my campaign if any at all. Having been a candidate for the school board in prior years I currently have campaign signs and some literature available. I do not take my seat for granted therefore I will still be out in the community talking about my running for the school board and asking the community what they think is going well and if there are areas that we need to focus or improve upon. Regarding clean elections. I am a believer in the process of clean elections and what is being accomplished by having them but.. I am not sure that Portland municipal races are at a point where the clean elections process is needed. There is not and have not been large donors or pacs donating to local campaigns, which could make for an uneven planning field by one or another, to my knowledge. Municipal campaigns should be monitored and at the appropriate time should the need arise, revisit the clean elections concept and if it would be beneficial.
9. Do you believe that tax dollars should be available for private religious education?
While I support choice in educational opportunities to allow for students to reach their greatest potential, I do not believe that tax dollars should fund private religious education. Public education is one that is open to ALL , to educate ALL students and have no favoritism as to what religious affiliation one has. Religious entities are exempt from Maine’s non -discrimination laws and as a result I do not believe that we should support entities that are not accepting of ALL of our students. We have very limited education funds available in the state and on the local level therefore we need to utilize those funds to educate ALL students. I do not believe students should be censored due to religious beliefs in their curriculum offerings and that they need exposure to how the world is today and how one navigates through by making decisions without influence. Faith based organizations are an important partner in our community and we should continue to find ways to partner with all but not fund them educationally.
10. Did the anti-bullying legislation the state legislature passed in 2012 effectively address the needs of students, teachers and administrators?
The new legislation made great strides in addressing bullying in schools but I am still very concerned with the bullying that happens in and out of school regardless of law. I continue to be concerned of how we will free students of harassment and feel safe in their environment. This new legislation is a positive leap from previous law and continues to expand on how we can address this growing issue. I do realize the laws reach can only go so far but bullying and harassment extends beyond the school grounds where students are subject to incidents that cause great emotional issues and interfere with their school performance. The changes in the law require that each Maine school district have policies in place that provide for a baseline of protection for all students while elaborating further on its responsibilities to the students in this area. It defines in numerous ways what bullying is, how it may be started, what actions constitute bullying and that schools must provide staff training on how the law is to be implemented. These are some of the newer components of the law but not all. We as a school board need to reach out to the various stakeholder groups in our community and work collaboratively with them on what the norms should be and what the expectations should be of our district policy on bullying. After this outreach, we then need to take it a step further and communicate and educate while creating awareness to our students and school community as to how we as a district will be addressing bullying and what they can expect from our schools in dealing with this growing problem, but most of all that it will not be tolerated.
11. What role do you see technology playing in the education of Portland students? How do you measure the cost and benefits of integrating new technologies into school curricula?
I see technology playing a large role in the education of Portland students. Students need to have 21st century skills that include the integration of technology into the curriculum and classroom. Technology assists in making learning more relevant and in helping students increase their skills to be able to compete in the global economy. In order to optimize a students learning there needs to be differentiation of instruction and individualization of instruction, which technology allows for. Technology is becoming the teacher’s friend as it makes it easier for teachers to focus on specific skills that a student or group of students needs. Teachers cannot do it all without proper resources that allow them to use technology to improve the quality of instruction and in return raise student achievement levels. In order for Portland students and the district as a whole to reap the benefits from technology, we must develop a technology plan that will be sustainable and provide for us to deliver cost effective technology that has an impact on student achievement. The plan must also include how we will support our teachers and staff with professional development that will allow them the confidence to be able to deliver technology adequately to their students. We all know that technology is the future and that it is how we can best engage this generation of students and the future generations to come.
12. What do you think is the proper balance between student free speech rights and the need to maintain order in an academic environment?
I feel that students should be able to express themselves freely while maintaining a level of respect for others viewpoints. When expressing their views it should not be obscene or slanderous and they should not be violating school policy or breaking the law. Otherwise, I believe students discussing and hearing each other’s views on various topics in school help them to be more informed individuals.
13. How do you think Portland schools should approach sex ed? Abstinence only? Condoms on bananas? How would you prioritize the teaching of sex ed in the school budget?
I think Portland schools should deliver family living (sex ed) with the most age appropriate information that is available. Family Living has been under fire since I was elected to the board six years ago. Year after year there has been discussion of various ways to cut and/or deliver family living differently, even proposing that classroom teachers teach content that some are uncomfortable with or do not believe personally that students should receive this important curriculum. I believe that select staff that have been appropriately trained should deliver the curriculum. Students need to have a neutral person coming into their classroom to teach them this sensitive information. By having this neutral party teach the family living curriculum students have a comfort level to ask questions and or share information that they may not otherwise. It is a safe zone. They are not talking to the person that they will see each and every day teaching them math or English etc.. I do not believe abstinence only is the solution to approaching the discussion of sex and the possible repercussions of sex such as STDs or Pregnancy. While abstinence should be at the forefront of any discussion with a student that is considering engaging in sex we cannot fool ourselves that all will refrain. Some students come to the discussion having already engaged in sexual activity. Therefore the discussion changes from abstinence to how are they protecting themselves. Do they understand fully what it means to engage in sexual activity? Our youth need to be educated to make the best decision for themselves while knowing the possible consequences of their actions. Knowledge is powerful. If it takes the family living teacher showing students with a banana on how a condom may keep them safe and it results in students protecting themselves from possible life changing situations then I say they should do it. Being a parent myself, my hope is always that my girls feel comfortable talking with me and asking me questions about sex and any other related question they may have. But I am comforted in knowing that there is a trained professional they can turn to at their school. So…I prioritize family living very high and believe it is as important as any other subject we teach such as math, English, foreign language etc..
14. What, if any, is the role of “intelligent design” and religiously inspired creationism in science class?
Beyond mentioning to students in science class that some believe in “intelligent design” it does not have a place in public school education. Whereas “intelligent design” is based on religious conviction and not science it should not be a part of a public school systems science classes. “Because the Constitution of the United States forbids a federal establishment of religion, it would be inappropriate to use public funds to teach the views of just one religion or one religious subgroup to all students”. I agree with this quote because I believe it would not be appropriate to teach these views as if they were based on scientific evidence. However, teachers in public schools should teach evolution because it is science and only science should be taught to students as part of their learning’s. Not to mention that introducing creationist ideas into science courses has been ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court as well as other federal courts.
15. Do you think that our current public school curriculum adequately prepares students for active involvement in our democracy? If not, how can our civics education be improved?
I do think that our current public school curriculum adequately prepares students for active involvement in our democracy. At all levels of schooling, students are learning about their rights and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States and what it means to be a good citizen. One great example of civic education in action can be found at King Middle School. Students there are continually conducting research on various historical and political topics, gathering information and then presenting their findings either with a live presentation with an audience or showcasing a portfolio of their learning’s. This past year, students in the 7th grade did research on the Civil Rights movement. They interviewed individuals that had some direct or indirect involvement in the civil rights movement. Groups of students interviewed the individuals about their personal civil rights story. Prior to the interview students researched what the civil rights movement was and developed questions for their subjects to answer. The culmination of this project was the students presenting to parents and the school community each persons individual story in how they became engaged in the civil rights movement whether it was them seeking justice or participating in political processes or assembling for a cause they believed in. Students learned how one individual may impact outcomes and improve the quality of life for others.
16. Do you think the public school food programs are adequate? What would you do to improve healthy dietary choices among the student population?
The Portland Public School food program is the best of the best. We have a food services director that delivers the most nutritional food to our students every day that far exceeds the federal governments requirements. Whenever possible, which is more often then not, our students receive meals that contain vegetables and fruit from a local producer. We have also had hamburgers on the lunch menu where the beef has been locally raised. Our director strives to buy locally whenever possible. He approaches meal planning with the best dietary choices available. For example, on the occasion that student’s are served pizza it is with whole-wheat crust and the students love it! We serve carrot and celery sticks with a container of ranch dressing and kids are gobbling their veggies right up! Whatever we can do to provide a well-balanced nutritional meal while maintaining costs as much as possible, we are doing it! Lastly, Portland many years ago was one of, if not the first district, to offer students a vegetarian choice when deciding whether to have school lunch or not.