The Portland Public Schools Is Grand Prize Winner for Equity Work

Portland Public Schools has been recognized for its commitment to equity as a Grand Prize winner in the National School Boards Association (NSBA) 2021 Magna Awards program. This is the first time in that program’s 27-year history that a Maine school district has been recognized with a Magna Award for its equity work.

The annual Magna Awards honor school districts across the country for programs that advance equity and break down barriers for underserved students. PPS, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, won for one of our signature programs: Make It Happen! – a college readiness program that helps multilingual students build competitive academic profiles for college admission and financial aid.

An independent panel of school board members, administrators, and other educators selected the 15 winners – three Grand Prize winners and 12 first place winners. PPS is the Grand Prize winner in the category of districts with enrollment between 5,000 and 20,000 students. The other two Grand Prize winners were Massachusetts’s Mashpee Public Schools, which won in the under-5,000-enrollment category, and Michigan’s Detroit Public Schools, which was the winner for districts with more than 20,000 students.  This is the fourth year that the Magna Awards program has recognized school districts and their leaders for their efforts to bring educational equity to their students. It is believed that PPS is the first Maine school district ever to win a Magna Award.

“We are thrilled and honored to be chosen as a Grand Prize winner for our work to achieve equity for all our students, which is the central goal of our Portland Promise, the district’s strategic plan,” said PPS Superintendent Xavier Botana. “This recognition shines a national spotlight on the need to remove barriers to equity at a particularly important time, when the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the longstanding disparities that exist between different groups of students in our schools. Programs like Make It Happen! are vital to helping address these disparities, but there is much more we need to do. That is why my proposed FY22 school budget targets resources to the students to whom we owe the largest educational debt: those who are learning English, have disabilities or are alienated in our schools.”

Make It Happen!, founded 14 years ago, is a program of the district’s Multilingual & Multicultural Center. It’s a college-readiness and academic success program for language minority students in grades 9 through 12, and is designed to help students raise and realize their academic aspirations. The program provides students with personalized and structured academic support to ensure their success in school and help prepare them for college. Many graduates of the program are the first in their families to attend an institute of higher education.

Steve Bailey, Executive Director of the Maine School Management Association, said that Make It Happen! “is designed to meet students where they are and assist them in achieving their goal through personalized support.” Make It Happen! site coordinators and volunteer academic coaches, recruited from the community, help students take challenging classes, develop strong college applications, and engage in civic and leadership activities.

Diora Ndagano, a senior at Deering High School, said, “I joined Make It Happen! right after I arrived at Deering. I was an immigrant and I didn’t know anything about the education system in America, but with the help of the Make It Happen! program, I was able to adapt to school and apply to college. That’s how amazing that program was to me.”

In addition to bringing national attention to the district’s ongoing equity work, the Grand Prize includes a $5,000 grant that the district will use as a foundational investment to establish a college scholarship fund for students who participate in the Make It Happen! Program. The district plans to leverage this money to grow the fund. More details around the “Make it Happen Scholarship Fund” will be announced later this spring.

“2020 was a year like no other,” said NSBA Executive Director and CEO Anna Maria Chávez. “The 2021 Magna Award-winning districts represent the enormous efforts of school leaders during the pandemic to continue removing barriers to achievement for their underserved and vulnerable students.”

“The Portland Public Schools is very grateful to have our equity work recognized nationally,” said Portland Board of Public Education Chair Emily Figdor. “Achieving equity,  the centerpiece of our Portland Promise goals, is essential for us to fully realize our other strategic plan goals – achievement, whole student and people.”

The 27th annual Magna Awards program is sponsored by the National School Boards Association’s flagship magazine, American School Board Journal (ASBJ). PPS’ Grand Prize win is highlighted in the April issue of ASBJ. Read about the award-winning Make It Happen! program and the two other Grand Prize-winning districts at programs.

Information for this article was provided by Portland Public Schools as part of the Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign. The Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign is an avenue for Maine schools to celebrate successes and share innovative ideas, practices, and models that can be adapted and easily implemented by other Maine schools. Stories are not an endorsement of specific materials, services, or practices and are not intended to promote learning programs that are of cost to students, families, or schools. To submit a story or an idea, email it to Rachel at