BPS Superintendent Interviews: Dr. Portia Bonner

February 9, 2023

The Bedford School Committee interviewed each of the four finalists for superintendent of schools on Monday and Tuesday. Each session was 90 minutes. This is the first of four stories on the candidates.

Dr. Portia Bonner has worked as a biology teacher, department chair, vocational school principal, assistant superintendent, school superintendent, in urban and rural districts and “every cultural and climate type.”

She told the School Committee on Tuesday that “most of the districts I have served in are diverse, and that is an area of strength for me.” To her, “the most exciting piece about the Bedford schools is their diversity,” and here is where she would like to spend “the final years of my career – 10 or 15 years.”

Asked about balancing academic excellence with social-economic learning and diversity, equity, and inclusion, Bonner replied, “You can’t treat them as separate entities. When we talk about DEI, that’s not only a statement of our beliefs, but it should be actions that manifest in how we teach.”

Equity, she said, “makes sure that your curriculum standards are across the board. The rigor doesn’t change, just how you’re instructing it. You still have standards; it’s just how you’re going about it that’s different.”

Air Force students at Bedford High School know they haven’t been here long term, and METCO kids “try to fit in, but then they go back to their community, they don’t fit there either,” Bonner observed. “What are we doing where they feel that they are included, in curriculum, in instruction? Are we using resources with which they can identify? Do they see themselves in some of the materials we are using?”

As a system that’s student-centered, Bonner observed, Bedford “desires the whole child to be developed so they can be successful once they graduate,” and “really sees the importance of exposing their children to diversity. METCO challenges residents to see the diversity in the world and to deal with differences first hand.”

“All of that diversity also brings you challenge. How do you balance addressing the needs of students in a microcosm of the world that is addressing the same issues?”

Asked about the teaching of reading and writing, Bonner said she feels phonics “is very key. Not only is the approach important, but how the teacher instructs and learns how to assess. In order to build vocabulary, the child has to read. Some of the skills you teach in reading have to be explicit.”

She also suggested writing portfolios as a specific part of the curriculum. “Rich writing comes from reading and experiences.” But writing can also reveal learning weaknesses, and the schools need to be prepared to meet those needs, she said.

Addressing academic excellence, Bonner said teachers can “incorporate some of their passions” through courses offered through technology, as well as independent study. “Rigor means applying the 21st century skills to be able to think critically and apply foundational knowledge and using language appropriate to the content as you understand it,” Bonner said.

Asked about the decline in MCAS scores and future direction, Bonner prioritized teachers. She called for “looking at the wellness of staff, allowing staff members time to develop professionally, giving them time to reflect.” She also expressed concern that “students are literally two years behind in their learning. What do we need to do differently to be able to address that?”

Bonner said that extracurricular activities develop “the whole child, not just the academic side. They are other avenues through which students express themselves. You are teaching them skills they may do later in life that make them healthy.” She added, “The only time I see parents at school committee meetings is if you are going to cut a team.”

Asked about collective bargaining, Bonner stressed investing the time to build a relationship with the teachers’ union, to develop “a sense of focusing on common goals. We know unions are concerned about the students they teach.” But she added that many teachers “feel they were on a treadmill for two years” during pandemic-induced compromises, and “there was a lot of burnout.”

“You want to retain your staff,” Bonner continued, but also in the context of what the town can afford.

Social-emotional concerns apply to staff members as well as to students, Bonner said. During her career, she has worked with school committees and parent groups to find ways to celebrate teachers and demonstrate respect. 

As superintendent in New Bedford, Bonner said, she built a school governance structure, working with parents and community groups. Her strategic planning process was built on input from “staff, students, and business partners.” She said she also set up opportunities for quick meetings with parents over coffee as well as a student advisory council.

Parents and community members also were keys to building a plan to deal with excess space when she was superintendent in East Haven, CT, Bonner related. A major step was consolidation of the junior and senior high schools. It took time, she said, and initially “parents couldn’t comprehend” the concept. But she involved them in the transition and “the plan was very transparent.”

Other areas Bonner addressed in response to committee members’ questions included:

  • Relations with the School Committee: At a retreat, Bonner said, “as a group we meet together and ask about the expectations, our roles and responsibilities, clarity about the way you want me to communicate to you.” The superintendent’s goal-setting begins after 90 days, she continued. Budget preparation “must be in alignment with school improvement goals,” she added.
  • Responding to constrained resources: Bonner labeled that scenario “creative planning,” adding, “and here’s where innovation comes in.” As an administrator in urban districts, she added, “you learn very quickly how you can do more with less.” 
  • Reacting to a failed initiative: Bonner related navigating a situation in Hamden, CT, where a group of parents called for a policy of student uniforms, and the results of a survey on the issue turned out to be inconclusive. “We came up with a compromise,” she said, adding ruefully, “redistricting was easier.”
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