Superintendent of schools Xavier Botana finds familiarity in Portland’s diversity.
Born shortly after the Cuban Revolution, Xavier Botana was one of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children to leave that country as part of what would become known as Operación Pedro Pan (Operation Peter Pan). “Like so many Cubans at the time, my family was in a situation where they really wanted to get out,” says Botana, referencing the political unrest created by Communist leader Fidel Castro. Botana was just two years old when he and his one-year-old brother boarded a plane to leave Cuba in the care of a flight attendant. They lived in Spain with their grandparents until the family was able to obtain visas and relocate to the United States two years later. “My story resonates with a lot of people in this community,” says 54-year-old Botana, who has served as the superintendent of Portland Public Schools for the past year. The district has children from 60 different language groups, many of whom have been refugees themselves. “My experiences are not unlike that of many of our students and their parents.”
Raised in the southern suburbs of Chicago, it was not immediately clear that Botana would choose an academic career. “I was not a great student in middle school and high school,” he says. “I was somewhat disengaged.” His family’s situation changed his thinking.
Botana remembers a conversation with his grandmother when he was six years old, in which she shared how challenging it had been for the older generation to integrate into the workforce in the United States, due to their lack of formal education. Botana’s grandfather, a successful business owner in Cuba, took a job as a hospital custodian. “That was very difficult,” says Botana. “He was, I would say in retrospect, embittered by that.” Botana’s parents found employment teaching Spanish— his mother at a high school, his father at a university. “They had a much easier path,” he says.
Botana eventually became an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in the Chicago public schools, but he was not content to accept the status quo. “I was rebellious and questioned, ‘Why are we doing things this way? We should really think about a different approach to things.’” At the same time, his community was experiencing rapid demographic changes. When he began his career, Botana was one of only three ESL teachers; within three years, he was one of 40. “I didn’t go into education to become a superintendent,” he says. “For the longest time I thought that would be the last place that I wanted to wind up. Because I have a big mouth, I think, they asked me to start doing some leadership work.” Botana went on to obtain a master’s degree in educational administration and has completed courses at the doctoral level.
Botana has worked in school administration in four different states. He first became familiar with Maine when his son, David, began attending Camp No Limits. Based in Rome, Maine, the camp now has ten programs nationwide, and is the only one in the country for young people with limb loss and their families. “We always loved coming up for that,” says Botana. “It’s been a big part of David developing his sense of self and his desire to overcome any challenges that are thrown his way.”
Botana had served as the associate superintendent of Michigan City area schools in Indiana for almost six years when he and his wife, Suzanne (a school psychologist), heard that Portland was looking for a new superintendent. “I half-jokingly asked my wife, ‘Would we be interested in moving to Maine?’” says Botana. “She said, ‘Absolutely.’ We talked to David and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ That’s how that all started.”
The Portland school district operates 10 elementary schools, three middle schools, and four high schools, for children in pre- kindergarten through grade 12. A third of these children come from homes where English is not the first language spoken. “I wanted to work in a place where there was a diverse community, and a commitment to that community, and to understanding the value of having different people living together,” says Botana.
Botana admires the level of public engagement in Portland. “I recently had the opportunity to sit with a group of gentlemen who get together every Tuesday to talk about important issues in the community,” says Botana. “Most of them are retired, successful, and willing to make a huge investment in the schools, but also obviously very concerned about making sure that the investment is being used wisely.” In June, Portland voters passed a $105 million budget. “People believe in public schools,” he says.
When not occupied with his responsibilities as superintendent, Botana follows professional soccer: his favorite professional teams are Liverpool and Barcelona. “I’ve been known to watch three games in a row on a Sunday afternoon,” he says. He is also a committed husband and father. David will be a sophomore at Casco Bay High School; his grown daughter is getting married this year. Botana, a former child of Cuba who has traveled the United States as an educator, is happy to create roots in Portland—the way that many of his students have done. “We feel like this is home,” says Botana of his family. “We’re really looking forward to getting to see more of Maine.”