Racial diversity expanding in schools


LEWISTON — Pointing to the words on the page, Ja’Syiah Doyle reads out “I … am … a … CROC-odile!” then tips her head sideways and turns on her megawatt grin to kindergarten teacher Lynn Adams. “Beautiful! That’s right,” Adams tells her.

Across the table, Jaycob Costello takes his turn: “Ba … Ba …. Big!” he reads, twisting his feet around the legs of his small chair as he concentrates. “Sssssmall!”

Adams’ class is a typical kindergarten class in Maine, where the lessons are focused on teaching students their colors, numbers, shapes and letters.

But a huge difference is the students themselves: In the whitest state in the nation, 75 percent of the students here at Longley Elementary School are minorities, mostly in families of immigrants who have arrived in Maine within the past 20 years. By contrast, 15 years ago, minorities made up just over 15 percent of the students at Longley.

Recent waves of immigrants coming to Maine have rapidly changed the racial makeup of schools, with huge impacts on state education funding and potentially altering Maine’s economic future.

As local districts quickly moved to provide new supports and services to immigrants, state funding for English Language Learners — known as ELL students — has almost tripled in the past dozen years, according to the Maine Department of Education.


In 2006, the state allocated $7.9 million in ELL funds for 3,128 students. This year, the state allocated $19 million in ELL funds for 5,349 students.

Longley Elementary has seen the biggest change in racial makeup between 2000 and 2015, going from 83 percent white in 2000-01 to 23 percent white in 2014-15, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal enrollment demographics data. In Maine, the data reflect how racial diversity that was initially clustered in bigger cities such as Portland and Lewiston is moving into smaller towns and suburbs.

In 2000, only 18 Maine schools had fewer than 90 percent white students. In 2014-15, there were 50 such schools — and at five of those schools, white students made up less than half the student body.

“When arrivals started arriving in Lewiston, roughly around 2000, there was no crystal ball about what was coming,” Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said. “Nor were there any programs in place, or any awareness of what programs would be needed.”


The new student demographics have been welcomed as the state’s population ages and officials fear the impacts of a growing shortage of workers. A 2016 report from the Maine Development Foundation and state Chamber of Commerce similarly said the economy will suffer if Maine fails to attract, integrate and train more immigrants.

According to that report, new immigrants and their children are expected to account for 83 percent of the growth in the U.S. workforce from 2000 to 2050.

“Our first influx of ELL students are now graduating from college and entering the workforce, and a number of them have been very successful,” Webster said. “I want to encourage more of them to go into teaching and education as a profession and, at some point, to return to Lewiston and teach.”

That’s one of the state’s top priorities, too, said a Maine Department of Education specialist who works with districts on issues involving English language learners.

“We’re putting a lot of energy into how to bring new Mainers into education,” said April Perkins. “New Mainers are an amazing pool of people in our state and contribute to our education system in really important ways,” such as linguistic and cultural knowledge.

According to U.S. Census data, the number of foreign-born immigrants living in Maine increased by about 8,000 people between 2000 and 2015. Over the same period, the number of Mainers born in Africa increased from 1,067 to 5,791.

Webster said he’s seen a change in downtown Lewiston, fueled by entrepreneurial immigrants.

“I think Lewiston’s future is much brighter because of the influx. That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges,” Webster said. But he can see the influence in the wider city. In recent months, three immigrants ran — unsuccessfully — for the School Committee. A street that was previously full of shuttered businesses is now a mix of ethnic groceries, restaurants and other open businesses. There are about 7,500 immigrants in Lewiston.

“I find it quite exciting to see,” Webster said.


In the school system, the immigrant population is seen as more highly engaged than students from traditional families, with a sharper focus on academic success.

“Immigrants see education as their ticket to the American dream,” Webster said.

“In all my years, I have heard more thank-yous from the Somali families than anyone else,” Adams said. “They really value education.”

That is a change from earlier years in Lewiston, which saw a rash of anti-immigrant violence soon after 2000 when thousands of Somali immigrants arrived. In 2002, the mayor sent a letter to the Somali community asking them to discourage their friends and family from moving to Lewiston, saying, “Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally.”

Then an out-of-state white supremacist group seized upon the upheaval to hold an anti-immigrant rally. Three years after the rally, a pig’s head was thrown into the local mosque. The act was widely condemned, the governor at the time visited Lewiston to denounce the act, and police quickly charged the perpetrator.

That level of angst and anger has passed, Webster and others say.

For school communities, a diverse school setting is now seen as a learning opportunity.

“What a richness of experience that is for all of our students,” said South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin. About 25 percent of South Portland students today are not white. “Our students are growing up in Maine, but they are getting an experience that prepares them to work in a diverse world. We see that as a tremendous advantage,” Kunin said.

Kunin, who experienced the first wave of immigrant students as a principal in Portland, said immigrants started moving to South Portland in recent years when the cost of living in Portland got too expensive. But that’s starting to change.

“We’re losing families to Westbrook because there is more housing there,” Kunin said.


Westbrook saw its percentage of white students drop from 95 percent in 2000 to 77 percent in 2014, according to the data.

Schools have to hire teachers for English language learners and provide space for ELL instruction. In districts with a large number of ELL students, they may need ELL directors or coordinators, or to hire translators.

In Portland, for example, one in four students is an English language learner and the district has a multilingual and multicultural center that provides translation services, a family welcome center to centralize paperwork and a college preparation program tailored for multilingual students. The center also holds special student financial aid nights and cultural events during the year.

Center Director Grace Valenzuela said she remembers joining the district in 1987, when there were only 150 ELL students and five other languages being spoken in the district, mostly from Southeast Asia. Today there are 1,739 ELL students who come from homes where about 60 languages are spoken.

“It’s been sustained growth,” Valenzuela said. Portland, she said, has always been welcoming for immigrants and the district’s programs reflect a close partnership with immigrant families.

“I think that’s why people come to Portland and that’s the reason they stay,” she said.


But the demographic shift has played out differently at Portland’s two largest high schools, where students can choose to attend any high school no matter where they live.

Traditionally, Portland High School in downtown Portland has been the most ethnically diverse. But the percentage of black students at Deering High, located off the peninsula, increased from 2 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2014 — a 1,300 percent increase. Valenzuela said she believes that’s because Deering has adopted a new global competency model, a schedule that allows in-depth study of a few subjects at a time, and a new agreement with the Metro bus system that allows students to ride city buses for free, easing transportation issues.

At Portland High School, the percentage of black students didn’t even double during that same period, going from 14 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2014.

Portland’s neighborhood elementary schools reflect the demographics of their local neighborhoods.

The local elementary school in the traditionally diverse Munjoy Hill neighborhood — Jack Elementary in 2000 and East End Community School in 2014 — saw its black student enrollment quadruple from 10 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2014. But the whitest elementary school — Longfellow Elementary in the Deering Center neighborhood, next door to Deering High — saw its black student enrollment barely budge from 3 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2014.

Students eat breakfast at Longley Elementary School in Lewiston before the start of class. Longley’s demographic makeup has changed dramatically in the past decade. Now over 70 percent of its students are English language learners. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

  • mikemattmic

    What a bunch of you know what.

  • Slw

    Depressing as F***, but hey, “It’s a Brave New World”…and all that accompanying horseshite.

  • Sean

    I can explain exactly what this school is, and it has nothing to do with diversity.
    Somalis moved en masse to this region of Maine for low-skilled work, cheap housing or welfare. These Somalis are all probably part of the same clan. They live in the same neighborhoods and have set up their own exclusive institutions such as religious schools, mosques and shops. As they flood public institutions such as schools, some have been hired by the taxpayer as interpreters and cultural liaisons for their own community since many Somalis do not bother to learn English and have few intentions of integrating into American life.
    Most white people ran for the hills immediately. As much as Somalis love education, they have one of the lowest national literacy rates on earth and curriculum and teaching will have to accommodate their children’s educational deficits. Plus, who wants their five year old to come home and ask for a hijab to be like the other kindergarteners?
    What is left over in the school is a number of American black, white and Hispanic children who are mostly dependent on the same labor opportunities and welfare placements as the Somalis and cannot move. Some of these people will eventually become so discomfited by living in amongst a conservative Muslim tribal community that they will leave.
    These Somali enclaves are extremely destructive because Somali culture is oppressive and overbearing on the lives of individual Somalis. There is huge pressure to conform and obey community norms. There is also very little reason to reach out to the larger community unless it is to “get stuff” for the Somali community or clan. These enclaves are crippling the ability of Somalis to adjust to American life and be a part of our civic fabric.

    • Slw

      Well, as far as the “enlightened” are concerned, the more non-white people to move into white areas the better-and darn if it can’t happen soon enough in their way of thinking.

    • mikemattmic

      Well said. I am surprised you are not banned from commenting. Write such things in the Press Herald and you will never be heard from again.

    • Cheeto Benito

      Your bigotry is palpable….

      “Plus, who wants their five year old to come home and ask for a hijab to be like the other kindergarteners?”

      Why is that any worse or different than a child requesting the same hat other kids are wearing?

      I know plenty of Somalis that have learned english and are integrating into American life, especially second generation immigrants…. Attending public schools is part of that.

      • usmcwarrior

        Because one is innocuous while the other is steeped in religious ideology.

        That, is the difference.

        • Cheeto Benito

          Do you have a Nativity Scene at home?…. What is Jesus’ mother wearing?

          • usmcwarrior

            I can tell you what she is not wearing; a piece of clothing required by a religion. And even if you could conjure an explanation that seemed to prove it was required, it is still not by a religion which has 164 extant/Abrogating verses instructing/exhorting believers to cleanse the earth by killing all non-believers.

          • Cheeto Benito

            You seem to beleive America should discriminate against specific religions?

          • Cheeto Benito

            I can tell you what she is not wearing; a piece of clothing required by a religion.

            Women were definitely required by religious law to cover their heads. You know jack squat about religion… Go read the Old Testament if you want some brutality…

      • Sean

        Hats are fun. Why doesn’t the school invite some Orthodox Jews to bring free yarmulkes to school and send the Somali boys home wearing them? I’m sure the Muslim parents would have no problem with their children wearing the religious garb of another religious group.
        It would be a perfect activity for the Hanukkah season.

        • Cheeto Benito

          If the Somali boys want them, why would the school prevent them from wearing a yarmulkes?

          • Sean

            We are not talking about the “school”. We are talking about the Somali community who, for religious reasons, have been known to object to Jews, dogs, certain types of representative art, music, drama, gender desegragated seating and any number of other things that would surprise the average American.

            I have known several Jews who worked in social services with/for Somalis/Muslims and they kept their religion a secret and asked others to do the same. I have known gay people who stay in the closet when working with/around Somalis. I also know gay people who made the mistake of letting their sexuality be known, only to regret it.

          • Cheeto Benito

            We are not talking about the “school”.

            Yes we are… that’s what the article is about. You complained about kids coming home from school and asking to wear a hijab. How is that any worse than a little girl coming home and asking their parents for a cross necklace like their friends?

    • FrankE

      With all the news lately regarding Donald Trump and the Alabama elections, it’s so refreshing to read a good old fashioned Archy Bunker style bigoted comment like yours. Sometimes a person needs a good dose of ignorance to balance out their world.
      I have had numerous Somalis as well as other minorities work for me and I can tell you I have learned a lot just from talking to people regarding their different traditions and backgrounds. As a disabled person I’m well aware of what it’s like to be accused of wanting something for nothing. I can only attest to those I have met and gotten to know, the Somali workers I have met are great workers and very friendly people. If more people would pay attention to what these folks were fleeing, as apposed to what they were expecting upon arrival, I think they may have second thoughts. I hear all the time about what they have been given, all the luxuries and the free cars and cell phones. Nothing could be further from the truth, Gossip however has a way of taking on a life of it’s own. Most of the stories I hear are just that, gossip, containing no truth.
      I really wish people would take the time to learn the truth instead of spreading all these lies…………..

      • Sean

        Nobody cares about being called “bigoted” any more. People like you have finally overused the term into meaninglessness.

        I don’t care if you think Somalis are “friendly”. They refuse to live within their means and do not use family planning. Here are some real situations I know of. Why don’t you do the math?

        How much does it cost the taxpayer to cover medical costs for a Somali family of two parents and 9 children?

        How much does it cost to pay medical costs for one man, two wives and seven offspring?

        How much does it cost to pay the living expenses for one man who has two wives, one with 4 children and one with at least 3 more. Each wife lives in a different city in the USA and gets welfare benefits. One wife has a new baby in order to keep the attention of her polygamous husband and for “company”.

        Americans who pay their own costs also control their family size because they cannot afford to insure 10-11 on a taxi driver’s salary or any working or middle class salary that I know of.

        Americans who are living under CRUSHING insurance and medical costs are subsidizing polygamy and the irresponsible fecundity of a group of people who have no sense of obligation and believe their religion entitles them to other people’s money.

        If you like them, then ask them to send you the bill for their lifestyle and stop charging the rest of us for it.

        • FrankE

          I don’t usually stoop this low in commenting, but you have left me little choice in the matter. You are one ignorant SOB. I have dealt with many shall we say less than classy people but you take the cake. Your stereotypes are what keeps this community in turmoil. Maybe you should spend a few years , with your entire family in a war torn Nation with very little government, and even fewer laws. A place where the annual income is practically nothing. Imagine fearing that at any time someone could come crashing through what’s supposed to be your front door and kill indiscriminately, and have absolutely no recourse. That’s what these people are trying to get away from. In my field of employment, we hired many temps for menial jobs that went into robotic construction lines. I probably had an even number of Somali and local twenty somethings working for me. Guess which ones outworked the other? Guess how many Somali workers went on to become regular full time employees entirely based on their work ethics. All I’m saying is if you aren’t familiar with them don’t be spreading BS. They have every bit as much right to freedom and sanctuary as anyone else. You don’t have to like them, but it would be better if you kept your incendiary comments to yourself………..

          • Sean

            So, are you the one hiring Somalis, who are nice cheap menial labor?
            Do you or your company provide medical insurance subsidized by the employer? If so, do the Somalis use it? In that case, do you know how much it costs for them to insure their massive families?
            Do you or your company pay them enough to purchase housing and food? Or do they depend on the government for that?
            I’m sure you would never admit it, but are they earning money over the table or under the table? Somalis are known for having vast quantities of cash as a community.
            Finally, there was nothing indiscriminate about the Somali civil war. It was a CLAN war, based on the ancestral hatred of four clans who are all now vying for power in the modern Somali state.
            The clan war disaster has been exacerbated, in turn, by three things:
            1. Islamic supremecism
            2. Destruction of the bread basket region of Somalia by al Shabaab
            3. A society domineered by an overabundance of young people, especially the most violent demographic in any country: young men. This is due to polygamy and uncontrolled fertility.
            In short, the war is a DIRECT product of Somali culture and practices. In many ways, Somalis have unrepentantly brought those same practices here and we are paying the price for it.
            Call me a few more names. That would be a good rebuttal at this point.

          • FrankE

            Do us all a favor and quit responding. Your views are nothing but garbage, and you obviously have no clue what your talking about………..

          • Sean

            Just answer my questions, Frank. Are your Somali workers on benefits or not?

          • FrankE

            The Somali’s which consist of about half our temp employees, are not “MY” Somali’s.They are hired by the temp agency we contracted through. I don’t think they have a lot in the way of benefits. For my job, I was required to pass a Math and engineering written test as part of my employment. Any temp worker who was helping out on the various machines we were designing and showed good working skills, the ability to learn and a good work ethic, after a period of time could be offered a full time position with the company. Fantastic benefits everything. It wasn’t easy though. I would say that in the years leading up to my untimely disability leave (another one of the benefits), I can remember three or four individuals who went on to earn a job full time with benefits. That’s out of probably fifty temps. Of those four, three were Somali and one was a local kid. Who is offered full time employment is entirely up to the individuals efforts to prove themselves. Because of the shift schedules and the long hours, we had many temps only last one or two shifts. It was a golden opportunity for ANYONE who was seeking a good career. All they had to do was prove themselves…….

          • Sean

            Right. Other than the nasty comment at the end, your response is a treasure trove of information. The Somalis at your place of employment were not getting much in the way of benefits from a temp employer, and only a handful were desireable enough to hire, in spite of your glowing description of their work ethic.

            The average temp worker at low-wage jobs in my city ekes out a life in very low-rent accomodations and is probably uninsured and won’t go to a doctor even for a health crisis. Significant numbers of those people are actually homeless. About half the people in my region who live in their vehicles are employed.

            Clan Somalis, on the other hand, work at low-wage jobs, but have homes, large cars, health care and are famous for their jet-setting life style, taking their entire family on trips to Kenya or Somalia for months at a time.

            Why don’t you explain where the money is coming from, because it certainly isn’t coming from a taxi job or a temp worker job.

          • FrankE

            This is why I recommend you educate yourself, instead of trusting your stereotypical intuitions. You have the answer already, they live a clan lifestyle. Instead of one person buying one car, they all contribute what they can to the group. They might own one car for a few families to share. They work together, they all contribute to the cause. As for only a few being desirable to offer full time employment. First of all there aren’t that many jobs that a non college educated individual can handle. If a person shows a certain inclination and truly wishes to invest themselves, than the company will offer them the training they will need.The pool of possible recruits from the temp agency consisted of at the very least an equal number of local workers and Somali, with a few other Nationalities. Those offered full time employment showed above average intuition, they pushed themselves and they were able to learn fast and well. Don’t blame me that three quarters of those chosen were Somali. Kind of tells you something doesn’t it????????

  • usmcwarrior

    Even the Fools who are lauding this seem oblivious to what this portends for the future.

    If you infuse a small district with an inordinately large percentage of a foreign social structure, those foreigners are not affected by the domestic social structure…they irrevocably change that social structure to mirror their own.

    Lewiston will indeed become Somalia-west long before those displaced Somali’s become “Mainers”…