With 250 new students and exploding demand for special education, the city proposes 64 more teachers, a bigger budget and patience.

Official: Lewiston’s 250 new students are good news

LEWISTON — Sam Story, 17, and his brother, Jacob Story, 14, are among 250 new students attending school in Lewiston this year, helping Lewiston buck a statewide trend of school districts losing students.

“We lived in Turner,” Sam said. “We used to go to St. Dom’s. We moved to Lewiston, closer to where my dad’s job is.”

Sam plays hockey and lacrosse; Jacob plays hockey and soccer. Sam plans to major in business after high school, and eventually help run his father’s business, L-A Harley-Davidson.

As the Story brothers talked during lunch one day last week, the nearby cafeteria was bustling.

“Most of our lunches are pretty full,” Principal Shawn Chabot said.

With 129 new students at the high school this year, some classes are bigger.

“But we’re not at max,” Chabot said. “We’re OK. We’ve been able to absorb the numbers.”

Lewiston is unlike any other school district in Maine.

Chabot hasn’t heard of another school system gaining enough students in a single fall to fill a small school. In recent years, Lewiston has been gaining 100 students a year.

“Lewiston is attracting people, whether it’s refugee or ethnic groups or (native) Mainers,” Chabot said.

“Lewiston has lots of social services, support for families, and this school system does a good job,” he said. “That’s attractive to families. And we have available housing. Portland’s really expensive to live in. Right now, Lewiston isn’t.”

Lewiston: More students, more state education money

The majority of new students — about 60 percent — are from immigrant families, according to Superintendent Bill Webster.

In that regard, the Story brothers don’t represent the majority of new students, Chabot said. But the district is seeing more students from all backgrounds, he said.

Lewiston’s enrollment was 5,470 in October. For the first time, English language learner students — mostly from Somali families, but also from other countries — represent 25 percent of Lewiston students, numbering 1,374.

For years, Maine’s birthrate has been down and young people have been leaving the state. Statewide, student enrollment has declined, despite the fact that in the past decade a new grade — pre-kindergarten — has been added to public schools.

In 2014, statewide enrollment was 182,990. In 2006-07, it was 199,467.

No school department contacted for this story — including the Maine Department of Education and district representatives for Portland, Bangor and Westbrook — were aware of any school system gaining as many students as Lewiston schools have.

Educating more students costs more — but it will also fetch more state education dollars.

Webster expects the city to receive at least $2 million more next year from the state because of higher enrollment. The following year, Lewiston will get even more because of a higher number of special education students, Webster said.

Lewiston needs more youths, some say

While some taxpayers have complained about more students, others counter that the city needs more youths. 

For decades, Lewiston was losing population.

“If you are losing population with no prospect of how to reverse that, you’re in deep trouble,” Lewiston Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said.

In 1970, Lewiston’s population peaked at 40,000. By 2000, it had dipped to 35,000.

Maine is the “oldest” state in the nation, with an average age of 43½, according to a 2012 U.S. Census estimate. This has some economists concerned, since social programs and the workforce rely on younger workers. 

“Maine is one of only two states — the other is West Virginia — where the deaths exceed births,” Nadeau said. 

That’s not good news, he said.

Lewiston economic development leaders have worked to put the pieces in place to reverse the trend and boost economic development.

The migration of Somali immigrants has helped boost population. For the first time in years, the 2010 Census showed Lewiston reversed its decline with a population of 36,000.

The city is still losing more 18- to 35-year-olds than it would like, but more younger adults are staying, moving downtown and getting involved, Nadeau said, including young leaders like Julia Sleeper and Craig Saddlemire, members of the Young Professionals of the Lewiston-Auburn Area.

At a city hall meeting last year about adding bike lanes, one young adult after another spoke.

“Each one of them said, ‘I live on Park Street’” or another downtown address, Nadeau said. It was uplifting “to see a turnout of bright, young energetic residents beginning to live downtown.”

More youths are needed for a vibrant community, to support older residents and for economic development, he said.

Employers aren’t just looking at property taxes, Nadeau said.

“They want to know what are the prospects for their company to fill those jobs,” he said. “Population growth is a necessary component of economic development. If you’re losing population, you’re a dying community. We’re the opposite.”

You also need to know:

45 more special ed positions: ‘Children are needier than they used to be.’

What you need to know before you vote

Among the numbers: Immigrant family finds safety, good schools

Robert Reed: Why I oppose the Lewiston school budget

Heidi Sawyer: Why I am voting YES on the school budget

Student enrollment in Maine cities

City                  2014                   2015

Auburn             3,610                   3,564

Augusta            2,231                   2,267

Bangor              3,808                   3,822

Lewiston          5,297                    5,470

Portland           7,038                    6,941

Westbrook       2,543                    2,559

Source: Individual school districts

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