When classes started this year at Memorial Middle School in South Portland, there was just one humanities class for students beginning to learn English. Now there are three.

The school has rearranged the schedules of English language teachers, added an additional part-time English language teacher and upped the hours of a second teacher.

It has limited new enrollments because it has no more space and is relying on the middle school on the other side of the city to absorb any additional students who come into the district.

“We’re just supporting way more kids in those English language learning classes,” said Principal Rebecca Stern.

The changes are necessary because the school district is seeing an influx of English language learner students driven by the arrival of asylum seekers from African countries. It’s hard to know exactly how many of the students are asylum seekers, but officials in South Portland say the increases they’re seeing stem from the placement of many asylum-seeking families in emergency shelter in local hotels.

Since the start of the school year, the South Portland School Department has served 305 homeless students. That’s up from 180 last school year and just 34 in 2019-20. The school system has 522 English language learner students, compared to 328 last year. And overall enrollment now is at 3,021 students, up from 2,887 in October.


English Language Learner teacher Kara Kralik works with students at Memorial Middle School in South Portland last week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

South Portland is one of five communities where the city of Portland is placing asylum seekers in hotels because of a shortage of shelter space and housing.

Portland officials reported earlier this month that new arrivals had driven the highest ever nightly averages of people in need of shelter. In the first three weeks of January, 39 families needing shelter arrived in Portland – about one-third the number the city saw in all of 2020.

School officials in Portland and some surrounding communities like Old Orchard Beach and Brunswick, which are currently housing asylum seekers or have in the past, said they aren’t seeing increases in new students. Freeport, which is housing some new arrivals from Portland, has seen a small one.

“I would argue that right now we are the most impacted school district in the state when it comes to new families, many of whom do not speak English and are housing vulnerable,” said South Portland Superintendent Tim Matheney.

Schools across the district – from elementary to high school – have mobilized to welcome the newcomers. Most come from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo and have spent months or even years traveling to the United States to escape violence or instability in their home countries. And many have missed long periods of school as a result.

Teaching the students English, enrolling them in classes and making sure basic needs such as housing, food and warm clothing are being met present challenges. Schools need to hire more staff – English language teachers, social workers.


But the new students are making their schools far more diverse and filling them with excitement during a challenging year.

“In America right now, as we go through the pandemic and how education looks post-pandemic, people are really sad,” said South Portland High School Principal Michele LaForge. “The anxiety of our students and our staff is really high. This has been a really hard time and it continues to be hard.

“Our new Mainers, in a lot of ways, the hardest thing they’ve ever experienced is behind them. So there’s this energy around these new students. They’re just so delighted to be here. They’re never absent. They’re excited every second of every day.”


At Memorial Middle School on a recent morning, English language learner teacher Elizabeth Dawson worked with a dozen students in a math class for newcomers. Just the week before, Dawson had been assigned a new sixth-grade student who hadn’t been in school for five years. She said it’s not unusual for students to have large gaps in their education, and it’s her job to catch them up.

“In all of our classes we have this philosophy of addressing language skills and gaps, but we also know these students are 14,” Dawson said. “They’re cognitively and developmentally middle school students, so we also need to make sure our content is challenging them on a seventh-grade level.”


Tanya Nsumu, 12, left, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo works with Maria Bikuma, 14, from Angola during math class last week at Memorial Middle School in South Portland where there is an influx of asylum-seeking students. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maria Bikuma and Tanya Nsumu, two students in Dawson’s class, sat in the back munching on breakfast as their teacher led them in a word problem that everyone read aloud together. Bikuma, who is from Angola and arrived in Maine over the summer, said she is enjoying making new friends and being in school.

“I like America because it’s a good country,” said the eighth-grader. “I can study here and the teachers are good.”

Because she speaks English well, Bikuma often acts as a translator between teachers and her fellow students who are new to the country and whose first language is most often Portuguese or French. She said the teachers are patient and more involved in helping students than in Angola, where students were more self-directed.

“People understand quickly because the teachers explain very good,” Bikuma said.

Nsumu also arrived over the summer, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She left her home country when she was just 6 years old and spent time in South America, Mexico and Texas. When she arrived in Maine, she spoke no English, though that has quickly changed.

“Here is different because I have a new teacher that teaches good,” said the seventh-grader. “I have an iPad. I have a new life.”


ELL teacher Kim Elliott helps Divine Nsimba Lukombo, 12, an 8th grader originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo at Memorial Middle School during “target time,” an intervention program where students work to get caught up to grade level on a number of subjects, Wednesday at Memorial Middle School in South Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Other school districts in the Portland area are also seeing newcomers. In Freeport, Superintendent Becky Foley said the district has enrolled 12 students and another five will start this week. Freeport schools are advertising for an additional English language learner, or ELL, teacher and providing professional development to staff to help them offer appropriate instruction to students with limited English.

School officials in Westbrook and Scarborough did not respond to phone and email messages asking if they were getting new arrivals.

In the summer of 2019, when Portland saw another influx of asylum seekers, many children enrolled in Portland Public Schools, at least initially. The district is the most diverse in Maine, with over 60 languages spoken by its 6,500 students.

Portland schools typically enroll 450 to 500 multilingual students per school year and are prepared for new English language learners, said the school system’s communications coordinator, Tess Nacelewicz. But the district isn’t seeing any unusual increases in English language learners this year.

“The asylum seekers are being sheltered in other communities due to the lack of shelter space and housing in Portland,” Nacelewicz said in an email. “Since the students are living in those communities, they are attending school in those communities.”

Luisa Mandiangu, 13, standing, an 8th grader at Memorial Middle School in South Portland who came to Maine from Angola assists classmate Pedro Sebastiao, 13, an 8th grader who also came from Angola with an assignment during “target time” at the middle school Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Matheney, the South Portland superintendent, said this year’s numbers are unprecedented but they have been going up for two years now. A year ago, the district moved a part-time English language coordinator position to full-time and created a multilingual intake team to welcome new families.


South Portland schools have hired one social worker to focus on homeless families and another to provide counseling at two schools with large numbers of new students. And since June, the district has hired five additional English language teachers.

Federal COVID relief dollars have helped the district meet the urgent needs of the newcomers, Matheney said, but school officials have also talked with the Maine Department of Education about the strain on resources. “We’re doing OK at the moment, but at some point those COVID dollars are going to disappear,” he said.

The district is working closely with city staff in Portland who are in regular contact when new families with children are being placed in South Portland hotels.

District staff typically reach out to families if they know they’ll be arriving, but over time the district has also built a reputation among those already staying in hotels and families are now initiating contact. In the enrollment process, staff meet with families to provide community resources and describe the American school experience. They assess new students’ English speaking, listening and reading skills and ask about their previous education.

Each new student gets a backpack full of school supplies provided by the nonprofit Maine Needs. The district’s aim is to be as welcoming and supportive as possible. Much of that work, of course, falls to classroom teachers.

Tanya Nsumu, 12, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, raises her hand to answer a question during math class Wednesday at Memorial Middle School in South Portland. To the right is Maria Bikuma, 14, originally from Angola. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

At South Portland High School, LaForge, the principal, said enrollment is usually around 905 students each year but it has bumped up to 970 this year. “Having so many students come at once and with so little English, Google Translate and the apps on our phones have been a miracle,” LaForge said.



She said the arrival of the new students has prompted discussions around curriculum that the school never thought about before, such as whether to incorporate more world literature and how different translations of a text could take on different meanings.

“When is it important for the reading to be done in English and when is it not necessary?” LaForge said. “I’m not sure if we have an answer to that, but it’s one question that’s come up.”

A web app developed by a Deering High School teacher, Jeff Borland, and a recent Deering grad, Aidan Blum Levine, has also been helpful to teachers, LaForge said. ReachMyTeach automatically translates emails and text messages from English to other languages and vice versa to help teachers communicate with families.

It’s just one way the South Portland district has taken cues from Portland, which has had longer experience with such issues. Sheanna Zimmerman, South Portland’s English language coordinator, said her school system looked to the larger district to develop its multilingual intake team, which started with just her and one other staff member doing the intake at hotels.

“They gave us a lot of guidance around how to increase services, and Westbrook has also been a great support,” Zimmerman said. “We feel really supported by our colleagues in the tri-city area.”


For the growing English language teaching staff, responding to the influx of students can be a challenge. It’s pretty typical now to get three to 10 new students added to their caseloads each week. But it’s also exciting.

“I think our team of English language learner teachers has gone way above and beyond this year,” said Stern, the Memorial Middle School principal. “They have a whole new job, which is welcoming newcomers every single week, and they have put in more time than almost anybody and worked so hard to welcome kids.”

On the second floor of the school, across from Dawson’s math class, another ELL teacher, Kara Kralik, teaches science. On a recent morning, students were learning parts of a plant and their functions. Because many of the students have had their schooling interrupted, Kralik said, the emphasis is on catching them up on basic concepts and giving them language skills.

Odette Mevezo Junizi, a seventh-grader from the Democratic Republic of Congo, came to Maine in November. She’d last been in school in January 2020. How does she feel to be back in the classroom? “Happy,” Mevezo Junizi said after using a translation app on her iPad to understand the question.

Most of the students in Kralik’s class have only been in the school system for two to three weeks. One arrived the day before. She doesn’t know how long they’ll stay. As the students’ families find permanent housing, they may end up moving to other school districts.

“Yes, it’s hard,” Kralik said. “But they’re also super engaged. They really want to be here. They’re really enthusiastic and they work so hard. That helps a lot.”

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