A surge of families and children arriving in Portland, including many who need English language support, has forced students to wait as long as three weeks for screening appointments to be enrolled in the city’s schools.

From September to the end of January, the district enrolled 612 new multilingual students. In the entire 2021-22 school year, the district enrolled 496 new multilingual students – those whose primary language is one other than English and who often need substantial English support.

Children play in a small gymnasium at Salvation Army in Portland on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

While the surge is straining classroom and teaching resources, the district also is struggling to get students screened and enrolled. It has shifted some staff responsibilities and is working to hire an additional staff member to help try to keep up with enrollments.

“Recently, with the high number of families moving to Portland, we have not been able to catch up with the demand,” said Grace Valenzuela, executive director of communications and community partnerships for the district. “The number of new arrivals this winter is unprecedented.”

The strain on Portland’s schools is just one way city services are struggling to support an influx of families and individuals seeking asylum in the United States.

Since Jan. 1, the city has seen 665 new asylum seekers arrive in need of emergency shelter. The city temporarily opened a shelter inside a school gym in mid-February and on Monday opened a new temporary shelter in the Salvation Army.


Many of the new arrivals are from the African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have endured long and dangerous journeys to reach Maine.

Typically, the city’s school district is able to get prospective students intake appointments within a week. But it fell behind in February. Along with the high number of incoming families, the intake teams struggled because of staff illnesses, interpreter availability, February vacation, snow days and pre-kindergarten screening. 

The district received 60 potential students during school vacation week, Feb. 20-24, and continues to receive new requests for registration on a daily basis, Valenzuela said.

The district as a whole enrolls around 6,500 students, and more than 25 percent – 1,863 – of those students are multilingual learners.

Intake appointments for potential students can be time consuming. For a single student, an intake typically takes around an hour, Valenzuela said. But for multiple children it can take up to three hours to square away all the necessary paperwork, online registration forms, English language screening, school placement, and necessary coordination with food service and transportation.

A team of three staff,  including a family intake specialist, a language assessment specialist and an interpreter, handle all of the prospective students. In response to the backlog, the district has created an additional team of existing staff members who have other responsibilities to help with intakes, allowing the district to schedule two families at a time. The district also is in the process of hiring an administrative assistant to support enrollment of new students.


“With the second team in place, we hope to reduce the backlog,” Valenzuela said.

At a workshop Tuesday night, the school board and administrators discussed how to support the influx of multilingual learners.

A majority of the new multilingual students – around 90 percent – speak very little English and need significant support. As well, many of them have had very little formal education or had it interrupted during long migrations to the United States.

As of the beginning of the school year, the ratio of English-as-a-second-language teachers to multilingual learner students was one teacher for every 18 students at the pre-K level, one per 26 at the elementary level and one per 29 at the secondary level.

Most of the new multilingual students have been enrolled in the city’s elementary schools. Of the 612 new students, 379 are in elementary schools, 82 attend middle school and 151 are in high school.

Board Chair Sarah Lentz said the district is working to identify partners at the municipal and state levels to help support its multilingual students while investing in district resources including English language teachers and behavioral health support staff and working to figure out how it can allocate more resources to its multilingual students.

“This is an incredible challenge and asset to our district that does require more support,” Lentz said.

Many multilingual students require considerable support learning English, making up for interrupted or lack of formal education. Lentz said she’s worried district teachers are being stretched thin trying to support them on top of their other classroom duties.

“It’s hard to work in a school,” Lentz said. “The continued staffing shortage is hard. National issues are playing out locally. This is just another layer for educators to fold into the mix. … Our educators give so much to our students and our students need so much right now.”

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