Schools brace for influx of new students from asylum-seeking families
Saco Superintendent Jeremy Ray isn’t used to having so much up in the air in the days leading up to the start of a new school year.
He knows that when school starts on August 31, the district will be responsible for educating dozens of children from asylum-seeking families moving into a local hotel. He doesn’t know exactly how many, but it’s likely there are around 120.
The uncertainty presents a challenge for Ray and other educators trying to ensure they are ready to welcome new students with staff and services for multilingual learners while trying to figure out how to pay for unbudgeted expenses. . In Saco, the cost could reach $1.2 million.
“I’ve been a superintendent for a long time and you never have a situation where you just have 120 kids starting the next school year — especially in Maine where we have declining enrollment,” Ray said.
Saco isn’t the only district facing an unprecedented surge in enrollment.
Over the past two years, several other school districts in southern Maine have had to make rapid adjustments enrolling dozens of new students from asylum-seeking families. Many families come from African countries and head, via the southern border, to Portland, where the city months ago ran out of space in its family shelter.
As the number of arrivals continued to rise, Portland began housing families in motels and hotels in surrounding communities. In May, the city announced that it could no longer guarantee shelter for arriving families. Since then, it appears the number of families seeking asylum in Maine has slowed.
The state and Portland signed a contract this summer with a Saco hotel to use it exclusively to house asylum-seeking families for the next year.
Ray found out in May that negotiations were underway to use the hotel, but plans weren’t finalized until this summer. Discussions about staffing, funding, and other logistical challenges began immediately, but much was unknown.
“We are now in a situation where families are moving in next week and we only have estimates of what it looks like for the children,” he said. “It’s very airy.”
A PRIVILEGE AND A CHALLENGE
Over the past two school years, schools in South Portland have stepped up to welcome newcomers, many of whom come from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo and have spent months, if not years, traveling to the United States. United to escape violence or instability in their country of origin. Many students have missed long periods of school and are still learning English. They are considered homeless under federal law McKinney-Vento Homeless Relief Act because they live in temporary accommodation.
During the 2021-22 school year, South Portland hosted about 500 McKinney-Vento students, most from asylum-seeking families. More than 90 percent are multilingual learners, Superintendent Tim Matheney said.
The district has hired social workers and additional teachers for English learners. It trained staff members working for the first time with large numbers of English language learners. This summer, she offered free Portuguese lessons to dozens of teachers.
While it’s a privilege to serve new students, it also puts a significant strain on resources, said Matheney, who advocated for additional resources for schools facing similar challenges. Last year, the district received $77,000 from the state to support McKinney-Vento students and hopes to receive more of the money included in the supplemental budget to support school districts experiencing an increase in student numbers. multilingual learners.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the state is providing guidance, technical support and other resources to school districts welcoming these new students, but did not respond to requests for information on funding. additional.
Last April, schools in Yarmouth learned that around 48 families from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti had checked into a hotel in the town. The families included nearly 50 children who had enrolled in local schools by the end of this month, said Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of the Yarmouth school department.
As a small district with a previously small number of English language learners, Yarmouth had to immediately find a way to provide more and different educational services. Dolloff was able to work several part-time ELL positions, and he brought in interpreters to help enroll students, communicate with families, and train district staff to welcome students into their classrooms and help them navigate new schools.
The district was able to cover additional ELL costs with savings in other areas, including salary savings from hiring less experienced teachers to replace educators who left the previous year. Anticipating the need to continue to offer more ELL services, the district requested an additional $150,000 in its budget.
Dolloff said Yarmouth was fortunate to be able to look to other districts, including South Portland, which had “much more experience in seizing the opportunities and meeting the challenges of an influx of non-English speaking students”. South Portland staff have been instrumental in providing guidance on how best to serve incoming students, he said.
The challenges for newcomers were obvious, he said, but the benefits were also significant.
“For students and staff who have only lived, worked or attended school in this region, having students and classmates from around the world who have overcome incredible challenges to enter our schools offers incredible benefits,” he said.
When the group of students arrived last spring, he said, there was an immediate outpouring of empathy and support from their peers, staff and families in the community, said Dolloff.
“Being able to practice empathy, being asked to live one of our core values in a very tangible way, being confronted with our own privilege – these are lessons that can last a lifetime and change our outlook towards a more globally,” he said.
MOVING TO SACO
Families, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, began moving into the Saco Hotel on July 18. More than 120 people moved in at the start of August and more will arrive over the next few weeks as Portland moves them out of hotels in other communities. . Using part of the $22 million the Legislature has appropriated for emergency housing, MaineHousing has been contracted to house asylum seekers and their families in hotels.
There are 100 rooms in the hotel, but there will likely be around 90 families at any one time as some large families will use connecting rooms, said Julie Allaire, program manager for Catholic Charities.
Last month, Catholic Charities launched a pilot program with staff on-site at the hotel every day to help families register for school and English classes, connect to resources and navigate in life in a new place.
Catholic Charities was brought in to work with the families at the request of Portland officials because the organization has four decades of experience resettling refugees in Maine, Allaire said.
Staff members recently helped enroll children in Saco schools at an event at the hotel. The children who live there range from babies born in the United States to young adults graduating from school.
Mayor William Doyle said Saco looks forward to welcoming new neighbors and providing them with the best possible education. A community group donated playground equipment for the children and residents were quick to ask what they could do to help.
But there were also concerns about unbudgeted costs.
No one knew the students would come when Saco’s budget was being drawn up.
Superintendent Ray told the school board last month that the $1.2 million in possible additional costs included $500,000 in tuition at Thornton Academy, a private school that educates high school students in Saco. He estimated it could cost ELL teachers $335,000, $200,000 for special services and $65,000 for an extra bus ride.
Some of the students coming to Saco after staying in other Maine communities may continue to attend their old schools, an arrangement allowed because their homeless status allows them to stay at their original schools. In these cases, Saco and the other school district will split the transportation costs.
Doyle said the city is working with the state and Portland to try to find ways to cover the new tab. He hopes to avoid going back to voters asking for an increase in the education budget.
“Both the city and the schools believe this is an unfunded mandate that was imposed on the city of Saco by the state and by the city of Portland,” he said.
Ray tries to focus on the positive. He said he looks forward to conversations with his own children, who attend Saco schools, about the excitement that comes from making new friends with different backgrounds and experiences.
“Increasing diversity is good for us,” he said.
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