City awaits housing, resettlement trends

PORTLAND — The group conducting a comprehensive review of public school facilities on Monday night received  preliminary enrollment projections that suggest the end of a recent enrollment decline .
Those preliminary projections, however, still lack three key ingredients expected to drive Portland’s facility needs into 2018.
John Kennedy, a consultant hired from the New England School Development Council, said he will be meeting in coming weeks with city planners and real estate professionals to hear their views about future development and home buying trends.
Kennedy will also meeting with social service agencies to discuss immigrant relocation plans that may be in the works.
“It would take a very large movement of an age cohort, or a large influx of new residents, or a dramatic change in the birth rate to significantly alter what we’re seeing here,” Kennedy said.
The preliminary enrollment report offers historical perspective, in addition to projections. From 1990 to 2000, the percentage of nonwhite students jumped from 2 percent of the city’s population to nearly 9 percent. With that increase, came a dramatic increase in the number of non-English speaking children in public schools.
Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers said that while immigrants are only 9 percent of the city’s population, roughly 26 percent of public school students are English language learners. “We have seen an amazing transformation in the last decade,” she said.
Since the height of Portland’s immigration wave in the late 1990s, mostly from Somalia and Sudan, the overall student population has declined. In 1999, total enrollment was 8,055 students, but that number dropped to 6,901 this year.
That trend could soon be reversed, however, since Portland is expecting another wave of immigrants, this time from Iraq. Catholic Charities announced in November that as many as 200 Iraqi refugees are expected to settle in the area.
Service centers like greater Portland are attractive areas for immigrants to settle, Kennedy said, because people can maintain a sense of cultural identity, while also receiving the necessary help to transition into a new community. Service centers are also attractive areas for students with disabilities.
Both of these demographics are known to be significant cost-drivers in school budgets.
Without considering future resettlement activities, most other signs indicate a leveling off in student enrollment. Kennedy’s preliminary projection suggests the district will only lose 233 students enrolled in preschool through high school over the next 10 years, from 6,937 to 6,704, or roughly 23 students a year.
“That is not a dramatic decline,” he said.
That reduction will most likely be felt at the high school level, where Whynot-Vickers said this year’s freshman class is the smallest in the last decade. Next year’s freshman class, she said, is expected to be even smaller.
Nonetheless, Kennedy said Portland is losing two key demographics that would increase student population. Since 1990, the city has lost 23.5 percent of children under the age of 4and 27.1 percent of adults between the ages of 20 and 34, who are most likely to rear children.
Meanwhile, Kennedy said current economic conditions could also affect birth rates. The recent economic downturn is often compared to the Great Depression, during which birth rates plummeted, he said.
School Committee member Jaimey Caron said that, once the complete report is submitted, the school Facilities Task Force will use the enrollment projects as a cornerstone in its decision making.
The task force will meet again in March at the East End Community School, where it will nail down the information to be included in its final report to the School Committee.
A draft of the report is scheduled to be presented in April and the School committee is expected to receive the report in May.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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