SOUTH PORTLAND — The number of students who are homeless or qualify for free or reduced-price meals is down this year, along with overall enrollment, Superintendent Ken Kunin reported Monday to city councilors and school board members.

Meanwhile, the number of students who are learning to speak English or qualify for special education programs has increased, Kunin said in his State of the Schools 2017-18 presentation.

The district has 289 English-language learners this year – about double the number in 2012 and about 10 percent of the overall 2,995 student population. Statewide, ELL students represent 3 percent of the overall school population, with concentrations in Portland, Lewiston, Westbrook, South Portland and Auburn, Kunin said.

“Our ethnic diversity remains four times greater than that of the state of Maine as a whole, providing our students considerable opportunities that we believe are essential for preparing them for an ever-evolving world,” Kunin said.

Six years ago, students from immigrant families attended Brown Elementary, Mahoney Middle and South Portland High, Kunin said. Today, ELL students attend all eight schools representing 36 different primary home languages from every region of the world, with Arabic, Spanish, French, Somali and Portuguese being the most prevalent.

“Adding about 150 ELL students over the past five years has certainly impacted our district and our schools,” Kunin said. “It has been a challenge that the district embraced in 2012 and continues to embrace today.”

The number of students who qualify for special education increased again this year, resulting in an overall increase from 533 students (17.2 percent of total enrollment) in 2014 to 549 students (18.4 percent) in 2017.

“We saw meaningful increases over the last four years in two particular areas – autism and multiple disabilities – both of which represent students with complex needs and challenges,” Kunin said.

In the same period, the number of students who have autism has increased from 68 to 76, and the number who have multiple disabilities increased from 34 to 42. Kunin noted that the district also has experienced an increase in federally mandated out-of-district placements for special education needs that cannot be met by district personnel.

Reviewing other numbers, Kunin said the district’s overall enrollment dropped by 36 students this year, from 3,031 in 2016-17 to 2,995 in 2017-18. It remains to be seen how the decrease might impact South Portland’s state education subsidy and whether it might be offset by a potential increase of 24 pre-kindergarten students.

“We really will need to see enrollment trends over a few years to inform whether this is a long-term issue,” Kunin said. “We are facing an uncertain year in terms of state subsidy and will need to see the preliminary figures due to be released on or about Feb. 1.”

The proportion of students in the city who are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch fell to 36 percent this year, returning to 2013 levels after reaching 41 percent in 2014 and 2015. And the district has 36 homeless students this year – fewer than last year and falling back to 2012-13 levels – after reaching a high of 116 homeless students in 2014-15.

Kunin attributed the reduction in homeless students to a policy change by Portland’s General Assistance program administrators, which limits the number of motel rooms they use in South Portland for families in need. Kunin said South Portland schools also increased collaboration with Portland school officials to make decisions related to homeless students that maintain as much consistency as possible in their schooling and temporary housing situations.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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