Jen Dorval wiped away a tear on a recent weekday morning as she listened to Manuel Pedro tell the story of his family’s harrowing six-month journey from Angola to South America and then northward through Central America and Mexico before finally reaching Portland.

“I’m sorry,” said Dorval, an intake specialist for Portland Public Schools. “I don’t usually cry.”

Pedro, who is part of a recent wave of asylum seekers to arrive in the city from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was meeting with Dorval as part of the district’s process for getting new students enrolled.

His 5-year-old daughter, Stela Solani Ndombasi Mvemba, is one of 77 school-aged children and teenagers identified as being among the roughly 340 asylum seekers who have arrived in Portland since mid-June.

Those numbers could translate into 77 additional students attending Portland schools in the fall if the families, most of whom have been staying in a shelter at the Portland Expo, find permanent housing in the city. The district now has about 6,800 students.

As the newcomers adapt to life in Maine, the school district is thinking about how to make the transition easier for the children among them.


The school district already has added three classrooms to summer language programs that typically enroll 120 students each year.

And although preparations for the summer programs are usually made in February, officials said they’ve adjusted to be able to take in all the new students.

Manuel Pedro fills out paperwork Wednesday for his 5-year-old daughter, Stela Solani Ndombasi Mvemba, with Portland Public Schools intake specialist Jen Dorval at King Middle School. Pedro and his family left their home country of Angola and came to the United States after a harrowing journey through South and Central America. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“As of today we’re in a great place to be able to provide services to these kids that are the same as their peers,” said Gail Cressey, the district’s director of intervention strategy. “We have this experience. This is part of the population we serve. These folks and others we see throughout the school year have experienced a long journey and experienced trauma so it’s part of our goals as a district to help.”

About 35 percent of the district’s students have a primary language spoken at home other than English. About 25 percent are considered English language learners.

A total of 65 languages are spoken as primary languages in the homes of Portland students, the most common being Somali followed by Portuguese, Arabic and French.

Each year the district takes in about 360 new students who have a primary home language other than English.


The difference this time is that the district doesn’t usually get 77 such students at once, said Grace Valenzuela, director of communications and community partnerships.

When the recent wave of asylum seekers began arriving in Portland last month, the school district was among the first to respond.

Stela Solani Ndombasi Mvemba, 5, stands next to her father, Manuel Pedro, while he fills out paperwork with Portland Public Schools intake specialist Jen Dorval at King Middle School on Wednesday. Stela is one of roughly 75 children of asylum seekers who are being processed and assessed by Portland Public Schools. Many of the children will start summer school next week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A table was set up at the Expo, where parents were encouraged to provide the names and ages of their school-age children.

From there, individual appointments were scheduled at King Middle School for families to go through the district’s intake process, which includes registering for school, an English language assessment and time for families to chat with school employees about their child’s educational history, physical and cognitive development and family situation, usually with the help of an interpreter.

Most of the recent asylum seekers speak Portuguese, French or Lingala, a Bantu language spoken throughout the northwestern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The district also asks questions about a student’s health, vaccination records and whether they’ve been exposed to tuberculosis.


The students are then entered into the district’s system and can begin to be placed in schools.

Although many of the students and their families haven’t found permanent housing yet, district Intake Coordinator Jenifer Turkewitz said the district is still moving ahead with enrolling them.

Emily Hall Greeley uses letter flash cards during an English language assessment with Stela Solani Ndombasi Mvemba, 5, at King Middle School on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“We’re going to get an idea,” she said. “We have to start planning.”

Officials have said it’s too early to say what impact the newcomers could have on the school budget, which has already been set for the 2019-20 school year. The cost of the additional summer school classrooms is about $30,000, Cressey said.

“If they stay and get housing, then that determines what school they would attend,” she said. “Based on that, we would look at the class sizes in those schools to see if they can accommodate those students or if we need to add teachers.”

Of the 77 students, 55 are in elementary school, nine are in middle school and 13 in high school.


The summer language programs, which the district holds annually for students who are new English speakers, start next week.

The English for Speakers of Other Languages Collaborative, which includes Portland Adult Education, also plans to start English language classes later this month for adults in the recent wave of asylum seekers.

Emily Hall Greeley high-fives Stela Solani Ndombasi Mvemba, 5, after she completed her English language assessment Wednesday at King Middle School. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For children and teenagers, the focus is on improving students’ language skills through experiential learning and opportunities to explore the city and region.

The programs also help the students get used to the routine of American schools.

“In my past experience it’s not a challenge,” Cressey said. “It’s sort of joyful for kids to have that experience, although it’s definitely something they have to learn. So far they’ve been in a fairly small radius but through the summer programs they’ll have these field experiences. They’ll learn more about the city and the state. What’s the climate like at the ocean? What kinds of animals will you see?”

That will come in handy as the students prepare to enter traditional classrooms in the fall. Most are considered homeless by the district, and through the summer program they’ll get two meals per day.


The district can also help with access to health care, counselors and social services outside of what has been made available at the Expo.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday released data on the services that agency has provided to the hundreds of asylum seekers who have stayed at the Expo since the influx began on June 9.

Public health nurses have given 341 vaccinations to adults and 601 to children and conducted 312 medical screenings. Therapists have done crisis counseling 85 times with adults and 184 times with children.

Also, the public health agency has given out 72 portable cribs, and distributed bottles, infant formula and diapers paid for with federal funds.

Getting students into the school system early is helpful for educators as they seek to understand the situations their pupils are coming from.

“There’s a lot of grief and a lot of trauma,” Dorval said. “Obviously the kids are deeply traumatized and now they’re expected to sit in a classroom and attend (school) in a language they don’t understand.”


The asylum seekers, such as Pedro and his family, have spent months traveling to flee problems and persecution in their home countries.

Pedro did not want to share publicly the reasons he left Angola, other than to say he feared for his safety. He said he was grateful to be in the United States with his wife, daughter and 3-year-old son.

“We hope Portland will receive us. We need to make a new life in Portland,” Pedro said in English that he said he acquired from reading books and listening to American music.

His daughter, who will be in kindergarten, likes drawing, music and dance. Pedro said she was a fast learner at her school in Angola and he hopes to be involved in her school here. At home, he said, he used to call the teachers and set up appointments to talk with them and he wanted to know if he could do the same in Portland.

“Yes,” Dorval told him. “You can talk to the school anytime.”

As the intake appointment wrapped up Friday, she asked what language the school should send calendars home in.


He said to send one in Portuguese and one in English.

“I need one for me, to practice,” Pedro said. A few minutes later he was out the door and on the way to his own English language class.

Rachel Ohm — 207-791-6388

Twitter: @rachel_ohm





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