As students in southern Maine prepare to go back to school at the end of this month, more than 80 asylum-seeking young people from African nations are spreading out among at least three school districts.

A total of 83 school-age children and teenagers were staying in a temporary shelter at the Portland Expo in mid-July, all part of a wave of more than 400 asylum seekers who arrived in Portland this summer, primarily from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many of those students attended summer school language classes in Portland Public Schools, though the number who plan to stay in Portland schools has dropped to 61 as the families start to settle permanently in other areas.

Although numbers are still fluctuating, Portland Public Schools and other districts where families have moved say they are largely prepared to absorb the additional students.

The Brunswick School Department is anticipating as many as 30 asylum-seeking students, while Lewiston Public Schools has enrolled 11 and is anticipating about another six.

“Like everybody, we knew about the influx in Portland but did not anticipate they would be coming to Brunswick or to any of the surrounding areas,” said Shawn Lambert, assistant superintendent of the Brunswick School Department. “It makes sense given the housing shortage in Portland, but this was not predicted.”


Over the last few weeks, city officials in Portland have been working to relocate the asylum seekers from the Expo, which was set up as a temporary shelter to accommodate the large and unexpected arrival of migrants from Africa in early June.

Several families chose to relocate to Brunswick, about 30 miles north of Portland, after a housing developer with Brunswick Landing Venture offered up to three months of rent-free assistance.

The Brunswick district already has an English for Speakers of Other Languages program and is working to determine whether additional teachers will need to be hired. There are currently 26 students enrolled and the asylum seekers could almost double that, Lambert said.

Margaret Born of Lisbon, N.H., plays with children of asylum seekers staying at the Expo on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Most of the newcomers speak Portuguese, French or Lingala.

“Anytime you add a significant population, either with or without specific needs, it will have a budget impact,” Lambert said. “We’re a personnel business. If we need teachers to meet the specific needs of those students, I’m sure it will have a budget impact, but I don’t know what it is yet.”

In Lewiston, Director of English Language Learner Education Hilary Barber said the district so far has welcomed 11 new students from eight families who were among the new asylum seekers from Portland.


Because the number is so small, there is no impact on the school budget.

“Lewiston has a long history of welcoming families who are new to the country, including asylum seekers and refugees, so we have the systems and staff in place to help new families settle here,” Barber said in an email. “Because we are a bigger city, welcoming new families from different backgrounds is part of the work we do and love.”

Children of asylum seekers housed at the Portland Expo, play near a fan. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photgrapher

The district currently enrolls about 1,400 English language learner students out of a total school population of around 5,600. The primary languages for those students are Somali followed by Portuguese and French, Barber said.

She said partnerships with community groups that are helping the families find housing and other necessities and the work of Portland Public Schools to register students and assess their English proficiency over the summer have helped the district enroll students faster.


Most of the students are elementary school age, including 45 of the 61 who right now are staying in Portland schools. Of the remaining 16 students still in Portland, eight are middle school age and eight are high school age, according to numbers provided by the district.


Grace Valenzuela, director of communications and community partnerships for Portland Public Schools, said in an email the students are distributed throughout grade levels and the district will be able to absorb them without adding staff.

In addition to Brunswick and Lewiston, she said some families have moved or are planning to move to Bath and Cumberland.

In 2018-2019, about 35 percent of the 6,800 students in Portland Public Schools spoke a primary language other than English at home. About 25 percent were considered English language learners.

“This enrollment number is what we typically see in the summer for our Multilingual Intake,” Valenzuela said. “In fact, there were times when the intake number was a lot higher than this one.”

Over the summer, students in the summer school programs did work around English proficiency and adapted to the routine of a school day in the United States.

That included things like learning to ride a school bus or for high school students, the METRO bus, and learning to come to class prepared, said Gail Cressey, director of intervention strategy for Portland Public Schools.


When school starts, she said, there will be new student orientations and staff will be available to help students who still have language needs. The first day of classes for students in grades 1-12 is Sept. 3.

Carlos Gomez, the district’s director of language development, worked with many of the middle and high school students enrolled in summer language academies.

Most of those students were beginning-level English speakers, and while some will move to mainstream classes this fall, others will be in intensive English language development classes depending on their grade level and prior education.

“From what I saw and heard from teachers and students, it was a positive experience,” Gomez said. “I think the teachers and students started building relationships with each other and the students got a sense of what to look for and expect in an American high school and middle school.”

The district will also have counselors and social workers available this fall and staff who are trained in trauma-informed practices to respond to the unique needs of the students.

As asylum seekers, the students fled violence and political instability in their home countries and endured long and often dangerous journeys to get to the United States.

“Having that summer boost will make a big difference during the school day,” Cressey said. “It will definitely help versus if they didn’t have that summer experience.”

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