Shawn Lambert and Shanna Crofton are two Brunswick School Department administrators working to ease the transition of African asylum-seekers into the school community. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BRUNSWICK — A little over two months since the children of dozens of asylum-seekers entered Bath- and Brunswick-area schools, administrators are taking stock of the progress made in integrating the newest students, and of the challenges that lie ahead.

When Shawn Lambert started as assistant superintendent of the Brunswick School Department on July 1, one of his first major tasks was to help ease the transition of a group of asylum-seekers from Africa into the school community.

“We had no idea how many, and how we would be impacted,” Lambert said an interview Nov. 8.

Even though Brunswick has long had an English as a Second Language program, he expected the language barriers could pose challenges, “but we weren’t really sure what they were going to be, because we really didn’t know what the situation was going to end up being.”

More than 300 asylum-seekers arrived in Portland this summer to escape violence and persecution in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge estimated in late August – soon after African immigrant Nsiona Nguizani was hired as Brunswick’s cultural broker – that 50-60 immigrants had moved into town.

That number includes about 26 children now enrolled in Brunswick’s schools, most at the elementary and high school levels. Their arrival provides an opportunity for the school district to enhance its ESL program, said Shanna Crofton, the district’s director of curriculum, assessment, instruction and professional development. That has come through professional development for teachers, and collaboration with community partners such as Bowdoin College, which has provided volunteers to help in the classrooms.

The support from the community as a whole has been “a strength for people moving into Brunswick,” Crofton said. Organizations like the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program and Curtis Memorial Library have also lent a hand.

“The first challenge was definitely language,” and communication in general, Lambert said. “I think we take for granted all the ways that we communicate with people.”

He recalled listening to the radio as a youth to learn that school had been closed due to a storm. These days, students can learn via a text on their phone that they have the day off – but many of the new families lacked cell phones.

On top of the language barrier, “communicating was very haphazard,” Lambert said. He likened the process at times to playing “the telephone game,” when a message would be communicated from person to person through a group of people. By the time the last in line received the communique, the message was nothing like the original.

In response, the town has provided cell phones to the families, and community meetings run by school staff and Nguizani are helping to bridge the communication gap.

Nearby Regional School Unit 1 has 11 asylum-seeking students, of whom two or three are new this year, Superintendent Patrick Manuel said Tuesday. The district has one full-time English Language Learners teacher, but is now advertising for a full-time educational technician.

The social and emotional needs of the new students are difficult to tackle “if you don’t really know what each other is saying,” Lambert said.

“In public school in particular, we take kids where they are,” he said. “… When somebody is in a very different place than you’re used to, we still take them where we are.”

Most ESL students come in at an intermediate level, but the new students are beginners, Crofton said. She called the teachers “remarkable” in supporting the students’ classroom needs through measures such as translation services. “I think that’s been something of note, because it’s new programming,” she said.

The students’ social and emotional needs depend on age, Lambert said. Many high school students were able to adapt to new social structures earlier, thanks to sports and the athletes who’ve welcomed them to join up.

“The transition there … I don’t want to say it was smooth, because that’s overstating it,” Lambert said. “But the acculturation probably started a little bit earlier.”

A greater challenge surfaced among the younger grades. “A lot of these students have a very chaotic history … unstable, as far as the structures that support them,” he said. “Add to that the fact that younger elementary students in particular are still getting used to how school works.”

On the other hand, the youngest students can learn so fast that “the gains are pretty dramatic,” Lambert said.

“Somebody told me, no family in their journey survived intact,” he said. “So the families that are families now are not necessarily the families that started. They either lost family members, or they gained family members. … It’s a very dynamic situation.”

Under such circumstances, how a student is faring “just depends on the day, and it depends on the individual, and it can fluctuate,” Crofton said. “And so it’s really figuring out how to support the kid, and moving ahead.”

“One of the things we don’t do is ask about the past of any children,” she said. “We’re just looking ahead to the future.”

Even though the students’ emotional or social needs tend not to be readily visible, Lambert said, “as basic needs are met, like education, clothing and food … those other needs, I suspect, will be coming up.”

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