SOUTH PORTLAND — Students at South Portland High School graduate at a rate higher than the state average, but Superintendent Ken Kunin said that teenagers are reporting more bullying and safety concerns than in previous years.

During the Jan. 27 State of the Schools meeting, Kunin told the school board and community that the data collected  through surveys and testing is used to improve student and teacher success in all aspects and demographics.

In 2019, 89.1 percent of South Portland High School students graduated in four years, said Kunin. This is about 10 percent higher than 2010’s graduation rate of 79.2 percent.

Kunin said that this is “thanks to lots of hard work by lots of people and we continue with our aim to graduate all students. Our focus will be to ensure that all student populations have an opportunity to reach this important milestone and that our students graduate prepared for their next step in further education and careers.

“While we graduate disadvantaged students at a rate higher than the state, it’s below the rate at which we graduate students who are not economically disadvantaged,” he continued.

Kunin said that student voice in helping achieve district-wide success is “critical.”

South Portland schools have a greater amount of multi-cultural, multi-lingual students compared to the rest of the state, he said. Twenty-eight percent of students identify as non-white, compared to about 11 percent of all students in Maine.

“We view this in South Portland as a tremendous asset matched by very few communities in our state,” said Kunin. “While, in my own view, the educational and cultural benefits of having multi-cultural and multi-lingual population representing all the world’s great-faith traditions is considerable, the economic benefits regionally and across the state continue to be a focus of the Maine Chamber of Commerce and many others.”

The multi-lingual student population has greatly increased since 2012, he said.

“In 2012, we just had multi-lingual learners in three schools, Brown, Mahoney and South Portland High School,” said Kunin. “Now we have students in all eight of our schools in increasing numbers comprising about 11 percent of our total student population. This compares with about 3 percent statewide. Though really that’s not a clear picture because 70 percent of those students are in five communities: Portland, Lewiston, Westbrook, South Portland and Auburn in that order. Our other neighbors such as Scarborough, Falmouth and Gorham have between 1 and 2 percent of students who are English language learners.”

Kunin said that the district is on average with students who require disabilities services, 18.3 percent, but there are multiple factors, like mental health problems, that can complicate disabled students’ academic successes.

Mental health issues have been impacting all students at South Portland High School, he said. Twenty-nine percent of students said they have felt sad or hopeless for a two-week or longer period, and 16 percent of students said that they have considered suicide.

“A very troubling and concerning piece of information I think jumped out at many of us is that rate at which students begin to report themselves sad or hopeless for a two-week period, and the rate at which they consider suicide,” Kunin said. “Translate those percentages into numbers — this represents over 250 students reporting prolonged periods of sadness and hopelessness and almost 150 who have considered suicide in the past year.”

He added, “We have much to do to support the emotional and social needs of our students, and this has been, and will continue to be, a strong focus of our work every day and our planning for the future.”

Safety is another concern that Kunin addressed. Eighty-eight percent of South Portland High School students reported feeling safe at school in 2019, but in 2017, that number was at 94 percent.

“Our South Portland High School students report that they feel about as safe as reported by other high school students across Maine but less safe than South Portland High School students reported as feeling safe in 2017,” said Kunin. “So these data points are an entry in an ongoing discussion in trying to understand what is going on, what needs to be done.”

Kunin also touched on students’ access to illicit drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. While tobacco use has been declining since 2009, students have been using e-cigarettes, such as vaping devices and Juuls, at higher rates.

However, Kunin said, “there is some indication that education around vaping is starting to have an impact, and the use has leveled off somewhat, but time will tell.”

The presentation thanked the city for approval of the South Portland Middle School project, which passed the November 2019 referendum.

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