SOUTH PORTLAND — The school district is facing a number of challenges in efforts to address the needs of homeless and English language learner students, Superintendent Ken Kunin said during his annual state of the schools address.

The district strives to “assure equitable access to opportunities and results for all students each step of the way,” Kunin said Jan. 27, but there are significant hurdles.

The number of students of color in the schools has doubled in the past 10 years, Kunin said, going from 16% of the total student population to 28%.

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin delivered his annual State of the Schools on Jan. 27. Courtesy / South Portland School Department

He called the student population a “tremendous asset,” particularly in terms of their multicultural and multilingual backgrounds, but said the challenge is ensuring the schools can meet their special needs.

Students needing English language learner help represent 11% of the student population, Kunin said. There are now 46 different primary home languages spoken by these students, with Portuguese, French, Arabic and Spanish being the top four.

He said while they pick up conversational English fairly well, it can take between six and eight years for an English language learner to become academically proficient in English, and they require consistent support.

Kunin said the district is also seeing an uptick of homeless students this year. There are 23 just in the first half of the school year, compared to 37  in the entire 2018-19 academic year.

The challenges for these students are “increasing in perplexity and persistence,” Kunin said, and represent a “troubling number of child welfare, mental health and physical health issues, with an alarming lack of coordination” in terms of the resources available to them.

Kunin said it’s vital the school district step up to provide the food, clothing and transportation those students need to make sure they’re getting to school each day. “In many cases,” he said, attending “school is often their one and only chance to build a strong future.”

Students of color and homeless students also have more chronic absenteeism than any other group of students in the district, according to the superintendent, and “if these students are not in school, they don’t have access to the resources we have to offer,” which is why the district is making a concerted effort to “promote consistent attendance.”

Kunin said the district has seen significant gains in standardized testing and graduation rates, and he’s proud that South Portland students “can compete with the best anywhere.” He noted the district’s graduation rate has increased by 10% over the past 10 years, going from 79% to slightly over 89%. In the Class of 2019, he said, 51% planned to attend a four-year university, 20% were going on to a two-year college and 22% were going directly to work.

According to Kunin, colleges accepting South Portland students last year included Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale and top-notch schools such as Bowdoin, Bates and Colby colleges.

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