In two years, the number of students in South Portland without permanent residences has increased more than 10 times to 308, according to Superintendent Tim Matheney.

“One out of every 13 school department students is housing-vulnerable,” Matheney said. “I don’t think it’s too exaggerated to say that nearly every classroom in our school district has a student that is housing-vulnerable.”

Meeting the needs of those students as well as the needs of the district’s increasing number of English Language Learners while dealing with pandemic-fueled staffing shortages that impact all students, are among the greatest challenges South Portland schools face, Matheney said Monday during a presentation to the school board.

“We are facing, arguably, the most difficult operating conditions in our history as a school district,” he said in his State of Schools address.


During the 2019-20 school year, the district had 29 students whose living situations made them eligible for services under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The 2020-21 school year saw that number nearly quadruple to 113, and this school year jump to 308 students, according to Matheney’s report.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, students who lack a “fixed and adequate night-time residence,” such as those staying in emergency shelters, cars or in substandard housing conditions, are eligible for special school services. Those services include immediate enrollment, even if that student is lacking documents normally required for enrollment, and transportation to and from school even if they are currently residing outside of the district.


There are currently 136 South Portland students living in area motels with their families, and 27 living in the Portland Family Shelter, according to the superintendent’s presentation. There are 71 more housing-vulnerable students expected to enroll in South Portland schools in the coming weeks.

Currently, there are 2,999 South Portland students enrolled districtwide, an increase of 112 since the beginning of the school year, according to the superintendent’s report.

Board of Education Chairperson Elyse Tipton said that while “receiving so many new families means that we now have children and families who are truly enriching our schools,” the surge provides the city with “some unique circumstances.”

“Therefore, we have asked that the Maine Department of Education consider assistance,” she said in an interview with The Forecaster. “Some of that would be financial assistance, and we have also requested, along with other nearby school districts, assistance with regional transportation.”

Transportation to school is key for housing vulnerable students. The district, like many others in the state during the pandemic, are facing staff shortages, most notably bus drivers. Food service staff are also hard to come by, Matheney’s report said, and there is a shortage of substitutes available when teachers have to quarantine.

The district hired five additional teachers this year to work with the rising number of English Language Learners, Matheney said. The number of ELL students has nearly doubled since the 2016-17 school year, from 282 to 551. He is concerned about the district’s ability to keep up with that trend.


“We have been successful in hiring teachers of English learners, but at some point, the most challenging condition we will face is just having the means to hire those teachers,” he said. “We are in good shape overall … but we don’t have infinite resources.”

Tipton agrees.

“I think it’s important that our community understands that, while we have the resources it takes now, we need to increase resources,” said Tipton. “With increased resources comes sustainability, and South Portland now has the opportunity to exemplify how strong public schools can put all of our students on a path to learning.”

The student body is becoming more diverse, with 35% of the district’s students being students of color, a roughly 5% increase from last school year.

“That’s an exciting opportunity,” Matheney said. “The opportunity for our students to go to school with students who come from different corners of the world truly enriches their education and is something we deeply value as a school department.”

He also highlighted as positives the construction underway on the district’s new middle school and that in-person learning has been running smoothly, with few pandemic-related disruptions.

Comments are not available on this story.