Mary Pinette, a third-grade teacher at C.K. Burns School in Saco, prepares for the school year on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Saco Superintendent Jeremy Ray is not used to having things so up in the air in the days before the start of a new school year.

He knows that when school starts on Aug. 31, the district will be responsible for educating dozens of children from asylum-seeking families moving into a local hotel. He doesn’t know exactly how many, but it is likely to be around 120.

The uncertainty presents a challenge for Ray and other educators trying to ensure that they are ready to welcome the new students with staff and services for multilingual learners while also trying to figure out how to pay for unbudgeted expenses. In Saco, the cost could reach $1.2 million.

“I’ve been a superintendent a long time and never do you have a situation where you just have 120 kids start the next school year – especially in Maine where we have declining enrollments,” Ray said.

Saco is not the only district dealing with an unprecedented surge in enrollment.

In the past two years, several other school districts in Southern Maine have had to make quick adjustments as they enrolled dozens of new students from asylum-seeking families. Many of the families come from African countries and make their way, via the southern border, to Portland, where the city months ago ran out of room at its family shelter.


As the number of arrivals continued to rise, Portland began housing families in the motels and hotels of surrounding communities. In May, the city announced that it could no longer guarantee shelter to arriving families. Since then, it appears that the number of families seeking asylum in Maine has slowed.

The state and Portland signed a contract with a Saco hotel this summer to use it exclusively to house asylum-seeking families for the next year.

Ray found out in May that negotiations were underway to use the hotel, but plans weren’t finalized until this summer. Discussions about staffing, funding and other logistical challenges began immediately, but a lot was unknown.

“We’re in a situation today where we have families moving in next week and we have only estimates for what that looks like for kiddos,” he said. “It’s very up in the air.”

Deb Malia, a nurse at C.K. Burns School in Saco, prepares for the school year by putting together first aid kits. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


For the past two school years, South Portland schools have mobilized to welcome newcomers, many of whom come from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo and have spent months or even years traveling to the United States to escape violence or instability in their home countries. A lot of the students have missed long periods of school and are still learning English. They are considered homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act because they are living in temporary housing.


During the 2021-22 school year, South Portland served about 500 McKinney-Vento students, most of them from asylum-seeking families. More than 90 percent are multilingual learners, said Superintendent Tim Matheney.

The district hired extra social workers and teachers for English learners. It trained staff members working for the first time with large numbers of English language learners. This summer, it has offered free Portuguese classes to dozens of teachers.

While it is a privilege to serve the new students, it also puts a significant strain on resources, said Matheney, who has advocated for additional resources for schools facing similar challenges. The district last year received $77,000 from the state to support McKinney-Vento students and hopes to receive more from money included in the supplemental budget to support school districts experiencing a surge in multilingual learners.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the state is providing guidance, technical support and other resources to school districts welcoming these new students, but did not respond to requests for information about additional funding.

Mary Pinette, a third-grade teacher at C.K. Burns School in Saco, prepares for the school year on Wednesday. School officials here are in the selection process for new school construction. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Last April, Yarmouth schools received word that about 48 families from Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti had arrived at a hotel in town. The families included nearly 50 children who had enrolled in local schools by the end of that month, said Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of the Yarmouth School Department.

As a small district with a previously small number of English language learners, Yarmouth had to immediately find a way to provide more and different educational services. Dolloff was able to make several part-time ELL positions full time and he brought in interpreters to help enroll students, communicate with families and train staff across the district to welcome the students into their classrooms and help them navigate new schools.


The district was able to cover the added ELL costs with savings in other areas, including the salary savings that came from hiring less experienced teachers to replace educators who had left the year before. Anticipating the need to continue offering more ELL services, the district requested an additional $150,000 in its budget.

Dolloff said Yarmouth was fortunate to be able to look to other districts, including South Portland, that had “much more experience seizing the opportunities and taking on the challenges of an influx of non-English speaking students.” Staff from South Portland were instrumental in providing advice about how to best serve the new students, he said.

The challenges of the new arrivals were obvious, he said – but the benefits were also great.

“For students and staff who only have lived or worked or gone to school in this region, having students and classmates from around the world who have overcome incredible challenges to enter our schools provides incredible benefits,” he said.

When the group of students arrived last spring, he said, there was an immediate outpouring of empathy and support from their peers,  staff and families in the community, Dolloff said.

“Being able to practice empathy, being asked to live one of our core values in very tangible ways, being confronted with our own privilege – these are lessons that can last a lifetime and change one’s outlook to a more global perspective,” he said.



Families, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, began moving into the Saco hotel on July 18. More than 120 people moved in by early August and more will arrive over the next few weeks as Portland moves them out of hotels in other communities. Using a portion of the $22 million that the Legislature appropriated for emergency housing, MaineHousing has been contracted to shelter asylum seekers and their families at the hotel.

Patrick Conley, a fourth-grade teacher at C.K. Burns School in Saco, prepares for the school year on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


There are 100 rooms in the hotel, but there will probably be about 90 families there at any given time because some large families will use adjoining rooms, said Julie Allaire, chief program officer for Catholic Charities.

Last month, Catholic Charities launched a pilot program with staff onsite at the hotel every day to help families enroll in school and English classes, connect to resources and navigate life in a new place.

Catholic Charities was brought in to work with the families at the request of Portland officials because the organization has four decades of experiencing resettling refugees in Maine, Allaire said.


Staff members recently helped enroll children in Saco schools during an event at the hotel. The children living there range from babies born in the U.S. to young adults finishing their education.

Mayor William Doyle said Saco is looking forward to welcoming new neighbors and providing them with the best education possible. A community group donated playground equipment for the children and residents have been quick to ask what they can do to help.

But there also has been concern raised about the unbudgeted costs.

C.K. Burns School in Saco. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

No one knew the students would be coming when Saco’s budget was being developed.

Superintendent Ray told the school board last month that the possible $1.2 million in extra costs includes $500,000 in tuition to Thornton Academy, a private school that educates high school students in Saco. He estimated it could cost $335,000 for ELL teachers, $200,000 for special services and $65,000 for an additional bus run.

Some of the students coming to Saco after staying in other Maine communities may continue to attend their former schools, an arrangement permitted because their homeless status allows them to stay in their schools of origin. In those cases, Saco and the other school district will split transportation costs.


Doyle said the city is working with the state and Portland to try to figure out ways to cover the new tab. He hopes to avoid going back to voters to ask for an increase in the education budget.

“The city and the schools both believe this is an unfunded mandate that has been pushed on the City of Saco by the state and by the City of Portland,” he said.

Ray tries to focus on the positive. He said he looks forward to conversations with his own kids, who attend Saco schools, about the excitement that comes from making new friends with different backgrounds and experiences.

“Increasing diversity is a great thing for us,” he said.

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