The recent influx of multilingual learners in South Portland schools has broadened the needs of students and the candidate elected to the city’s District 1 School Board seat on Nov. 8 will play a role in meeting those needs.

Susan Rauscher and Martha Riehle are running for the seat now held by Jennifer Kirk, who did not seek reelection.

Over 20% of South Portland’s 3,099 students this school year are multilingual learners, also referred to as English language learners, and 10% of students lack a permanent residence, according to the school department.


Rauscher, 48, a former high school science teacher who works at Idexx, said both the city and the schools must take action. The city needs to continue partnering with local organizations to fulfill students’ basic needs, like food, shelter and clothing, and the schools must work to ensure the students’ health and safety, she said.

“We’ve got lots of ways to help make sure the kids have good nutrition,” Rauscher said. “Also, at South Portland High School, they have a school-based health center and dental clinic. So, just continuing to support those initiatives and, beyond that, making sure (students) feel secure emotionally and intellectually.”

That includes ensuring access to safe and reliable transportation, Rauscher said, as well as technology and internet services.


“Beyond that, as well, is this sense of belonging at the school. That they’re part of the community,” she said. “Reducing barriers to joining any clubs or sports or music activities.”


Riehle, 72, a former vice president of nursing at Maine Medical Center, said teachers need added support to meet the new students’ needs. The school department has been adding staff, such as English language teachers and a liaison for the youth who are housing insecure, but her experience as an English tutor at Portland Adult Education over the past six years shows her that regular classroom teachers need assistance as well, she said.

“It’s important that we support our students, but also support our teachers,” Riehle said. “We need to make sure that we’ve got enough professional development for the staff to understand what the real issues are for an ELL student … It’s a challenge for everybody, so we can’t just dump it on the teachers and assume that they’re going to be able to do it.”

Professional development can also help staff members better assist housing-vulnerable students, she said.

“We need to make sure that there’s a safety net for the teachers and the students when they identify a housing-vulnerable student,” Riehle said. “They can pull the right person in and make sure that they’re getting everything they need.”

The school board should encourage the use of in-classroom volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring with students who need it, she said.


Staff shortages

Maine is suffering from a shortage of teachers and ed techs, and school departments across the state are struggling to retain current staff members and attract new ones.

Riehle said that it is the school board’s duty to “respect our teachers as professionals” and seek their feedback on decisions that impact them.

“We need to get their insights and knowledge,” she said. “I think it’s important as a school board member, when somebody comes up with an idea of what we should put in the classroom, (that we) get the teachers’ feedback. How would it be implemented? Is it necessary? People come up with great ideas … it’s the implementation that drives people crazy.”

Roughly 20% of teachers quit the profession after five years, Riehle said, so supporting both experienced and new teachers is necessary for retaining staff. She also emphasized the need to hire and retain bus drivers as South Portland schools have had to “cancel some programs because they don’t have enough bus drivers.”

Rauscher said fostering a culture that makes teachers “feel valued” is a must.


“They’ve chosen this career because they feel a sense of accomplishment and internal reward for working with students,” Rauscher said. “So let’s foster this by helping them find ways to connect to the students, bring creativity to their teaching, help support them with new initiatives.”

It is also important, Rauscher said, that teachers find a sense of belonging within the community.

“Help them feel like they belong by finding ways for teachers, staff, parents, and administration to spend meaningful time together,” she said. “If we create that sense of reward, recognition (of) accomplishments, it’ll be a great community that other teachers want to join and stay in.”

Both Rauscher and Riehle are registered Democrats. Rauscher is a girls’ youth soccer coach with two daughters enrolled in South Portland schools. Riehle has more than 30 years of experience as a healthcare professional.

Both candidates acknowledged that there are more challenges ahead for South Portland’s school board.

“I think children’s mental health will be a big challenge,” Rauscher said. “We hear reports about it being a crisis now, so we need to be able to develop the capacity to help them … helping kids recognize anxiety and depression before it becomes a critical need for them so that they can perform and feel safe and secure.”

Riehle is excited about the new middle school being built in South Portland but, drawn from her experience in creating operating rooms during her career, a new facility is “not without its challenges.”

“We’re combining two schools, so it’s going to be double the size of either one of those ones now. (Students and teachers) are going to have to learn to manage that size,” she said. “You can’t just think, ‘oh, we’ve got a great building and everything will just magically fall in place.’ We need to do a lot of planning, and more planning, and testing and planning and testing.”

This story was edited Oct. 14 to include a candidate’s age.

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