In a fluorescent-lit basement room decorated with a world map and a poster with flags of different nations, retired Portland teacher Linda Stimson pulled out a picture book and showed it to 6-year-old Emilia Toubaji.

“Do you know what that is?” asked Stimson, pointing to a picture of an elephant.

Emilia stared quietly at the table in front of her, slowly swinging her legs back and forth, before quietly whispering “elephant.”

Emilia and her family recently moved from Angola to Portland, and earlier this month arrived at the Portland school district’s central office to enroll Emilia in kindergarten for the end of the year. Her sister Fatima, 5, enrolled to start kindergarten next year.

A rapid influx of families seeking asylum has stretched the capacity of the city’s school district to welcome new students, most of whom do not speak English. The district has tripled the capacity of its intake team by bringing on additional staff, including Stimson and other retirees, and appealing for support from classroom teachers.

The additional staff have helped the district manage the sheer number of students who arrive on a weekly basis. They assess all incoming students on their English proficiency, learn about students’ living situations and past and present challenges in their lives, find out about their educational history and experiences migrating to the United States and meet with families to welcome them to the district.


But still, the workload has remained a challenge. It’s hard to schedule intakes and organize staff relying on a rotating cast of teachers who volunteer to help out a few hours here or there. Full-time intake staff can’t predict whether an appointment will last one hour or four. Families can be hard to reach and sometimes cancel appointments at the last minute when they find permanent housing in a different community.

And the intake is just the beginning, for the school district and the students. Once students join the district, they must work to learn English or improve their language skills and adapt to a new country and new life while also catching up or keeping up with the curriculum.

Federal law says students are allowed to enroll in public school up to the last day of class. So even with the end of the school year less than six weeks away, the district continues to enroll new students at a rapid clip. Eighty-one students were enrolled in April.

Between Sept. 1 and April 30, 849 multilingual students – those whose primary language is not English – have enrolled in the district. That’s about twice the rate of the previous school year, when the district enrolled a total of 496 new multilingual students.

More than 25%, or 1,863 of the district’s total student population of around 6,500, are now multilingual learners.

Other districts are experiencing similar trends. South Portland serves around 650 multilingual students, up from less than 200 10 years ago. The percentage of multilingual students in Biddeford has jumped from 4 to 10% of the student body over the past 10 years. Over 20% of the Westbrook school district’s 2,400 students are multilingual, including 118 who enrolled this year.


Patricia Cabrito holds son Ryan Toubaji, 2, while standing next to daughters Emilia Toubaji, left, 6, and Fatima Toubaji, 5, outside Portland Public Schools district office in Portland after Emilia enrolled in kindergarten. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Emilia seemed nervous at the beginning of her intake test, fidgeting and staring down at the table in front of her as Stimson spoke. But Stimson quickly coaxed her out of her shell.

“Can you make an elephant trunk with your arm?” asked Stimson, who worked as an English language learner teacher in Portland for 20 years.

Emilia pressed her forearm against her face to form an elephant trunk.

“Can you use your trunk to reach up into a tree and grab some leaves?” Stimson requested.

Emilia pointed her face to the ceiling and reached her hand upwards.

While most children arrive with little or no knowledge of English, Emilia and her younger sister speak, read and write in both Portuguese and English and understand Arabic.


Stimson pulled out a deck of flashcards, each  with a letter of the English alphabet and a picture. One had a picture of a cat, another a dog, another a jar. One at a time Stimson pointed to the cards and asked Emilia to name the object or animal in the picture. Sometimes she answered in English, sometimes in Portuguese. When asked to say the words in both languages she almost always succeeded.

Stimson took notes throughout Emilia’s test and at the end scored her English proficiency. The results should indicate how much English support Emilia will need to succeed in school and help direct the teachers tasked with giving her the skills she needs to understand the curriculum appropriate for her age.

Stimson said Emilia has strong English skills compared to many of the other kids she has assessed since she started helping out three days a week in mid-January.

Both at Portland and nearby school districts, many of the new multilingual students have far less English comprehension, posing challenges for both the students trying to find their place in a new country and the teachers trying to support them.

Almost 90% of the multilingual students who entered the Portland school district this year had only beginning English proficiency. Of South Portland’s total multilingual student population, around 30% of students have only elementary English skills.

“Given the number of multilingual learners we have in our system at this point, all of our teachers are (English as a Second Language) teachers,” said co-interim Superintendent Melea Nalli at a March school board workshop on supporting multilingual students.


But not all district teachers are trained as English as a Second Language instructors and properly supporting students is particularly challenging as they come in with a range of English fluency and speaking a variety of primary languages. Students who joined the district this year speak a total of 15 different languages.

Moreover, multilingual students who spent years migrating to the U.S. and moving between countries are sometimes behind in school for their age and grade level. They may speak and understand multiple languages but are unable to read and write in them.

“We get students who have been out of school for years,” said Jen Turkewitz, an intake specialist for the district. “Sometimes they have moved around so much they weren’t anywhere long enough (to go to school). Or they expected to be in one place for only weeks so didn’t enroll but ended up staying for months. Or their families are too concerned about basic necessities like food and safety to think about enrolling them in school.”

Once in school, it’s up to teachers to meet students where they’re at, multilingual or not. District intake specialists said it’s not uncommon to see students who are two, three or many more grades behind where they should be. That situation happens with both students who are new arrivals and those who have lived in the United States their whole lives.

Intake staff said they hope the workload will get better in the upcoming school year with the help of additional full-time staff they are hoping to bring on board by the next school year. School district leaders have said they continually look for state and federal resources to support the effort.

“We have gotten used to the constant chaos and we just role with the punches,” said Jen Turkewitz. “Everyone is all-hands-on-deck.”

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